As we have discussed, emotions are useful, but they do not always fit the facts. Our emotions are closely related to our thoughts and interpretations, which are often non-factual and prone to bias. Therefore, whenever we feel a strong emotion, we need to check out whether our thoughts and interpretations are accurate. In some cases, simply changing your view of a situation to be more in line with reality can have a significant effect on how you feel.
Our thoughts and emotions influence each other in a back-and-forth manner. For example, say someone cuts you off in traffic. If you think “what an idiot, they don’t care about anyone else”, you’re likely to feel angry. Now that you’re feeling angry, you might also interpret other drivers’ behaviour as reckless, which makes you even angrier. In general, angry thoughts lead to angry feelings, and vice versa. However, what if the original driver that cut you off had not intended to do this and had not seen you? If you’d interpreted the event this way, chances are your anger would have been less intense.
Unhelpful thinking styles
So, how do we check if our thoughts and interpretations fit the facts? It seems obvious, but the first step is to know what your thoughts are and to identify any unhelpful thinking styles you may have. Using the mindfulness skills from last week to observe your thoughts will help you get better at identifying what goes through your mind. In Week 1, we discussed some unhelpful thinking styles that are associated with anger. The problem with these thinking styles is that they are inflexible and often result in biased interpretations, which feed intense emotions.
Let’s look at some example thoughts for each of these unhelpful thinking styles:
Taking things personally
- “It’s my fault”, “he/she is blaming me”, “they’re having a go at me”, “they think I messed up”
Ignoring the positives
- “Everything has gone wrong”, “things will never get better”, “they never listen to me”, “I don’t matter to him/her”
- “People should know what I need”, “I should always get what I want”, “I should never be disappointed”, “they/I should never be late”
Black and white thinking
- “He/she always does things wrong”, “I’m such a failure”, “this should never have happened”, “he/she is a bad person”, “my life is just so unfair”
- “Why is this happening to me?”, “what have I done to deserve this?”, “what’s wrong with me/him/her?”
Jumping to conclusions
- “He/she just likes to get under my skin”, “he/she knew that would upset me”, “he/she will betray me in the end”, “he/she doesn’t care about my feelings”, “I’ll fail my exam”
Once you know what you’re thinking and whether you’re falling into an unhelpful thinking style, you are then able to check your thoughts/interpretations against the facts. Take note, when you feel a strong emotion, you are particularly vulnerable to falling into one of these unhelpful thinking styles. Recall a time when you were really angry – were you able to think clearly, understand all perspectives, and have empathy towards those with different opinions? The chances are you found this hard.
How to check the facts:
Here, we go through the process step-by-step for checking the facts when anger shows up. Follow these steps as soon as you notice your early warning signs for anger.
Step 1. Notice and name when you are feeling angry (mindfully observe and describe your anger). Try to pick up on this as early as possible before the anger becomes overwhelming.
E.g., Sinead notices a strong feeling of anger coming on. She feels hot in her cheeks, her palms become sweaty, and her muscles tighten. She also notices a flood of highly critical thoughts and the urge to become aggressive towards her husband.
Step 2. Describe the situation or event that prompted your anger. What was the trigger? Where were you and what was happening at the time your anger showed up? The event can be internal (e.g., ruminating on the past) or external (e.g., someone saying something to you).
E.g., Sinead describes her situation as follows. She was sitting at home after spending hours preparing a nice meal for her husband. It is their wedding anniversary and they had arranged to celebrate over dinner at 7:00pm. It is now 7:45pm and Sinead’s husband is still not home.
Step 3. Identify your thoughts, interpretations, judgements and assumptions about the situation or event. What is your mind telling you about what happened? Notice the language you are using to describe things here and watch out for judgemental and critical language.
E.g., Sinead interprets the situation as though her husband doesn’t care about their anniversary. She assumes he is not rushing to make it home on time and that he will be unapologetic when he arrives. She has thoughts like “I bet he’s forgotten about our plans”, “he’s always late, I’m not important to him”, “he’s so selfish, he treats me so badly”, and “why did this have to happen today?”. Sinead dwells on the unfairness of the situation as she sits and waits.
Step 4. Identify whether you are falling into an unhelpful thinking style. Refer to the unhelpful thinking styles above and see which ones your thoughts fit into. Are you personalising things or ignoring the positives? Are you holding on to unrealistic expectations? This should give you an idea of where bias might be creeping in.
E.g., Sinead identifies that she is getting caught in several unhelpful thinking styles. Sinead is jumping to conclusions about her husband’s intentions. She is also making predictions about what will happen when he gets home. She’s thinking in black and white terms and ignoring all the times her husband has shown care or arrived on time. Lastly, she is overthinking by dwelling on ‘why’ questions, which is just fuelling her anger.
Step 5. Look for the facts and leave the rest aside. Put aside things that can’t be proven (i.e., predictions, assumptions, subjective beliefs) and instead focus on the facts of the situation. Facts are objective pieces of information that cannot be disputed. Also look for evidence from the past and alternative interpretations to support or refute your thoughts.
E.g., Sinead lists the facts of the situation. She does not know why her husband is late. It is possible he is stuck in traffic and has a flat phone battery. Although her husband does have a tendency to be late, he usually has a valid reason and calls to let her know. Sinead can also list several examples of when her husband has been on time and he is often very caring towards her.
Step 6. Come up with a more balanced perspective. Consider alternative views and explanations.
E.g., Sinead comes up with a more balanced view of the situation. She concludes that there is probably a good reason for husband being late. Her anger turns to concern when she realises it is unlike him not to have called. The facts also remind Sinead that her husband does care about her, even if he does have some issues with time management. Sinead still feels frustrated by the situation, but she is no longer fuming and ready to attack her husband the moment he walks through the door.
Step 7. Think about how you can manage this situation most effectively. Use Wise Mind to find a course of action that fits with your goals and values and will not make things worse.
E.g., Sinead decides to soothe/distract herself by watching her favourite TV show with a cup of tea. Her husband arrives not long after – it turns out he was late because he had gone to get her an anniversary gift and had to go across town to find it. Sinead decided to enjoy what was left of their anniversary together and planned to assertively raise the topic of being on time with him the next day.