Shhh…. if you listen closely you just may be able to hear the dialog going on in your head right now even as you read this line. The banter can be swift, like an Abbott and Costello routine (Google it, millennials), blink and you miss it. Other times it flows like a gentlemanly tennis volley to and fro. Still yet, the dialog can become cyclical, never reaching the rainbow at the end of the hamster wheel. Most of us get distracted by the artificial busyness around us and rarely attend to the ‘background noise.’ If one were to tune into this regularly broadcasted program they would notice a thing or two about themselves. This practice of reflection and observation, in fancy terminology, is called meta-cognition, or awareness and understanding of one’s own thought processes as per Mr. Webster. Perhaps a cousin of mindfulness and/or meditation. Those merit their own article.
As we travel this double decker tour bus around our bustling brains, attention is brought to the potholes, large and small, in the road we struggle to avoid. These potholes would be the thinking ‘traps’ or cognitive distortions that blur our vision. Simply put, a (negative) cognitive distortion is an automatic assumption of a current situation that leads to a conclusion that is neither accurate or, even is some truth lies in it, helpful. To be clear, every human being experiences these distortions. It is not an abnormality (whatever. What’s normal anyhow, aside from a setting on a washing machine?). The difference between individuals is how extreme, how frequent, and how we react to these distortions. Without being prepared for them, negative distortions set into motion a domino effect. Negative cognitive conclusions lead to negative emotions which, you guessed it folks, lead to possible behavior choices that only add fuel to the fire of negativity. As is the poor existence of Herbie the hamster, the wheel may keep turning with each reaction feeding the next action only until it is disrupted somehow. The deeper the potholes, the increased chances of impaired relationships, life dissatisfaction, depressed mood, and more. As obvious as the elite-ness of Michael Jordan (had to get him in here somehow) are the benefits of breaking from this cycle.
Distortions come in as many flavors as Baskin Robbins offers. A common one that people relate to is mind reading. Happens on a regular occurrence. I come into work and greet my superior with a cheerful “good morning!” and in response she looks up from her computer with an irritated look. “Whatever” she mumbles. My possible internal responses are (a) she is probably annoyed at me that I did not finish that grant paperwork last night. I wonder if she’ll call me into her office later and really let me have it? (b) I knew she never liked me! I wonder what I can do to change that? Bring doughnuts tomorrow? (c) what a grump! Miserable human being! It is not that all of these are untrue. What we do know is that we don’t know. Deeeep, I know. If we would question ourselves with compassion we would find no ‘evidence’ to support these conclusions out of the gate. Are they possible? Sure. Are there other possibilities as well? Sure. Now ask yourself, ‘What are the ramifications of me accepting this conclusion without consideration of the other possibilities?’
Getting to the distortion I wanted to focus on today. Shoulds. I challenge you to observe yourself for a day and notice with curiosity how many thoughts have the word should in it. I should be getting paid more money for this job. That driver should get out of my way. I should not have to wait on line this long for the Vomit Demon ride. Home ownership should be smooth. Getting a new job should be successful within the first 5 attempts. My parents should support me financially for however long I desire. Marriage should be blissful all the time. All elected officials should share the same values I have. Everyone on social media should agree with me. Get philosophical. Go for it. Life should be fair. Really?! It should? Nice. According to whom, may I ask? Who made you the all-knowing decider of should? Maybe THAT’s not fair. [all tongue firmly in cheek]
Of course, every person hopefully develops a set of personal values that construct the blueprint of their lives. That is necessary to have purpose. All I am suggesting here is to question with curiosity. What evidence do I have to support this should? How helpful to me is this should? How much control do you have over this should? Is it in line with what I value? What are the costs and benefits of settling on this should as gospel without considering another position? If all of these are answered to your satisfaction THEN you can make an informed decision of your response. As attributed to many different individuals, ‘You cannot control what happens to you. Only what you do about it.’ Give yourself the opportunity to see a broader view of things before reacting. Now that’s what I call control.