The Blessings of Gratitude

Got Angst? Give Thanks!

Next week, many of us will be celebrating the U.S. holiday that we call Thanksgiving.  On Thursday, November 28, we will gather together with family and friends, ideally over a hearty harvest meal, and take time to give thanks for the people we love and what is going well in our lives.  We will count and share our blessings.

Many of us, in the days leading up to Thanksgiving, will also be aware of feeling anxious.  Our sense of anxiety may be a response to thoughts about the social situations involved in celebrating Thanksgiving itself, or we may already be thinking ahead to the myriad pressures, social and otherwise, that we so often experience as part of the rest of the holiday season.  Lucky for us, Thanksgiving provides a ready antidote – in the form of its very focus on gratitude!

A cognitive-behavioral approach to anxiety often looks at how we may be fueling our feelings by what we pay attention to and what we remember.  Many of us who experience anxiety tend to focus on what is consistent with our self-doubt, our sense of the world as unpredictable and unsafe, our assumptions that others are thinking negatively of us and will reject us, our expectations of a worst-case scenario, and the like.  We dismiss or minimize, if not completely ignore, experiences that we could describe as positive and for which we would likely feel thankful.  If we are giving a talk and notice that some members of the audience seem bored, we do not see that others appear to be enjoying our presentation.  If we muster our courage to talk to someone we like at a party, we remember only having tripped over our words at some point, rather than how smoothly the rest of the conversation went.  We engage in selective attention and memory.

I suggest that, as a response to anxiety, the practice of gratitude does not simply help us think more positively; it supports us in thinking more realistically.  For those of us who struggle with feeling anxious, giving thanks balances out our tendency to concentrate on what we fear and interpret as negative, our inclination to “screen out” all other aspects of and ways of looking at our experiences.  Some of us may practice gratitude by writing down what we’re thankful for in a journal each day; others of us may take time to meditate on the topic, or to share our sense of blessings with friends or family members.  Whatever methods we choose, the practice of gratitude can, in time, help us develop an increased sense of calm and confidence – one more thing for which we can be thankful!

I hope that you will find ways to give yourself the gift of thanks when you’re feeling angst, not only in the coming week — or next Thursday, on Thanksgiving — but all year long.  What are ideas that you have about how you can practice gratitude?  What are ways in which you already do?

An earlier version of this post was published on 11/19/2012 as Thanks, Not Angst.

Featured image credit: petarpaunchev / 123RF Stock Photo


SBKcroppedAbout Scott Burns Kahler, MA, LMFT, CPC, ELI-MP

Scott is a psychotherapist, personal development coach, and the founder of Thought Tonic.  He dedicates his work to those who identify themselves as struggling with anxious thinking, and often their self-esteem, to help them experience their lives with greater calm and confidence.

Scott maintains a counseling practice in Indianapolis, Indiana, and does coaching in-person, over the telephone, and by Skype.

You can follow Scott and the Thought Tonic blog  via e-mail, Google+, Facebook, Tumblr, Twitter, or RSS feed.  Questions?  Contact Scott.


Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/inti/3128443786/

Show that Gremlin Some Sun!

Mr. Wing’s grandson: Look Mister, there are some rules that you’ve got to follow.

Rand Peltzer: Yeah, what kind of rules?

Mr. Wing’s grandson: First of all, keep him out of the light; he hates bright light, especially sunlight — it’ll kill him. Second, don’t give him any water, not even to drink. But the most important rule, the rule you can never forget, no matter how much he cries, no matter how much he begs: Never feed him after midnight. (Gremlins, 1984)

Today, I offer the fifth and final post in a series that I began back in January, with Through a Glass Darkly. Throughout this series, I have been playing with the idea that all of us go through our lives wearing pairs of invisible eyeglasses with lenses comprised of thoughts and beliefs that we have come to hold about ourselves, other people, and the world. I have suggested that some of these thoughts and beliefs make for “dirtier” lenses than others, in that they restrict — rather than expand — our sense of what is possible for us, and in our lives. We can talk about these restrictive thoughts and beliefs as contributing to moods and behaviors that resonate with catabolic/negative energy, which weighs or even breaks us down, rather than anabolic/positive energy, which animates us and builds us up. In Energy Leadership: Transforming Your Workplace and Your Life from the Core (2008), Bruce D. Schneider writes about catabolic thoughts and beliefs as “energy blocks” that get in our way of making conscious choices, and prevent us from reaching our potential (129); he identifies four of these obstacles, and calls them limiting beliefs, assumptions, interpretations, and gremlins (with “gremlin” simply being another way to reference what many of us call our inner critic). In previous blog posts, we have looked at limiting beliefs, assumptions, and interpretations; today, we explore the last of the four “energy blocks” — gremlins.

Schneider defines a gremlin as that part of us that fears in some way (or many!) that we’re just “not good enough to cut it” (141); we may worry, for instance, that we’re not smart enough, attractive enough, and/or experienced enough — the list can go on and on, as most of us know. “Your gremlin,” Schneider writes, “tells you not to try, never to take a risk, always to take the safe road, and to compromise your life by playing small” (140); left unchecked, your gremlin can begin to convince you that you are small. As examples of gremlin activity, he points to thoughts that he has heard Richard, his fictional client in Energy Leadership, express during their conversations together. Richard, the owner of a small business that has fallen on hard times, has told Schneider that he feels like a failure, and that he has let his employees down, because his company is currently struggling (141). Schneider asserts that Richard is giving voice to his inner critic in thinking, feeling, and speaking of himself in this way, as “not good enough” (i.e., a “failure”). This kind of negative self-talk resonates with catabolic, rather than anabolic, energy; Richard feels beaten down, hopeless, and could tend to shrink from opportunities for improving the situation — after all, what’s the use?

As another example, on a personal level, I’ll confess that I wrestled with my own gremlin when I was thinking about leaving my salaried job as a therapist to go into private practice as a therapist and coach. While I believed that I was good at what I did, part of me wondered if I should take the risk, if it wasn’t better for me to remain where I was (with the steady paycheck!), rather than to follow my dream of having my own business (setting my own schedule; seeing clients that I wanted to see and who wanted to see me, specifically; etc.). As someone who identifies as an introvert, and also struggles with a sense of social anxiety, I worried that I wasn’t “good enough” socially to network successfully, or to communicate effectively to potential clients the benefits that they could experience through our work together. I fretted that if I couldn’t network or communicate in the ways that I imagined necessary to cultivate a thriving private practice (anyone also hear a limiting belief in this idea?), I wouldn’t be able to “cut it” on my own. I’m so happy now that I didn’t let my gremlin hold me back!

There are ways for us to challenge our gremlins, of course, which will likely sound familiar to anyone who is already familiar with cognitive-behavioral responses to anxious thinking, especially to those patterns of thought we can call negative core beliefs. The first step, in my own view — as with any of Schneider’s “energy blocks” — is to recognize that we do not have to accept everything that we think, even about ourselves, as “true.” We don’t have to believe everything we think! When we are able to hear the pronouncements of our inner critic as beliefs about ourselves that we have developed over time, based on what we have been seeing through the lenses in the invisible eyeglasses that we wear — rather than as “facts” — we create new possibilities in thought, feeling, and behavior for ourselves. When we catch our gremlin telling us that we’re “not good enough” in some way, and experience even the vaguest sense of dissonance reminding us that another part of us — our “inner genius” (142), Schneider says — knows better, we can begin to hear the voice of our inner critic more objectively, then, as saying less about us, and more about a habit that we have and can change of seeing ourselves in an unhelpful way. Some people find that naming their gremlin and describing it in physical terms helps them objectify it — separate from it, get some distance from it — more effectively. I once attended a training in which, as participants, we had the assignment of drawing, sculpting, or creating in some other fashion a physical representation of our gremlin. This was not long after I had undergone surgery for a salivary stone, an experience that I had decided to refer to as “having some of my fear removed” (at the time, I was working through those apprehensions I mentioned about leaving my job to start a private practice!). I used white Play-Doh to give my gremlin the shape that I imagined a large salivary stone to have, and put it in an empty medication bottle. I still keep this physical representation of my gremlin around to help remind me that my gremlin is only a part of me, not all of me, and not even the strongest or most influential part of me — not any longer.

In responding to your own gremlin over the next couple of weeks, should you choose to do so (the key to your cage is in your own hand!), I invite you to think about the three rules that Mr. Wing’s grandson passes along to Rand Peltzer in the movie, Gremlins (1984), when he sells Rand the creature that we later come to know as Gizmo: “First of all, keep him out of the light; he hates bright light, especially sunlight — it’ll kill him. Second, don’t give him any water, not even to drink. But the most important rule, the rule you can never forget, no matter how much he cries, no matter how much he begs: Never feed him after midnight.” Like the creatures in this movie, our own gremlins multiply, wreak havoc, take over our lives, and even get vicious towards us when we “give them water” with unquestioned acceptance and “feed them after midnight” with unchallenged influence over what we think, feel, and do. When we expose them to the light of day, on the other hand — that is, become aware of them, identify them as negative core beliefs to which we don’t have to (and won’t!) ascribe any longer, and challenge them with alternative, more helpful ways of seeing ourselves — they begin to lose their power.

Go on … show that gremlin some sun!

Featured image credit: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:GremlinStripeByInti.jpg

My Own Gremlin, Trapped in a Bottle, Exposed to Sunlight

My Own Gremlin, Trapped in a Bottle, Exposed to Sunlight

For more ideas about anxious thinking and responses to help us foster a greater sense of calm and confidence for ourselves, feel free to see other Thought Tonic posts by Scott Burns Kahler, MA, LMFT, ELI-MP, at thoughttonic.com; you can follow Scott Burns Kahler and this blog via e-mail, Google+, Facebook, Tumblr, Twitter, or RSS feed. Thank you for reading!

Gratitude

Thanks, Not Angst

This week, many of us will be celebrating the U.S. holiday that we call Thanksgiving. On Thursday, November 22, we will gather together with family and friends, ideally over a hearty harvest meal, and take time to give thanks for the people we love and what is going well in our lives. We will count and share our blessings.

Many of us, this coming Thursday, will also be aware of feeling anxious. Our anxiety may be a response to thoughts about the social situations involved in celebrating Thanksgiving itself, or we may already be thinking ahead to the myriad pressures, social and otherwise, that are so often part of the rest of the holiday season. Lucky us, that Thanksgiving provides a ready antidote – in the form of its very focus on gratitude!

A cognitive-behavioral approach to anxiety often looks at how we may be fueling our feelings by what we pay attention to and what we remember. Many of us who experience anxiety tend to focus on what is consistent with our self-doubt, our sense of the world as unpredictable and unsafe, our assumptions that others are thinking negatively of us and will likely reject us, our expectations of a worst-case scenario, and the like. We dismiss or minimize, if not completely ignore, experiences that we could describe as positive and for which we would likely feel thankful. If we are giving a talk and notice that some of the members of the audience seem bored, we do not see that others appear to be enjoying our presentation. If we muster our courage to talk to someone we like at a party, we remember only having tripped over our words at some point, rather than how smoothly the rest of the conversation went. We engage in selective attention and memory.

I suggest that, as a response to anxiety, the practice of gratitude does not simply help us think more positively; it supports us in thinking more realistically. For those of us who struggle with feeling anxious, giving thanks balances out our tendency to concentrate on what we fear and interpret as negative, our inclination to “screen out” all other aspects of and ways of looking at our experiences. Some of us may practice gratitude by writing down what we’re thankful for in a journal every day; others of us may take time to meditate on the topic, or to share our sense of blessings with friends or family members. Whatever methods we choose, the practice of gratitude can, in time, help us develop an increased sense of calm and confidence – one more thing for which we can be thankful!

I hope that you’ll find ways to give yourself the gift of thanks, not angst – not only this Thursday, as you celebrate Thanksgiving, but all year long. What are ideas that you have about how you can practice gratitude? What are ways in which you already do?

Please feel free to subscribe to this blog via e-mail, if you are interested; you will receive every new post delivered straight to your inbox.

For additional information about counseling and coaching resources for calm and confidence, visit scottburnskahler.com.

Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz Trailer 2

Lions, and Tigers, and Bears … Oh, My!

In The Wizard of Oz (1939), as Dorothy, Scarecrow, and Tin Man make their way along the yellow-brick road through a forest that Dorothy describes as “dark and creepy,” the three of them provide us with an example of catastrophizing, the kind of anxious thinking in which we assume the worst as the result of an experience that we interpret negatively.  I have included the dialogue, as well as a link to an excerpt from the film posted on YouTube, below.

Dorothy:  I don’t like this forest.  It’s … it’s dark and creepy!
Scarecrow:  Of course, I don’t know, but I think it’ll get darker before it gets lighter.
Dorothy:  Do … do you suppose we’ll meet any wild animals?
Tin Man:  Hmmm … we might.
Scarecrow:  Animals that … that eat straw?
Tin Man:  Some, but mostly lions and tigers and bears.
Dorothy:  Lions!
Scarecrow:  And tigers?
Tin Man:  And bears.
Dorothy:  Lions, and tigers, and bears … oh, my!
All:  Lions, and tigers, and bears …
Dorothy:  Oh, my!
All:  Lions, and tigers, and bears …
Dorothy:  Oh, my!
All:  Lions, and tigers, and bears …
Dorothy:  Oh, my!
All:  Lions, and tigers, and bears …
Dorothy:  Oh, my!

On YouTube: Dorothy Meets the Cowardly Lion (The Wizard of Oz, 1939)

In this scene, Dorothy worries that she and her friends will encounter wild animals as they travel through the forest that she doesn’t like; Scarecrow frets that the wild animals might have an appetite for straw.  In their increasingly frenetic verbal repetition of “lions, and tigers, and bears” — as they skip faster and faster down the road — Dorothy, Scarecrow, and Tin Man demonstrate the obsessive, self-reinforcing quality of anxious thinking.  Dorothy’s own anxious thinking proves almost too much for words; her catastrophizing gets summed up in her gasp of an exclamation,”Oh, my!”

What happens, then, when the trio’s fears come true, and a roaring lion bounds into view?  Once the lion turns from bullying Scarecrow and Tin Man and begins to chase a yapping Toto, Dorothy gives him a swat on the nose.  Courage!  Now, when Dorothy was consumed with her catastrophizing, just a few moments before, did she pause to think how she might handle such a situation, or even that she could?  If she had considered how she wanted to handle an encounter with a wild animal, that she could handle it, should it occur, I will venture that she might well have worried less, and experienced more calm and confidence as she, Scarecrow, Tin Man — and Toto, too — made their way through the forest, and down the yellow-brick road.

For those of us with a sense of social anxiety, shyness, or performance fears, catastrophizing often looks like assuming that an experience that we interpret negatively will have dire, unmanageable consequences.  I may fear, for instance, that if I can’t remember someone’s name at a party, I will be mortified, and then stammer, blush, or otherwise demonstrate my embarrassment, and that the other person will judge me as not only forgetful, but odd, and not want to talk to me; this person whose name I forgot might even tell other people at the party, including the hosts, what an awful, awkward experience she had with me!  I’ll never get invited to another party again!  Even if we don’t go to quite this extreme in our fantasies of fear, we are engaging in catastrophic thinking whenever we assume the worst will happen, and forget to ask ourselves “So what if that happens?” or “How would I like to respond to that, if it does occur?”  A cognitive-behavioral response to catastrophic thinking encourages us not only to question the likelihood of whatever worst-case scenario we are imagining — our own encounter with “lions, and tigers, and bears” — but to challenge the end-of-the-world import that we attribute to that scenario, and to find ways to respond to our fears that we will not be able to manage the experience.

What have been your own experiences of catastrophic thinking?  How have you learned to challenge this thinking?

If you’re interested in following this blog via e-mail, please feel free to subscribe.  If you have topics or questions that you would like to see featured, let me know!  If you’re interested in counseling or coaching resources for increased calm and confidence, visit scottburnskahler.com.

Young Man Thinking

Don’t Believe Everything You Think!

If you have ever been in the market for a new car, you might have noticed how, once you started thinking about what kind of car you wanted – what make, what color – you began to see that car everywhere you went.  Because the car was on your mind, you were inclined to see it, more apt to see it than you would have been otherwise.

If you worry about rejection, you might well experience a similar phenomenon.  When we have rejection on our minds, we also tend to see it, or at least the potential for it, everywhere.  And why wouldn’t we?  After all, we are trying to protect ourselves from what rejection means for us – loneliness, perhaps, or “proof” that our negative core beliefs, the declarations of our inner critic, are true.  However, the threat of rejection – in the form of other people thinking negatively of us, for instance – is something that we often interpret, and even overinterpret, into situations and what other people say and do.  We indulge in what cognitive-behavioral therapy calls mind reading.

In our context of social anxiety, shyness, and performance fears, we can talk about mind reading as another kind of anxious thinking (two weeks ago, we looked at personalization as our first example).  When we engage in mind reading, we make anxious assumptions not only about what other people are thinking, but that they are thinking negatively of us.

Let us say, for instance, that I am aware that I begin to sweat and blush when I feel nervous.  I may assume not only that others notice my physical responses, but that they view me as strange or weird as a result.  In making these assumptions, I am engaging in mind reading on two counts.  First, I am assuming that others can tell as clearly as I can that I am feeling nervous, which may not be true; then, I am assuming that others are judging me negatively, which may not be accurate, either.  In both cases, I am very likely overestimating the probability that my fears represent what others really have on their minds.  From a cognitive-behavioral perspective, probability overestimation is yet another kind of anxious thinking, one that often goes hand-in-hand with mind reading.  For many of us, the idea that we overestimate the likelihood of what we fear is both a relief and difficult to believe.  Don’t forget – we are trying to avoid the pain of what rejection means to us.  Why wouldn’t we overestimate the danger?  We think that doing so will keep us safer.

The trouble is that in being so vigilant against the threat of rejection, and seeing it everywhere, we actually set ourselves up for more frequent chances of having the very kinds of experiences that we want to avoid.  For example, if we speak too softly or avoid eye contact in social situations on account of our fears, others may “reject” us not because they are actually thinking negatively of us, but because they interpret us as not interested in them.

The good news is … we do not have to believe everything that we think!  Our perception of rejection, or its potential, is open to challenge.  We can approach our thoughts like a purchase we have made; if one doesn’t work for us, we can take it back!

To the extent that you feel comfortable sharing, what have been your own experiences of mind reading?  How do you keep yourself from believing the negative things that you imagine others are thinking about you?

I will be continuing to write about kinds of anxious thinking in the coming weeks.  If you are interested in following this blog, you can do so via e-mail; please feel free to subscribe!

For more information and resources, visit scottburnskahler.com.

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