Limiting Thought Patterns Part I

We humans are funny creatures. Our minds are always thinking and sometimes they fall into patterns that hinder rather than help us. There are definitely some general thought patterns which I've found to be unhelpful, ineffective, and disempowering. We all have limiting thoughts, it's part of being human, but when we can recognize those patterns and change them, we begin the process of mastering our own minds rather than being victim to them. I've noticed most, if not all of these thought patterns in my own life, and the more I bring awareness to them, the quicker I'm able to catch and redirect my thoughts so I don't get caught up in a negative loop. With practice, you can catch these negative thought patterns early before they ruin your mood or decrease the quality of your day. Below is part I of my Limiting Thought Patterns Series:

  1. Comparing and then self-criticizing. Simply comparing yourself to others isn't necessarily a bad thing, if you can use the comparing as more of an inspiration, an example of what's possible. Comparing takes a dark turn when it leads to self-criticism, either for not being "as good" or for using it as a way to invalidate vulnerability. The first example is when you compare yourself to someone else and determine that they are better, more worthy, prettier, funnier, etc. than you. This, in turn acts as a put-down, and leaves you feeling like crap. The second is when you are feeling vulnerable, compare your situation or self to someone else's, and perceiving that others have it worse, berate yourself for the negative feelings because you should be grateful for what you have. There's no right or wrong way to feel, so honor your feelings and then see if you can shift your focus to that which is good in your life without the self-criticism and judgement. Some personalities do the comparing more naturally than others, so when you catch your comparing turning into self-criticism respond with self-compassion rather than judgement, and redirect your thoughts (below will be some specific strategies for changing your thought patterns so read on). 
  2. Lamenting over what you can't control. There's so much we don't have control over and that's just a fact of life. When we turn our energy towards focusing on what we don't have control over, however, we miss the opportunity to create change, to put our energy into what we do have control over. Furthermore, the more you focus on what you don't have control over, the more you reinforce the feelings of helplessness, thereby disempowering yourself. We can't control other people, the past, certain situations. What we can control is our reaction to events/situations, the thoughts we choose to think, our habits and routines. 
  3. Focusing on how things/people "should" be. This thought pattern can be directed at situations, other people, and even ourselves. So often, I hear people spending time complaining about how things/people are different than they "should" be, and it prevents them from enjoying what is. Having goals is important, so thinking about how you want things to be and then figuring out what you can do to get there is productive. This thought pattern becomes de-energizing or destructive, however, when the thinker isn't able, or isn't willing to do anything to change things. It may be something you have no control over, or it may be something that really doesn't matter in the grand scheme of things, but your mind wants to complain about it anyways. We can also fall into the trap of thinking we know it all, that our way is the "right" way, or of trying to find something or someone to blame for our own discomfort. Again, this thought patterns isn't bad if it leads to action that improves your life, but when it simply leaves us feeling angry, sad, or frustrated, it's probably not serving you.

If you're reading this post, identifying with some (or all) of these thought patters, don't go to self-judgement or self-criticism (refer back to thought pattern #1). I have thought and still catch myself thinking all of these. It's human. First step towards changing these patterns is to be aware of them when you're thinking them. Practice observing your thoughts. Get acquainted with your thought patterns for a while before moving on to changing them. We can't change what we're not aware of. Next, step is changing these thought patterns. Just simply recognizing them as ineffective can change your relationship to them, but there are also some techniques for changing thought patterns that can be helpful. Change the content of your thinking. For example, shifting your focus from what you can't control to what you can control can transform your entire mood. Visualizing a stop sign can be a signal to stop the negative thought pattern in its tracks, practicing gratitude, focusing on the positive can all be effective strategies as well. For full posts on techniques that may be helpful in shifting your thinking check out my posts on metta meditation and 5 ways it can improve your life, and daily rituals for nurturing mind body & spirit. Hope this helps, and be on the lookout for subsequent posts to this series.