The link between thinking and feeling
Have you ever worried about something that upset you for a few days, only to realize that if you had changed how you thought about the problem, you could’ve felt better much sooner? Let’s take a closer look at how we can change those thoughts into something more positive.
Changing the way you think will change the way you feel
Things go wrong at times. People let us down. We make mistakes and can become disappointed. Whether we get upset about it and how upset we become depends largely on the way we think about those situations. Sometimes we can make ourselves feel pretty miserable even when our situation is not that bad, simply by thinking in a negative, self-defeating way.
What is self-talk?
As we go about our daily lives, we constantly think about and interpret the situations we find ourselves in. It is like we have an internal voice that determines how we perceive every situation. We call this inner voice our “self-talk,” and it includes our conscious thoughts, as well as our unconscious assumptions and beliefs.
Much of our self-talk is reasonable, for example: “I’d better prepare for that exam,” or ”I’m really looking forward to that game.” But sometimes our self-talk is negative, unrealistic or self-defeating. For example, “I’m going to fail for sure,” or ”I didn’t play well. I’m hopeless.”
Negative self-talk often causes us to feel bad, and can make us feel hurt, angry, frustrated, depressed or anxious. It can also make us behave in a self-defeating way. For instance, thoughts like ”I’m going to fail for sure” might discourage you from working hard when you are preparing for your exams, and you might actually fail as a result.
Remember: the way you interpret events has a huge impact on the way you feel and behave.
The ABCs of self-talk
The relationship between your thoughts, feelings and behavior can best be explained by looking at the ABCs of your self-talk.
A is for activating situation. The activating situation is a situation that causes you to feel bad. An activating situation could be a party where you don’t know a lot of people, a stressful time in school when you’re overloaded with essays and assignments, or a time when you made a silly comment that you might later regret.
When you identify the activating situation, it’s important to stick to the facts. For example, instead of saying ”I tried on my jeans and I looked so disgusting and ugly and fat,” try saying to yourself ”I tried on my jeans and they were too small.” Can you feel the difference when you read those examples? One is your perspective (or beliefs) and another is stating exactly what happened.
B is for beliefs. Beliefs make up self-talk, thoughts and assumptions that we have about a situation. Identifying self-talk can sometimes be tricky. This is because it is so automatic that you might not even be aware of what’s going on in your own mind.
When something happens and we feel upset, we assume whatever happened has made us feel this way. But it’s our beliefs about the activating situation, and not the situation itself that makes us feel the way we do. It’s our thoughts that largely determine the way we feel.
Let’s say a friend of yours blew you off after school. In your mind, you might think, “Wow. They must not even care about me. I’m probably not good enough for them. Maybe I did something wrong...” In turn, you spend a bunch of time and energy lost in anxiety and worry, and potentially blowing the situation up to something it’s not. In reality, your friend’s mom had a medical emergency and had to rush home unexpectedly. You made an assumption about what happened, which made you feel worse about yourself, instead of considering your perspective being limited.
C is for consequences. The consequences of our beliefs are how we react to them, including feelings and behaviors.
Feelings are emotions like sadness, anxiety, guilt, anger, embarrassment, joy, excitement or stress.
Behaviors are the actions that stem from those feelings, like communication, withdrawal, asking for help, starting an argument, going for a run, staying in bed or raiding the fridge.
We often blame ourselves when things go wrong, compare ourselves to other people in a way that makes us feel inferior, exaggerate our weaknesses, focus on failures and predict that the worst will happen. Thinking negatively about situations makes us feel bad, and it can also cause us to behave in unhelpful ways.
Negative self-talk can also affect your self-esteem. When you feel down, it is more likely you’ll be hard on yourself, and you might criticize and judge yourself unfairly. The worse you feel, the more negative your self-talk is likely to become.
Put it into practice
You get your exam schedule.
“I’m not going to be able to do this.”
“I’ll fail and the whole thing will be a disaster. My parents will be so disappointed in me.”
“I won’t be able to pass the class, and then I won’t be able to get a good job. I’ll end up a loser.”
Consequences (feelings and behaviors):
You feel stressed, panicky, and have butterflies in your stomach.
You can’t bring yourself to sit down and study. You lose focus.
You sit down in front of the TV and eat a box of cookies.
One of the most important skills you can develop to deal with stressful situations is to identify your self-talk. It is the stories we tell ourselves that shape the beliefs we have. How can we rewrite the story? How can you shift your beliefs to have better outcomes (consequences)? The best way to understand the connection between A, B and C is to see how it applies to your own situation.
Think of a time in the last two weeks when you have found yourself feeling bad. You might have been feeling upset, stressed, angry, sad, depressed, embarrassed or guilty. In your journal, write down your situation, the thoughts that come up about it, and how those thoughts make you feel or behave. Doing this exercise can be a useful tool to help you challenge the negative or unhelpful aspects of your thinking, and replace them with more reasonable and helpful thoughts.
Information for this article was provided by:
“Taking Charge! A Guide for Teenagers: Practical Ways to Overcome Stress, Hassles and Upsetting Emotions” by Dr. Sarah Edelman and Louise Rémond, Foundation for Life Sciences (2005)
Acknowledgements: This article was partially developed by youth and staff for us.ReachOut.com