I’ve not been myself lately.
It started with dinner last night. I didn’t have dinner on the table ready to go when my wife came home to eat on her lunch break (she works 2-11 pm) and my mind told me I was a horrible person for making her wait. She only had so much time to eat, it told me, and she was wasting precious time by waiting on me to finish cooking (even though she ate, stayed a while to try and talk some sense into me, then raced off to work without being late).
And then my brain started in on the intangibles.
You’re a horrible person.
You’re not worth anything.
It’s pointless unless you’re perfect.
You should just go away.
Everyone would be better off if you were dead.
In mental health circles, we call this negative self-talk or negative thinking. There are about a dozen commonly referenced types of negative self-talk or negative thinking, as it’s sometimes referred to. I got the list below from Therapy Changes in San Diego, though this mirrors other forms that I’ve received several times in various therapeutic situations throughout my life.
Black-and-white thinking: You view a situation in only two categories instead of a continuum (areas of grey). Example: “If I’m not a total success, I’m a failure.”
Catastrophizing: You predict the future negatively without considering other, more likely outcomes. Example: “I’ll be so upset; I won’t be able to function at all.”
Disqualifying or discounting the positive: You unreasonably tell yourself that positive experiences, deeds, or qualities do not count. Example: “I did that project well, but that doesn’t mean I’m competent; I just got lucky.”
Emotional reasoning: You think something must be true because you “feel” (actually believe) it so strongly, ignoring or discounting evidence to the contrary. Example: “I know I do a lot of things okay at work, but I still feel like I’m a failure.”
Labeling: You put a fixed, global label on yourself or others without considering that the evidence might more reasonably lead to a less disastrous conclusion. Example: “I’m a loser. He’s no good.”
Magnification/Minimization: When you evaluate yourself, another person, or a situation, you unreasonably magnify the negative and/or minimize the positive. Example: “Getting a mediocre evaluation proves how inadequate I am. Getting high marks doesn’t mean I’m smart.”
Mental filter: You pay undue attention to one negative detail instead of seeing the whole picture. Example: “Because I got one low rating on my evaluation [which contained several high ratings] it means I’m doing a lousy job.”
Mind reading: You believe you know what others are thinking, failing to consider other, more likely possibilities. Example: “He’s thinking that I don’t know the first thing about the project.”
Overgeneralization: You make a sweeping negative conclusion that goes far beyond the current situation. Example: “[Because I felt uncomfortable at the meeting] I don’t have what it takes to make friends.”
Personalization: You believe others are behaving negatively because of you, without considering more plausible explanations for their behavior. Example: “The repairman was curt to me because I did something wrong.”
“Should” and “Must” Statements: You have a precise, fixed idea of how you or others should behave and you overestimate how bad it is that these expectations are not met. Example: “It’s terrible that I made a mistake. I should always be perfect.”
Tunnel Vision: You only see the negative aspects of a situation. Example: “My son’s teacher can’t do anything right. He’s critical and insensitive and lousy at teaching.”
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) often tells you that whenever you realize you’re making a statement or thinking a thought that fits in with one of the above descriptions, the best thing for you to do is to stop and reframe the statement in a more positive light, essentially giving your statements and thoughts a reality check.
In thirty years of therapy, I’ve never been able to commit that list above to memory.
What that means is that I usually need to have that list handy and on my person at all times, and every time I say or think something that my rational brain recognizes as negative self-talk or thinking, I need to pull out that list, identify the type of negative self-talk I’m feeding myself, and reframe each statement.
That’s all fine and good, but what happens when your brain is literally barraging these statements and thoughts at you so quickly that you can’t remember or keep up with the mental assault fast enough to counter with reframing? What happens when it buries you in an avalanche of negativity?
In my case, I go full-on irrational. Up is down, black is white, left is right. I speak in logic circles that can easily be disproved by anyone who’s listening, yet I stand by my irrationality and my faulty logic as if it were the cornerstone of my very belief system. I get to a point that I will not and cannot be moved from my flawed thinking until there’s a short, sharp shock to my belief system. Usually that comes in the form of some absurdity that I cannot help but find comical. (Today’s absurdity came in a rather uncouth and disturbing mental image which I will spare you from. Suffice it to say that it was so inappropriate my inner five-year-old couldn’t help but laugh, and the spell was broken.)
When I’m irrational, I usually have full awareness of what I’m saying and doing, but feel I lack control to guide those statements and actions in a more positive direction. I’m conducting the bullet train to hell, sit down, buckle up, and hang on for your life, if you happen to get caught in a conversation with me during those times.
And of course, my wife does everything she can to counter my statements until, exasperated, my symptoms trigger her own symptoms, and I’ve just initiated her own fit of irrationality similar to the one that I’m experiencing. (She shares many of my mental health diagnoses, so she understands like no one else what I go through. She also is prone to her own negative self-talk, but that’s her story to tell, not mine.) Then the situation becomes doubly dangerous as my irrationality feeds hers, and vice versa. We become two minds locked in combat with one another with our chief weapons being chaos and confusion.
So when things get that bad, what do we do? Do we go to separate corners to try and reset? Do we go take a nap, which sometimes works, but sometimes doesn’t? Do we just hold one another, which seems to work so long as we’re being held, and just stay that way until the negative thoughts die down?
We’ve spent fifteen years looking for that answer. And we’re no closer to a solution than we were when this behavior started.
It seems pointless – logically pointless – to fight such an irresistible force as my own surging thoughts and feelings. They come whether I want them to or not. I wish I knew how to keep them in check. But I’ve never met a therapist that could tell me what to do in a mindstorm like I experience. I just spend my days trying to distract myself from my thoughts, to varying degrees of success.
And hoping the mental forecast isn’t for inclement “whether.”