We think mainly in opinions

When you opened the curtains this morning did you think:

‘It’s a lovely day!’ or ‘it’s a miserable day’?

Or did you think:

‘The sun is shining and the sky is blue’ or ‘it is raining and the sky is grey’?

I’m guessing it was something more along the lines of the former than the latter.

 

As we go through our day, most of what we think probably feels factual.

On the whole, people treat most of their thoughts as though they are facts most of the time. Often this isn’t really a problem. After all, life would be pretty dull if we didn’t have opinions and preferences.

 

Sometimes though, it can be useful to check in with your thoughts and notice that many of them are actually opinions rather than facts.

 

Why?

Our thoughts impact on how we feel emotionally, and on how we behave. If you have a negative thought and treat it as though it is a fact, it is likely you will feel an emotion that matches up with that thought and then behave accordingly.

Imaging how you would feel if you had the following thoughts and believed them to be 100% true facts:

‘I’m not good enough’

‘Everyone is laughing at me’

‘I’m socially awkward’

‘I am a disappointment’

‘My work is rubbish’

‘I’m a bad parent’

Then imagine how you would behave if you believed these thoughts to be true.

In actual fact, all of the above statements are opinions. Someone else could take a completely different view and at a different point in time, so could you.

 

Thought experiment…

To get an idea of how many of our thoughts are opinions rather than facts, take a look at the picture below and list all the thoughts that automatically come into your mind about the picture.

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How many adjectives did you use?

How many judgements (positive or negative)?

How many statements of fact did you make?

 

When is a fact not a fact?

For the little experiment above, it was probably pretty clear which thoughts were factual and which were opinions. It can be a little more tricky when we encounter social facts.

Take the example of someone who just won 3m on the lottery.

Most people would think ‘they’re rich!’ and think of that as a fact.

However, those on the Forbes rich list would probably disagree.

 

When it is an opinion, there is an alternative…

To return to our negative thoughts, if we can identify these as opinions rather than facts, this means that there is an alternative. Maybe there is a more helpful alternative.

Sometimes, just acknowledging the thought is not a fact can be enough to change the emotion we feel and what we do as a result.

It also gives us a bit of distance from our thoughts and for those of you who like mindfulness, this is similar to taking an observer perspective as you would in mindfulness practice.

What’s more, re-stating something in a factual way can sometimes help you to gain a more balanced perspective.

Please feel free to leave your opinions in the comments!

You may also like: Stress: Is It All In Your Head?

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It Isn’t All Bad

Blue Monday is just around the corner and is said to be the most depressing day of the year. But maybe it isn’t all bad?

I’m guessing the immediate reaction for some of you will be along the lines of ‘it bloody well is’!

Certainly, if you happen to be going through a difficult time in your life then it is likely to feel that way. Even if you are not going through a major life event you may still feel like this from time to time.

It is very easy to get bogged down in the day to day hassles that life presents us with.

When someone simply tells you to look on the bright side or some similar well-meant but largely unhelpful platitude, my guess is that you internally tell them where to stick their bright side.

That said, there is something about the way our attention works that could prevent us from seeing a bright side if we think that everything is going wrong or if we are feeling bogged down.

 

Focus of attention

Our focus of attention is not an objective thing; it is subject to numerous biases and we tend to filter out some information while paying particular attention to other information.

This is a very necessary way for us to operate because if we took in all of the available information to the same level, we would struggle to process it all or to get anything done!

Our brains, sometimes helpfully but at other times less helpfully, tend to take short-cuts.

I will talk about 3 short-cuts in particular that work together to maintain the belief that everything is awful.

  1. We pay particular attention to the things that support what we already believe and these things are generalised and magnified.
  2. We largely ignore information that contradicts what we already believe.
  3. We distort neutral information to fit in with what we already believe.

 

To flesh this out a bit, let’s imagine person A has the belief that everything is going wrong and person B has a belief that things are going pretty well.

Now let’s say that the same 3 events happen to person A and to person B.

  1. They each go for a job interview and don’t get the job.
  2. They each get positive feedback from the interview despite not getting it.
  3. They each get stuck in traffic on their way home that night.

Person A will definitely turn their full attention to the fact that they didn’t get the job but it is unlikely to stop there.

If they have a belief that everything is going wrong they are likely to be thinking:

‘I knew it’, ‘I never get the jobs I really want’, ‘I’m always really bad at interviews’, ‘I’ll never be able to get a promotion’, ‘nothing ever works out in my favour’, ‘what’s the point in even trying’.

It becomes about more than just this one job interview. It becomes about every job interview they have been unsuccessful in and it about every job interview they will go to in the future.

It may also be generalised to other unrelated events that are not going well – maybe the boiler broke last week or their car needs to go into the garage – it all becomes lumped together and gives more weight to the belief that everything is going wrong.

So later, when they receive feedback that they did very well in the interview and that it was just down to the other candidate having a little more experience, person A doesn’t really acknowledge the positive feedback. It is simply discounted.
Later still when person A gets stuck in traffic (which I am classing here as something fairly neutral) they are likely to give that their full attention and interpret it as being terrible because it fits with the way they already think and feel.

Maybe it goes something like:

‘Oh, this is all I need after such a bad day’, ‘what else can possibly go wrong’, ‘I hate being stuck in traffic’, ‘now I’ll miss out on time this evening’.

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Person A still holds the belief that everything is going wrong and probably feels pretty de-moralised.

 

A different focus

On the other hand, person B is less likely to focus as much attention on the fact that they didn’t get the job. They may feel disappointed but if they already believe that things are going well they are more likely to dismiss it:

‘It is disappointing but there will be plenty more opportunities out there’, ‘It wasn’t the right kind of job for me anyway’, ‘it was good experience to go to the interview’, ‘I’ll do better next time’.
Later, when they receive positive feedback and are told it was just down to the other candidate having a little more experience, they will give that positive feedback their full attention and they are likely to generalise and magnify it.

‘That was nice feedback’, ‘I am pretty good at interviews’, ‘They seemed impressed with me, I’m sure I’ll get the next one’.

Then, when person B gets stuck in traffic they may think:

‘I don’t mind having a bit of time for my brain to unwind before I get home’, ‘I can listen to that podcast I have been wanting to listen to’, ‘I’m not in any rush anyway’.

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Person B still holds the belief that things are going pretty well.

Neither way of looking at these events is right or wrong. They are both biased. But person B is going to experience far less negative emotion than person A.

 

Changing Focus

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So, if you wanted to challenge the belief that everything is going wrong, it is going to take a change of focus.

Not so much looking on the bright side, but purposefully seeking to alter the attentional biases at work.

Step 1: State only the fact, rather than generalising and magnifying.

Step 2: Acknowledge the positives, rather than discounting them.

Step 3: Ask yourself if there is a different way of seeing the same situation. How would you view it if you felt better? How would someone else view this situation?

Have a not so bad day!

Lemon Squeezy makes wellbeing easy!

Why I Don’t Like the Terms ‘Stressed’ and ‘Depressed’

First of all, I am not denying that many people feel stressed and depressed and I am not suggesting for a second that these terms are not valid descriptions of people’s experience.

I have used them to describe my own emotional experience and within my blogs!

The difficulty I have with the terms ‘stressed’ and ‘depressed’ is that we have come to use these words as a shorthand for too many of our emotions. As a result, I believe we are in danger of losing touch with our emotional vocabulary and with our emotions themselves. 

OK, they are useful umbrella terms in day to day conversation but underneath the ‘stress’ or the ‘depression’, there is likely a myriad of emotions going unrecognised, un-named and unprocessed. 

Whats more, when we overuse terms like ‘depressed’ in day to day conversation to mean sad or fed up, it can diminish the meaning of depression if you are experiencing an episode of clinical depression.

What happens if we lose touch with our emotions?adult-blur-business-986831

It may feel safer or more socially acceptable to tell someone you are feeling stressed or depressed than it is to say you feel:

  • dejected
  • furious
  • terrified
  • despondent
  • lost
  • flat
  • empty, deflated, defeated, bereft, sorrowful, rejected, apprehensive, bored, or have a sense of impending doom.  

But what happens when we only acknowledge the label ‘stressed’ or ‘depressed’ to ourselves?

We could miss the nuance of our experience…

We could avoid acknowledging and feeling emotions that could help us to understand something about ourselves or our situation…

Or we may just feel overwhelmed and confused because we don’t really know how we feel. 

Think for a minute about the difference in how it feels when you think of the word ‘depressed’ in comparison with ‘bereft’.

What do they feel like? Can you tell the difference?

 

When we don’t define the emotion it hinders appropriate action

When we can’t express what we are feeling to ourselves or to others, it could also prevent us from taking appropriate action or having our needs met. 

For example, I have recently noticed that my 6 year old will tell me he is hungry when he is actually bored. 

He is expressing to me that he has a need and he wants his internal state to change but he sometimes mis-labels what he is experiencing.

If he is actually bored but tells me he is hungry, I will give him something to eat but then in 10 minutes he will come back to tell me he is still hungry. 

His true need has not been met. 

If, on the other hand, he can identify and tell me that he is bored, the solution to this problem is different!

We might get out some different toys or activities or go out to play! (He has now started to differentiate between hunger and boredom with a little prompting).

 

Emotions are there to be felt!adult-change-clown-1990

Even the emotions we experience as negative are there to help us make sense of our internal and external world. 

Just identifying our emotions helps us to acknowledge and process them. Being specific about what you are experiencing is far more helpful than using a catch-all term. 

Of course, you may actually feel stressed or depressed, in which case these descriptions are absolutely valid.

But if you find yourself frequently using these words with other people or to yourself, or if you rarely use any other ways to describe your emotions, see if there is anything else hiding beneath them. 

Don’t stop at negative emotions either! Identify your positive emotions too!

Don’t you think elated, ecstatic, overjoyed, victorious, invincible or carefree feel better than ‘good’?

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Have a lovely, emotional day!

Lemon Squeezy makes wellbeing easy! 

Image Credit: Pixabay