DEAR DOCTOR K:
I’m a “glass half-empty” type of person. I know that way of thinking adds to my stress and unhappiness. Is it possible to change the way I see things?
Yes, there is. Through a type of “talk therapy” called cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), you can learn to reframe negative thoughts. That, in turn, can help change how you feel.
CBT can help you challenge overly simplistic, irrational, negative thoughts. It’s easiest when the thoughts are patently untrue: “I never do anything right,” for example.
It’s harder when there’s an element of truth mixed in: “At my age, I’ll never reach my goals.” If your dream was to be a famous opera singer, that statement may apply. Most likely, though, there are other goals you did reach. And other goals you can still reach.
I’ll describe a four-step process taught at the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Massachusetts GeneralHospital. It’s one way to counteract distortions and negative thoughts:
STOP. Call a mental time-out when you feel stressed.
BREATHE. Take a few deep breaths and step back from whatever is causing you stress before you react.
REFLECT. Ask yourself: Is this thought or belief true? Did I jump to a conclusion? What evidence do I actually have? Is there another way to view the situation? What’s the worst that could happen?
CHOOSE. Decide how to deal with the source of your stress. For example:
- Problem-solve what you can control. Gather information, make a plan and take action.
- Accept what you cannot change.
- Challenge distorted, irrational thinking. Ask yourself: How else can I think about this? What else can I do to cope more effectively?
Here’s an example of how it might work. If you get stuck in traffic on the way to work, try to relax and take a few deep breaths. Reflect: “It’s just a traffic jam. I can handle this. It’s not worth getting this upset.” Don’t assume you’ll be fired. Tell yourself, “I’ll just be a few minutes late. I’m doing the best I can. I can handle this.”
Yes, I know this sounds simplistic and obvious. And I was skeptical, too, when I first heard about cognitive behavioral therapy. But I’ve seen enough examples of success that I’ve become a believer.
I’ve also come to believe that there are many goals that we all tend to set aside, thinking they no longer are practical or achievable. Sometimes that’s right; sometimes the skills required are easy to learn in childhood and hard later on. Sometimes attaining the skills requires more time and practice than is feasible.
But when it comes to changing personal qualities — such as impatience, or lack of self-confidence — I’m more optimistic. I think we all are more capable of change, even later in life, than we might imagine.
The phrase that says it best for me is this: “It’s never too late to become the person you might have been.”