Do you ever catch yourself worrying and then think: ‘oh but that’s stupid?’ You know you’re just trying to talk yourself out of considering a pretty unlikely possibility, but it never really works, does it? Particularly in the long run. What about those times when you tell someone else those thoughts and they say something like ‘oh, don’t be silly’? Have you ever been able to stop worrying because another person told you to?
Although it’s meant to help, telling yourself or others a version of ‘get over it’ is pretty unhelpful. ‘Don’t be silly’ is a way of dismissing what you’re saying, as though by downplaying it, it will cause your concerns to just magically go away. I’ve rarely left a conversation like that feeling good about myself. Sometimes it might be something trivial I’m concerned about, but if I’ve bothered to voice it, well, it’s getting to me, and telling me not to worry about it doesn’t stop me worrying: it just shuts me up. This is a big problem for people with depression who are often told ‘just snap out of it’ or ‘stop being negative’ and anxious people who hear ‘just get over it.’ It doesn’t help, it just stops them from communicating what’s happening for them.
What it might surprise you to know is that the same thing happens when you tell yourself that thinking or feeling a certain way is wrong, or dumb, or weak. When you try to get rid of your thoughts and feelings like this, it rarely works. Instead, you end up feeling bad about how you think or feel and try to hide it. And in hiding it, we lose the chance to get actually get rid of the thought/feeling.
How It Works
The way to change anything isn’t to ignore it. You have to put more attention on it. It’s already there. You’ve had the thought. So stop judging it and instead just look at it. Why are you feeling that way?
It’s like something small and furry has just run into your house, and you react by shutting it in a closet. You’re safe for now, but that thing is still in your house! You have to actually confront the small furry thing, see what it is, and find a way to chase it out of your house. That’s what paying attention to your thoughts can do.
For example, say your partner doesn’t do any housework. At all. And this leads you to conclude ‘they don’t love me’. But then you (or your well meaning friend) says ‘don’t be silly! Of course they love you’ and so you ignore the problem because you’re being silly. But if you look at that thought, you might realise, for me to feel loved I need to see that my partner is contributing to our life together. That’s fair enough. And then you can look at your life together overall and see if they are contributing in other ways, like bringing in a lot of money, or being in charge of all the paperwork, or doing most of the social organising for you. And if they are, then they do love you – they’re just showing it in ways you forgot to look at. Alternatively, you might look at all these areas, find nothing, and conclude: they really don’t love me – at least not in the way that I expect to be loved.
What You Get Out Of It
By not instantly dismissing your thought, you have a chance to get to the root of the problem. Then, the next time they’re sitting on the couch and you’re washing up, you either: remind yourself of all the other ways they contribute, or you stop washing and sit down and talk about your relationship. Either way, you won’t continue to think ‘my partner doesn’t love me because they don’t do any chores’. You’ll have changed the thought, in a much more long lasting and effective way than telling yourself that you’re being silly.
The other option, dismissing your thought and trying to chastise yourself for it, will lead to that thought popping up again and again and again (think of that small furry thing scratching at the cupboard door trying to get out), and each time you’re putting yourself down and trying to hide the ‘silly’ thought and honestly that’s exhausting. You end up feeling resentful: of yourself for having the thought and of your partner because they don’t do housework. The issue will still be there, the thoughts will keep coming.
What Else You Get Out Of It
An added bonus to looking deeper into our ‘silly’ thoughts like this is that we learn more about who we really are. Sticking to the example above, you learn that you’re not a just a nag who goes on about housework, but someone who expects equality in your relationship (or someone who has a tendency to forget about the good stuff when faced with the not so good!).
Valuing equality, or even the tendency to view the world from a lopsided way, are helpful insights to have. If you know you value equality, then you can use this to direct your own behaviour as well as other people’s, and it will even help you in areas like choosing a workplace. If you learn you’re someone who views the glass as half empty, well that’s helpful to know too. It means you can take this into account when making decisions or evaluating people, and know that’s it’s safe to take a bigger risk than you feel comfortable with: because the glass might turn out to be half full after all. Long term, being aware you’re a negative thinker will actually help you change this tendency too: remember, you need to first be aware there’s a problem before you can fix it!
Ultimately, being honest with yourself means you learn a couple of important things. Firstly, you become clear on what is important to you (e.g. equality), and so can find more than one way to satisfy this need (e.g. even if housework isn’t shared equally, our relationship is overall equal. And even if the relationship isn’t equal, I can find a workplace which is, so at least one area of my life has equality in it, etc).
Secondly, you learn that those little things we dislike about ourselves, don’t need to feared and hidden away in closets. Behind those unhelpful or nitpicky or silly worries are bigger causes – either positive or negative – and these, once brought to light and understood, can be changed. If you discover that are a negative thinker, or that a deep sense of anxiety is permeating your thoughts and actions, try not to worry! Changing these patterns is a matter of changing habits. Through awareness and action, change can occur. But you might want to engage the help of a professional in that case: someone who is skilled in identifying patterns of thoughts and behaviour and knows how to work with you to change these.
Doing this with clients is such a satisfying aspect of my work. It’s also a huge relief for my clients: to know that those scary little furry animals can be shooed out the door for good with the right tools. So if you find yourself with a closetful of ‘not quite sure what but I don’t like it’ then connect with me at firstname.lastname@example.org, and I can give you the tools to do your own extermination.
Lana Hall, Psychologist. Helping you to live your best life, using the power of psychology.