As a cognitive therapist, I spend a lot of time helping clients figure out if their thinking is helpful. All day, every day, we do a great deal of talking to ourselves, and the things we say during this self-talk greatly color the way we feel about the world and the choices we tend to make.
If I have a less than pleasant interaction with a stranger (someone cuts you off in traffic, customer scowls the entire time they are conducting business with you, crossing guard uses a terse tone of voice when guiding you), what I say to ourselves about that person and that interaction will largely impact my emotional well being for the minutes or days to come. If, as a result of these interactions I say, “Everyone is so selfish these days,” there are several costs that I can predict that I will pay. I will feel distant, hurt, and/or guarded from every person and relationship. Worse, this cost has compounding interest. The more I say it, the more I think it, and the more I notice only the worst examples of human behavior. So even if most of my interactions are positive, I will only make mental note of the negative ones.
On the other hand, if I walk away from the crosswalk thinking, “They must be having a hard day,” my brain gets several helpful and likely true messages: a) That person’s behavior is not about me, and b) unfriendly behavior is a rare exception. I am now not going to carry the negative feeling with me, and I am now more able to notice how most people are like me. We have good days and bad days, but generally we are loving, kind, and generous beings.
Now remember, our goal is to walk around with helpful thinking. This is the kind of thinking that helps us be the best person we can be and to feel and behave in ways that make our lives (and hopefully the world) a better place. We are not in denial that life can be hard, sometimes we hurt, and relationships are messy. This is just a reminder that focusing on those aspects is not productive and prevents the kind of vulnerability we need to have meaningful relationships.
So I’ve had this conversation with people many times – because I like what good thinking does for my clients and for me. So I thought I would share my favorite 14 things that my most successful clients, friends, and colleagues are walking around thinking:
1. “It’s not about me.” – In every interaction, the players bring years of background material to the moment. When it’s not positive, it’s rarely about you. You’re just a walk-on in their big play.
2. “Everything is turning out perfectly.” – A good one to say, especially when you really don’t believe it.
3. “It’s great to live on the Pleasure Planet.” – Refocuses me on the many pleasures I get to enjoy, even on a hard day.
4. “Everyone’s doing the very best they can.” – Nurtures that compassionate part of my brain. Counteracts when I am reflexively judgmental.
5. “Everyone has 83 burdens. This is one of mine.” – Helps me decide whether or not to take action. Helps me accept the inevitable suffering we all face.
6. Assume best intentions – Especially in the day of email and text, every transmission has multiple possible interpretations. It usually works out better if I assume they meant the best.
7. Believe that you can spread warm, loving, and healing energy in a big circle all around you as you move through the world – especially when you are driving.
8. “Behold the fowls of the air: for they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; yet [God] feeds them.” – A great response for over-anxious minds.
9. Any positive self affirmation: “I’m the best looking guy in the bar.” “I’m confident and competent.” “And people like me!” “I’m making the world a better place today.”
10. “Life is good.” – Keep a positive attitude.
11. “People are kind and generous.” – Remember all the random acts of kindness that you’ve experienced and enacted.
12. “People will like the opportunity to add their own three to this list.” – When you have writer’s block.
13. “I crack myself up” – When no one else might laugh at excellent humor.
14. Choose to be grateful. – Instead of looking at all the things that could be better, think of all the things that are going well.
Steven E “Jake” Jacobson LCSW counsels couples and mediates in our Denton office. His daughter, Danielle assisted with this blog. He’s grateful for her assistance!