In my eight years of being a psychotherapist I have identified some common ways of thinking that may contribute towards anxiety and depression. These thought patterns are often hidden beyond day to day awareness, and yet, in extreme cases can lead to destructive behaviours which can cause devastating consequences. The two common thought patterns involve ‘all or nothing thinking’ and ‘perfectionism’. These ways of thinking shape the way a person behaves and cause tremendous stress which results in one, or even a collection of the following:
Sleep issues, self-esteem issues, eating disorders, excessive drinking or other addictions, work issues, anger and sadness directed towards yourself or others, suicidal thoughts, self harm or mental health worries. If you have experienced any of these symptoms, know that you are not alone and you can begin to overcome them.
All or Nothing thinking
This involves a rigid way of looking at the world which doesn’t allow for different opinions, options or outcomes. It often stems from a childhood where a parent or person in authority made decisions for you, over which you had little or no control. As an example, imagine you have been invited to a party and you are filled with anxiety. Other examples might include, giving a presentation, going to a meeting or some other situation. If you have inflexible thinking around the situation, you will believe there are only two options, either to go or not to go. To challenge this we look at other options, rather than the ‘all’ of going or the ‘nothing’ of not going. Other options might include going to the party and only staying for a short while, arranging to meet the person whose party it is on another day and time, or to visit the person on the day of the party and choosing not to stay for the big celebration. When we challenge our inflexibility, we see that there are other options available to us and this enables us to make a new plan. And this becomes a new way of thinking, creates new behaviours and has a lasting benefit as you have integrated a new thought pattern into your mind.
So let’s take this thought pattern a step further. Because of the anxiety caused by our inflexibility we have decided not to go to the party. This is when negative self-talk can kick in and we start to beat ourselves up for not attending. We say ‘you should have been able to go to the party, you are useless, you’re a failure’. A lot of clients enter the therapy room with these kinds of thoughts which stem from high standards that develop into feelings of failure when they are not achieved. The temperature gage of anxiety racks up and depression sets in. When you start to question your expectations of yourself you may be surprised to find that you have high standards which may be impossible and unrealistic. Often I will hear the words ‘what have I been trying to prove?’ and ‘who have I been trying to prove it to?’ These are very good questions indeed. When a person realises that they are in charge of their own standards, they begin to realise ‘maybe I am good enough, maybe I am okay after all’. What a truly empowering realisation.