(The third in a series of short pieces about how our unconscious thinking can create unnecessary stress - so called Negative Automatic Thoughts or NATs.) I have looked at how we catastrophise and personalise. Another two classic examples of negative thinking which increase our stress levels, and which both reflect our tendency to polarise in our thinking, are generalising and black and white thinking.
How many times do we get something wrong and tell ourselves we are an idiot, rubbish, hopeless? We would not speak to anyone else in that way, and we would never condemn the entirety of another human being on the back of one small error or failing. And yet we do it to ourselves - we may not really intend to mean that everything about us is a failure, but that tends to be the language we use. And the more you hear something being said, particularly by that voice inside your head with unique access to your every waking hour and minute, the more likely you are to come to believe it. And at what cost to your wellbeing and stress levels?
When you hear that voice - and sometimes it is internal and sometimes more audible (I am thinking about the golf course in particular) - just take a moment to challenge it. I am not a %&#*. I may have made an error (or something may have gone wrong which was not really my fault at all) but that does not go to the core of who I am. I actually do quite a lot of things fairly competently, even well sometimes!
And what about those "here we go again" moments when we experience something familiar and just assume that what has happened before will happen again - normally something bad. It always happens like this. And as we resign ourselves to that dreadful outcome our stress levels rise. You know what? It doesn't always turn out like that, no two situations are the same, the fact that something happened before does not mean it will happen again, but the best way of ensuring it will is to assume it will, and to act accordingly. Change the way you think and act and you may well change the outcome.
Black and white thinking does what it says on the tin. We (and other people) are either good or bad, right or wrong etc. When we have a decision to make, a choice, one option is right and one is wrong. And how much stress do we build up as a result, trying desperately to get to the right answer, when maybe there isn't one, maybe there are just different equally good, and bad, options - maybe life is lived in the grey and not the black and white.
The UK has recently been through a classic example of this on a national stage with the referendum. Few on the remain side believed everything about the EU was perfect, and few on the leave side believed it was all a complete disaster. Yet we were forced into a completely polarised decision, black or white, in or out, with our stress levels running at maximum in many cases.
The referendum ballot paper forced us into that position, we do not have to allow ourselves to think that way about everything else.