Today’s top-selling self-improvement books are full of the following ideas.
The underlying message in these statements is valid—mindset matters. Negative beliefs like “I’m a failure” or “everyone hates me” will negatively impact how you feel and act. Conversely, positive beliefs like “I can do it” or “I am lovable” will positively impact how you feel and act.
In general, these statements suggest that changing how you think can change how you feel. But, asking people to apply these ideas to every situation is harmful. That’s because, given the right circumstances, doing so requires delusional levels of thinking.
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In an extreme example, consider those who died in Nazi gas chambers. For these people, circumstance was undoubtedly their problem. Suggesting that self-talk determined their fate is intellectually lazy.
Sadly, a shocking number of therapists, counselors, and authors appear to be spreading these unhelpful ideas without giving them any thought.
In this article, I’ll explain why changing your thoughts can be harmful. Then, I’ll share an alternative approach to evaluating your thoughts that can improve your life.
The idea that we create our own reality with our minds comes from a method of therapy known as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). 1
CBT is well known for asking people to change their thoughts to change their feelings. This process is called cognitive restructuring.
Cognitive restructuring is based on the cognitive triangle. This theory suggests that our thoughts change our feelings, those feelings influence our behavior, and coming full circle, that behavior changes our thoughts. 2
Here’s an example.
Cognitive restructuring attempts to make people feel better by changing the thoughts that lead to negative emotions like worry, anxiety, and sadness. Here’s how it works.
Assume someone is depressed because they believe they are unlovable. In that case, they might be encouraged to develop a more realistic thought like “I am lovable” and then look for evidence to support it. That might involve recognizing that friends, family, or co-workers love them.
Typically, the combination of developing a rational thought and finding evidence to support it makes people feel better.
In certain situations, cognitive restructuring is an effective tool. Yet, in other cases, it’s harmful. To answer why you need to understand the distinction between two types of thoughts.
Rational thoughts are based on fact and logic. As an example, assume you’re reviewing your company’s balance sheet. In doing so, you notice that your bottom line is off by $10,000 and that your business partner’s credit card statement shows a list of unexplainable charges.
In this case, it’s rational to think that your business partner is making unauthorized purchases. That’s because there is clear evidence to support this belief.
In contrast, irrational thoughts are not supported by fact or logic. Instead, they are based primarily on assumption, perception, and speculation.
An example of an irrational thought would be thinking that your business partner was making unauthorized purchases solely because they had what you believed was a ‘guilty’ look on their face.
This thought is irrational because no facts or logic support it. Instead, the thought was manufactured entirely in your mind.
Irrational thoughts are often unrealistically negative or positive. As a result, they tend to influence harmful behavior.
For example, it’s unrealistically negative to assume that a facial expression means your business partner is making unauthorized purchases—especially when no evidence supports that belief.
If that thought influences you to do something harmful—like confront your business partner—then there’s a good chance you’ll create a problem where one doesn’t exist. That’s because questioning your partner without a valid reason is accusatory and suggests you do not trust them.
Given this information, it can be helpful to address irrational thoughts with cognitive restructuring. Doing so has two benefits. First, it helps you turn an irrational thought into something more rational. And second, the new thought can change how you feel and therefore act.
In this case, cognitive restructuring can help you recognize that an unfamiliar facial expression does not have to mean the worst possible outcome. Instead, it can mean something far more mundane. For instance, maybe your business partner just finished a difficult conversation with their spouse or was experiencing some indigestion from lunch.
In this light, the facial expression takes on a whole new meaning. As a result, your worry goes away, you don’t confront your business partner, and avoid creating a problem.
Here are some more examples of irrational thoughts and resultant behaviors that would benefit from cognitive restructuring.
Because rational thoughts are based on fact and logic, they tend to influence helpful behavior. For instance, it’s helpful to question your business partner’s spending habits when there is clear evidence of a problem.
You get in trouble when you try to fix problems by changing rational thoughts. That’s because doing so is a form of denial that requires you to ignore reality. Let me explain.
No amount of cognitive restructuring will change the fact that $10,000 is missing from your bottom line. And convincing yourself that your business partner has good intentions won’t correct the list of unexplainable purchases on their credit card.
Here’s the hard truth. Some problems can’t be fixed by changing your thoughts. You can’t cure lung cancer, get out of debt, or bring somebody back from the dead by changing what you think.
Ultimately, using cognitive restructuring to change rational thoughts is the mental equivalent of burying your head in the sand. And, while denying your problems might provide short-term relief, it does not solve your problems long-term.
This issue explains why I believe statements like “you create your own reality with your mind” are potentially harmful. When therapists, counselors, and authors spread these messages without clarification, they set people up to fail.
I want to be perfectly clear. I do not deny that mindset matters. A positive mindset can help you deal with your problems.
But let’s not expect people to pretend that real problems don’t exist. Doing so is a guaranteed way to steer your life off course.
The only way to fix real problems is to face them head-on.
To elaborate on this point, here are some more examples of rational thoughts that do not benefit from cognitive restructuring.
Here are four ideas that can help you identify irrational thoughts that would benefit from cognitive restructuring.
Rational thoughts are almost always backed by facts or logic. Conversely, irrational thoughts are not. Given this information, the following four questions can help you determine if your thoughts are irrational.
1. What facts or logic support my belief? If no facts or logic support your belief, there’s a good chance it’s irrational.
2. Are any alternative beliefs more accurate? If you discover alternative beliefs that are more accurate, there’s a good chance that your initial thought is irrational or at least flawed.
3. What if the opposite were true? Once you form a belief, it’s easy to let that belief color your experience. For example, if you believe rich people are greedy, it’s easy to find examples of greedy rich people. But the fact that some rich people are greedy doesn’t make all rich people greedy.
To prevent this problem, experiment with the opposite belief. For example, consider how the world would look if you believed rich people were generous. Could you find examples of generous rich people?
If you find examples of the opposite belief, your original belief is likely irrational.
4. Would I believe the same thing about someone I like? People are often overly critical of others if they are jealous of them, share different beliefs, or dislike them. You may have experienced this yourself if you automatically assumed the worst of a co-worker you don’t like.
Ironically, we tend to be overly critical of ourselves as well. It’s not uncommon for people to beat themselves up after failing or making a mistake.
To prevent this problem, consider if you’d think the same thing about someone you like. For example, would you automatically assume the worst of your favorite co-worker? Or would you be overly critical of a friend who made the same mistake as you?
If your answer to these questions is no, there’s a good chance your original belief is irrational.
We tend to label emotions as either good or bad. For example, people generally consider happiness to be good and guilt to be bad.
With this mindset, people often go to great lengths to feel good emotions and avoid bad emotions. This goal can lead to irrational thoughts and behaviors.
For example, it’s good to feel genuine happiness. You might feel genuine happiness if you avoid a health scare or see your children succeed.
But just because genuine happiness is good doesn’t mean you should expect to feel happy all the time. In fact, it’s irrational to believe this is possible.
In reality, we are supposed to experience a broad range of emotions. These emotions offer helpful information—even the emotions that people consider bad.
Take guilt, for example. While guilt is unpleasant to experience, it’s helpful if you’ve done something wrong. That’s because guilt motivates you to do the right thing.
If you avoid guilt by manufacturing a false sense of happiness, you deny reality. In doing so, you miss the lesson that guilt offers to teach.
The bottom line here is simple. If you’re avoiding negative thoughts and emotions by pretending to feel good, your thinking is irrational.
Your mind sends you a continuous stream of thoughts and emotions. Your job is to filter this information. Here’s how you can do that.
Instead of labeling thoughts and emotions as good or bad, consider if they are helpful or unhelpful. To do that, determine if they help you build the type of life you want to live.
For example, suppose you feel guilty about forgetting your best friend’s birthday. In this case, guilt is helpful because it motivates you to repair the relationship.
In contrast, assume you detest the idea of sitting on your HOA board but feel guilty for turning down the position. In this case, the guilt is unhelpful because accepting the position will only make you unhappy.
In short, if you identify thoughts or emotions as unhelpful, don’t let them influence your behavior. Doing so would be irrational. Instead, learn to let them go and refocus on what matters.
One problem with beliefs is that they can be subjective. For example, someone might accuse you of being rude when you don’t think you were.
In cases like these, it can be helpful to listen to the crowd. If a group of trustworthy people believes you were rude, there’s a good chance you were. When this happens, swallow your pride, and take responsibility for your behavior.
Here are some common problems you might encounter when trying to evaluate your thoughts.
1. Your judgment is clouded by strong emotions. When emotions run high, your ability to think rationally is impaired. So, if you find yourself overcome by emotion, try the following two ideas.
First, give yourself time to calm down. It can take anywhere from 6 seconds to 20 minutes for your emotions to settle. As a general rule of thumb, don’t make any important decisions until you feel calm.
And second, talk with someone who isn’t emotionally involved in the situation. Chances are, they’ll be able to see the facts more clearly than you.
2. You’re a victim of confirmation bias. Confirmation bias is our tendency to favor information that supports our existing beliefs or values and devalue information that doesn’t.
If you find yourself dismissing facts or ignoring information, recognize that confirmation bias could be at play. To fix this problem, challenge your thinking by giving new information the attention it deserves.
The easiest way to not be responsible for anything you do is to assume that the thoughts and feelings of other people are always irrational.
For example, assume you are blatantly rude to a co-worker during a meeting. You make the kind of remark that silences the room and elicits a group of blank stares.
After the meeting, your co-worker tells you that they don’t appreciate how you spoke with them. But, instead of accepting responsibility for your remark, you blame them.
You insist that you weren’t rude and tell them they have a perception problem. Then, you explain that they should change how they think about your remark so they no longer feel offended.
Believe it or not, people act this way. Instead of admitting their faults, they blame their problems on everyone else. They do this for two reasons. First, blaming other people for their problems is a lot easier than fixing them. And second, believing they are right feels a lot better than admitting they are wrong.
This is an immature and irresponsible way to live life. It’s also a great way to ruin every relationship you have.
The solution to this problem is simple. If your behavior caused a problem, be accountable for what you did, and fix the problem.
Here are the key takeaways from this article.
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