You forget to set your alarm, wake up late, spill coffee on yourself, and trip over your kid’s toys on the way out the door. Your wife texts you on the way to work, unhappy about the mess you left in the kitchen and reminds you that your son has soccer practice this evening. You will need to attend because she will be at another event with your daughter.
You arrive at work later than usual and find out your boss is in a bad mood. The whole office appears out of sorts. Your stomach is growling because you had no time for breakfast and lunch looks questionable given the line-up of projects and meetings for the day.
At that moment your phone rings and you hear the contractor say the estimate to fix the HVAC on your house will be twice what you anticipated. Your mother texts shortly thereafter to remind you of a family obligation you’d rather not attend. You glance at your watch. It’s only 8:30 a.m. and it’s shaping up to be a very long day.
Pile Up of Stressors
If you read last week’s post, you may think the beginning of this one sounds similar to that. This is intentional. Most of us can weather a bad day now and then, but when bad days start to pile up one after the other, we are even more likely to descend into the depth of dreariness, which is almost always less than helpful. Last week we explored the role of behavior in changing our outlook on life. Now let’s examine our thoughts using what mental health professionals call a “Cognitive Behavioral Exercise.” To begin, think of a recent day, or week or even month in your life that didn’t go well.
The Event: What Happened
Take a moment and briefly describe what happened. Jot down a few thoughts or tell someone who is a good listener. What occurred? Use the example above if you like, or use an experience of your own.
How I Felt
This can be tricky, especially if you’re not accustomed to thinking about your emotions, but in situations like this, it is likely you are feeling anxious, overwhelmed, worried, frustrated, and maybe even a bit angry with yourself. In short, you are out of sorts and not your best self. Are these your feelings? Are there others emotions as well?
How I Acted
You may also not be a good interpreter of your own behavior, but if I asked the people closest to you it is likely they would say you were impatient, withdrawn and/or grumpy. You may slam the door, drive aggressively, use language you don’t usually use and/or sulk into your office scowling at others. If this is not you, then how do you behave in the midst of a bad day or season?
My Stream of Consciousness: What I thought or said to myself—Images I had in my mind
Now, ask yourself: What are you telling yourself at this moment? Are you seeing yourself as relaxed and happy, confident and in charge? Or is your mental image of someone who is always harassed and hurried, never on time, always making a mess of things? Are you blaming your spouse? Your kids? Do you see your life as the hardest and the challenges of daily living as insurmountable? What are you telling yourself at this moment?
Types of Dysfunctional Thinking: Unhelpful thoughts that prevent effective problem solving
At times like this we’re all prone to telling ourselves unhelpful things. Here’s a sample of just ways people think when they’re in a bad space:
· I’m such a complete failure.
“I never seem to be able to get up on time. I’m such a loser.”
· I will never live up to the expectations people have for me.
“I’m a night person. Mornings are never good for me.”
· I’ll never accomplish anything important.
“All the important work gets done in the morning and since I’m not ‘that person,’ I probably won’t amount to much in this world.
· Nothing will ever work out for me.
“I’m just a misfit in a world made for other people and definitely not me.”
· Nothing I ever do will be any good.
“I’ve already screwed up today, so why should I expect tomorrow will be different?”
Alternative Behaviors and Alternative Thoughts
Now challenge those negative thoughts or assumptions. What might be another way to about what is occurring? How about these options:
· I didn’t get up on time, which can make things more difficult, but the whole day is not over.
· Sometimes I have higher expectations for myself than others do. I could be more realistic.
· Accomplishing something important takes time and perseverance. I’m not ready to give up.
· Things aren’t working out for me right now, but there have been some better days this month.
· I think I’ll talk with my (friend, supervisor, colleague, etc.) about how my work can be better.
The key here is to avoid making yourself even more miserable by making assumptions or jumping to conclusions about the events of one day, one week, or even a season of life. At times like these it’s easy to minimize the positive and maximize the negative. Doing this, however, will cause you to overlook or ignore, positive feedback and catastrophize negative experiences. When you learn to challenge your negative assumptions, you play an important role in managing your own mental health.
Jennifer L. Baker PsyD is a licensed clinical psychologist with a specialization in marriage and family therapy. She is also the Founder & Director of Good Dads and can be reached for question or comment at [email protected]