Challenging thoughts and a proactive approach
Therapy helped me recognize the detrimental impact of my irrational and distorted thoughts. I had a tendency towards “all or nothing”, “success or failure” thinking. Also, I sabotaged myself with misperceptions about feedback and criticism as an unhealthy coping strategy. I didn’t realize that my assumptions and misperceptions were holding me captive in self-induced misery and despair that I tried to remedy with unhealthy and self-destructive behavior.
My therapists utilized rational challenges of my beliefs and perceptions to demonstrate and encourage me to instill a similar practice as a healthy coping strategy in my “mental toolbox”. Rational challenges are relatively straightforward. My interpretation and application of them entailed focusing on objective facts, considering things from what RSA’s (Rational Self-Analysis worksheets) refer to as “camera checks” – if you took a picture of an event or situation, what does the camera capture? In other words, a picture of 2 people sitting at a table captures a one-dimensional image, the objective facts and that’s it – no context, no subtext, no tone, no sensory cues.
Challenging irrational beliefs and distorted thinking was largely an exercise of mindfulness and honesty. Mindfulness to be self-aware of my beliefs and thoughts as they happened, and honesty to separate the objective from the subjective and distorted. Like so much else, practice led to familiarity and proficiency. For me, it also led to confidence and commitment to the strategy. The more it helped and I recognized the gains, the more I was sold on the benefits, as opposed to what I’d been doing for years. I couldn’t find any downside to rational challenges, it was and has been all upside with no foreseeable “ceiling”.
Instilling rational challenges has had side benefits, also. My “default philosophy” is more proactive than reactive now. I think that was a natural byproduct of excising the toxic elements that contributed to my distorted thinking. Changing my default approach is evident in the area of feedback/criticism. Previously, I reacted adversely to comments and criticism that I misperceived in some way. The end result was predictable: my reaction didn’t change anything about what was said, and a lot of times it actually reinforced negative perceptions of me and my behavior. That was “reactive me”. Now, “proactive me” understands and accepts that I can’t control what people think of me – however, I CAN control what I do that influences perceptions, especially the negatives. And I consider feedback and criticism though an “objectivity filter” to identify the substance of what’s said so I can determine if and what corrective action to initiate on my part. I’m not kidding myself that I can equally influence positive perceptions – instead, I’m choosing to trust in my behavior and my mindset to outweigh the negative and accept that I’ve done all I can control what I can and hope that’s enough to effectively project who I am.
I’ve also been able to apply rational challenges towards balancing my perspectives, allowing myself to consider more “flexibility”. In practice, that means I’m more realistic and kinder to myself, more level-headed. Goals are a big area for me with this. “Old me” considered unachieved goals as “failure”, achieved goals as “victory”. That “all or nothing” perspective was unhealthy and sometimes self-destructive when I internalized the failure and tore myself apart with critical self-talk. My expectations for myself already exceeded what others expected of me, so not meeting others’ expectations, not achieving goals, was a double-whammy of self-loathing: “I failed them, and I failed myself, therefore I am a failure.” “New me” is kinder, more realistic in my expectations of myself: “Ok, I did my best and I missed the goal. Now I have an idea what to do differently going forward to meet the goal.” Perfection is something to aim for, but it isn’t the only acceptable outcome.
I’ll wrap up this entry with some brutal, candid vulnerability that I haven’t previously shared with anyone, about a real comment, my “emotional kryptonite” for a LONG time, and my use of rational challenges and balanced perspective to disarm it and move past it constructively. (Full disclosure: I cheated on my 2nd wife, the 1st time was in 2000, 3 years into our relationship – yes, there was more than once. Prior to that, I had cheated once, in 1993, in a previous relationship. I am immensely sorry for EVER cheating on either woman, it was cowardly, despicable, dishonest, and inconsiderate. It isn’t who I am, not a true reflection of my genuine character or values, and not a true reflection of the values my parents instilled in me by their example. I own it, 100%, no excuses.) The comment that was repeated often, from multiple corners, was: Once a cheater, always a cheater. Rationally challenging this begins with “…always a cheater…”. “Always” is a “loaded word”, an “absolute”. It distorts objective reality, which can contribute to assumptions and misperceptions. In this assertion, it implies that I always would or always will cheat based on my having done it once. That’s an assumption – what about all the relationships before 1993 when I hadn’t cheated on anyone? Is it reasonable to assume based on those non-cheating years that I wasn’t a cheater? Or was I just a “cheater-in-waiting”? Or the 7 years that I didn’t cheat on anyone, between 1993-2000? I was cheated on, multiple times, over the years in relationships, so is it rational and constructive to apply the cheater reasoning to each of the women who cheated on me, even if they haven’t cheated on anyone since then are they still categorized as cheaters for having done it once? That isn’t rational, objective, or constructive.
Looking at the assertion from a balanced perspective further disarms it, even invalidates it. As a whole, it implies that change isn’t possible. If we break that down objectively, though, change is precisely what incites the categorization and label of “cheater”. From birth until 1993, I didn’t cheat on anyone, so unless it is somehow pre-determined that I would eventually cheat, aka ASSUME IT HAPPENING in 1993, I was by the reasoning here, a NON-cheater. Then, in 1993, I CHANGED to a cheater by my actions in that relationship. So, which is it, is change possible or not? Objective reality and reasoning says yes, change is possible. Some philosophers even tout the inevitability of change. I spun myself so deep into so many spirals over this one declaration and the “cheater” label. To learn how to disarm it with rational challenges and balanced perspective was like floating in the ocean and not realizing I could touch bottom, then trying it and standing up, overjoyed with relief.
Rational challenges and balanced perspective are multi-use. I’ve learned how to apply them to external catalysts and internally to my thoughts and beliefs. For me, applying them has contributed to proactive ends – I was previously prone to judgements, so re-assessing my own judgments rationally has helped me curtail judgments as a whole.
Hopeful, strong, and better than I used to be.