Get more from your affirmations

I’ll let you into a secret… Cognitive Behavioural Therapists don’t really teach positive affirmations. The reason being that CBT is about finding a balanced alternative to a negative thought and is not so much about ‘thinking positive’ as some people expect.

So the idea of positive affirmations is one that hasn’t been on my radar until relatively recently.

However, the trend for positive affirmations appears to be growing and many people seem to find them helpful.

I used one myself this morning when I needed to have a difficult conversation and it was very helpful to me. If you are wondering, it was: ‘I can approach this conversation with strength and compassion’.

If I did teach positive affirmations, I would probably teach them like this:

 

Take small steps towards increasing positivity in your affirmations

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If you currently believe ‘I am a bad person’ and your positive affirmation is ‘I am a good person’, it is probably a leap too far.

This is how people sometimes apply ‘positive thinking’ and it often doesn’t work, simply because it doesn’t feel believable. You can usually tell if you are trying to trick yourself into believing something you don’t!

Steps might include language like:

‘I am working towards believing I can be a good person’

‘Sometimes I feel like a good person’

‘I am doing the best I can to be a good person’

 

Make them your own

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I saw a client recently who has been using positive affirmations from a list of somebody else’s affirmations. A list of affirmations or suggestions from others may give you some good ideas and help to get you started but it may ultimately be more helpful to word them in a way that is more personal to you.

The more personal you can make your positive affirmation, the more believable it is likely to be.

The more believable it is, the more helpful it is likely to be.

When you make your own, you can also make them situation specific as I did this morning. This may be of more use than something generic.

 

Use evidence to back them up

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In CBT we use evidence for and against thoughts. When you can see that there is evidence against a negative thought, it undermines the believability of the thought.

Likewise, if you can find evidence to support a more helpful thought, it feels more believable.

So, carrying the logic forward, if you have evidence to support your positive affirmation, it is likely to feel more believable to you.

For example, if your affirmation is ‘I am a good person’ and today you did a favour for a friend or helped someone in need, the evidence fits the affirmation.

 

Nod… yes nod!

OK, this one is not mine. This was something I heard on the (awesome) Savvy Psychologist Podcast by Dr. Ellen Hendriksen who cited a very nifty psychological experiment. You can listen to the episode here: https://soundcloud.com/savvy-psychologist/245-3-secrets-to-beat

In a nutshell, participants were asked to test a set of headphones while listening to either positive affirmations or negative statements by either moving their heads up and down or from side to side. Afterwards, their physical performance in an exercise task was measured.

Those who ‘nodded’ to positive affirmations performed the best and those who ‘nodded’ to negative statements performed least well.

The impact of the positive affirmation was boosted by performing a physical action ‘confirming’ the statement, even though the participants were not aware that this was what they were doing!

I highly recommend that you take a listen to the Savvy Psychologist Podcast!

Dr. Hendriksen has an abundance of helpful tips on a range of issues and in my opinion, has wonderful warmth and humour.

 

I would love to hear your comments about positive affirmations. Do you use them? Do they work? Are you already using these tips? Do you have other tips?

Thanks for reading!

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Just because it feels true, doesn’t make it true

Emotional reasoning is one of the thinking styles we talk about in CBT that can be unhelpful for us.

Don’t worry, I’m not going to start suggesting that we shouldn’t listen to our emotions or that we should make decisions based on only cold, hard facts.

It is a good idea, however, to catch those times when our emotions are leading us to biased (or just plain old incorrect) conclusions.

Emotional reasoning is a biased way of thinking that causes us to believe something just because it feels true. For example:

Because I feel scared, there must be a threat.

Because I feel worthless, I must be worthless.

Because I feel jealous, there must be something going on.

Because I feel embarrassed, other people must be laughing at me.

Because I feel overwhelmed, I must not be coping.

 

Of course it isn’t so bad if our emotional reasoning is biased in a more positive way, such as:

Because I feel happy, things are going well!

Because I feel in love, they are the most awesome person ever!

Because I feel excited, it is going to be amazing!

 

Balancing up our emotional reasoning

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If you notice that you fall into a more negative form of emotional reasoning, here are some steps you can take to balance it up a bit.

  1. Recognise the emotion and name it.
  2. Recognise the thought or conclusion you are making.
  3. Identify if the thought is a fact or an opinion.
  4.  If it is an opinion (spoiler alert, it almost certainly is) call it out by adding on ‘I am having the thought that…’ or ‘I am having the opinion right now that… because it fits the way I feel.’
  5. Identify the evidence.
  6. Identify if there is an alternative way of thinking about it.

 

For example:

  1. I am feeling overwhelmed.
  2.  The thought I am having is ‘I am not coping’.
  3.  The thought ‘I am not coping’ is an opinion.
  4.  I am having the thought that I am not coping because it fits the way I feel.
  5.  The evidence is that I am meeting my deadlines, I had good feedback from my manager and the project is going well.
  6. Even though it feels difficult, I am coping better than I think.

 

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The Impact of an Emotionally Demanding Job Role

Every now and then in my role as a psychotherapist, a client will comment with something along the lines of ‘I don’t know how you can listen to people’s problems all day’, or ‘do you ever take your work home with you?’

Perhaps you have had similar comments if you work in an emotionally demanding job role? I could imagine people expressing a similar sentiment towards nurses, teachers, carers, social workers, police officers or any job role involving heavy emotional demands on top of practical demands and more routine day to day tasks of the job.

The truth for me is that sometimes it can be difficult to listen to people in distress all day. When you step back and think about it, it isn’t really a ‘normal’ thing to do with your time!

Nor is it really a ‘normal’ thing to see physical injury and pain all day if you are a nurse working in A&E, or to deal with challenging behaviour all day if you are a police officer or deal with high risk situations all the time if you are a social worker.

The kind of situations you are exposed to on a regular basis when you are in an emotionally demanding role are not common experiences for the majority of people outside your particular profession.

But when emotional demands are a part of your ordinary day to day experience, it can be easy to forget that it isn’t really the norm.

 

A biased view

I remember early on in my career when I was a Psychological Wellbeing Practitioner with a heavy caseload of people with panic disorder and agoraphobia, I went out one evening to a comedy gig and I was struck by the thought, ‘Wow! Look at all these people who don’t mind crowds!’

It would be easy for me to conclude from my experience at work that everyone has a mental health difficulty and is struggling with anxiety or low mood. Indeed, many people are, but not everyone is!

I can imagine it would be easy to think of most people as being dishonest if you work in the police force, or over-estimating the likelihood of accidents, illness and injuries if you work in healthcare, or any number of other biases we could form, simply through being exposed to similar issues most of the time.

Of course, we can challenge our biases if we recognise them, by taking notice of people, situations or experiences that offer a different perspective. The key thing is recognising your biases in the first place.

 

Losing compassion?

A friend recently told me of an experience with a healthcare professional who made a rather blunt and uncompassionate comment about the prognosis of her health problem. This was a number of years ago and the professional has no doubt forgotten ever having made the comment but it was something that caused a great deal of fear for my friend for many years.

Of course, we are all human and we will all make offhand comments from time to time. Perhaps this professional was simply having a bad day. However, when you encounter the same problem hundreds of times at work, it can be easy to forget that it is perhaps the first time for the person with the problem.

For the clients who come to see me in my role as a psychotherapist, I actively remind myself that their appointments are a really big deal! Particularly at their first appointment; they may have been nervous about it for days.

Of course, you don’t need to have experienced something in order to empathise with it, but I believe that experiencing therapy as the client has been a helpful reminder for me to be more aware of what it is like in the other chair.

The importance of compassion and empathy is not lost on the vast majority of people working in an emotionally demanding role. I would like to hope that for most of us, we do show compassion, most of the time.

But what if we feel like we can’t? What about when the emotional demands become overwhelming or exhausting? If you are finding it increasingly difficult to empathise in your job role, it may be a sign of compassion fatigue.

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Compassion fatigue

Compassion fatigue is a term used to describe the negative emotional cost of caring for others – something synonymous with emotionally demanding job roles. Compassion fatigue may look like stress, emotional exhaustion or burnout but it can also include symptoms of secondary trauma.

You can find more information about compassion fatigue from the Compassion Fatigue Awareness Project here: http://www.compassionfatigue.org/index.html

And a great blog about preventing compassion fatigue from Good Therapy here: https://www.goodtherapy.org/blog/the-cost-of-caring-10-ways-to-prevent-compassion-fatigue-0209167

 

How to reduce the impact of an emotionally demanding role

In my view, one of the key things for us if we are in an emotionally demanding role is to be in touch with our own emotions. If we are avoiding our emotions, numbing out or unable to recognise how we feel it will be more difficult to manage our own emotions in a helpful way.

Self-care is also key. Spending time building our emotional resources, engaging in enjoyable activity, taking breaks, using relaxation and connecting with others is important to maintain your wellbeing when the emotional demands on you are high.

Use grounding techniques throughout the day while you are at work. Grounding is a simple and effective way of re-connecting with the present moment and it doesn’t need to take a lot of time to do, so it can be easy to fit in even on a busy working day.

Allow others to care for you. When you are in a helping role, you can often get used to putting other people’s needs before your own. Maybe you see yourself as the helper and find it difficult to accept help from others? I know this was true for me and it took me a long time to accept that I sometimes need a bit of help too. It may sound silly, but by asking for help I learned that help… actually helps! We are all human and it is OK to seek out help and support. Even if you are usually the helper.

Practice self-compassion. Self-compassion isn’t simply about letting yourself off the hook. It is about developing an attitude of kindness, wisdom and forgiveness towards yourself. It is about acknowledging that you are human, recognising your needs and developing an attitude of acceptance towards yourself. If you are not used to showing yourself compassion, this can take time and regular practice. You can find some helpful resources to get you started here: https://www.cci.health.wa.gov.au/Resources/Looking-After-Yourself/Self-Compassion

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If your workplace involves a high level of emotional demands, you can find out about wellbeing workshops in the Bradford, Calderdale and Kirklees areas here:

Workplace Sessions

 

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Imagine if thoughts were emails

We all have far more thoughts in a day than we can pay attention to. Many people have more emails in a day than they can pay attention to as well!

But are you filtering out ‘junk’ thoughts in the way that your emails are filtered?

Or are you being drawn in by the subject header reading ‘what if’, ‘you should have’ or ‘you’re not good enough’  as if it was ‘special offer just for you’?

And maybe some helpful thoughts are mistakenly finding themselves in your junk folder.

 

Recognising junk thoughts

We all have ‘junk thoughts’ and some of them are probably pretty obvious but we all tend to have some junk thoughts we mistakenly treat as if they are high priority.

Here are a few styles of junk thoughts:

 

Self criticism

The priority mistake: believing that being hard on yourself will help you to do better next time or can motivate you in some way.

Why it should go into your junk folder: would you say mean things to someone else to motivate them to do better? What would you say instead? If you wouldn’t say it to someone else, it is probably junk.

 

Mindreading

The priority mistake: believing you know what someone else is thinking about you. For example ‘she must think I’m stupid’.

Why it should go into your junk folder: you can’t read minds!  Is there any evidence that supports your assumption? Are there any other alternative ways other people could be thinking?

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Catastrophising

The priority mistake: believing that you can prepare yourself by worrying or thinking about the worst case scenario.

Why it should go into your junk folder: thinking about worst case scenarios activates your body’s fight & flight response. Are you really better prepared when you have spent a lot of time and energy worrying, feeling anxious, not sleeping, or eating properly and thinking about terrible outcomes? Have there been times you didn’t worry about something but coped well with a problem?

 

Not junk?

As well as paying too much attebntion to junk thoughts, there may be helpful thoughts mistakenly going straight into your junk folder.

 

Filtering Out Positives

Junk mistakes: believing that if you let yourself accept compliments/positive feedback/ you will become arrogant. Believing that if you allow yourself to be confident or happy, you will have further to fall if something goes wrong. Believing that if you feel happy, you will lose motivation to move forward.

Why it should be marked as ‘not junk’: our thoughts and our emotions are closely linked. If we only allow ourselves to notice negative thoughts, we will feel… well, negative. It is more helpful to recognise positive and realistic thoughts to gain a balanced perspective and take helpful actions.

As for the beliefs above, if you don’t want to be arrogant, you won’t be!

If you are happy or confident, it can help you to bounce back more quickly and easily after a ‘fall’.

Motivation to gain something good is different from motivation to escape something bad. You can feel good and still be motivated to do well and to move forward and it feels a lot nicer than feeling bad and being motivated just to escape the awfulness!

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