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Damaging Thought Patterns

In addition to the right/wrong paradigm of thinking, there are many other patterns or irrational belief systems that we fall into - and being educated" is no safeguard against such unhealthy thinking. In fact, our schools and work environments actually encourage many of these damaging and futile patterns. For instance, those of us who learn to strive for perfection know the drill on this one: no matter how hard we try, we are never good enough.

Consider the following common, dysfunctional thought patterns to find your familiar ones:

Unrealistic expectations. This is the mode of thinking at which perfectionists excel. They take on too much, then berate themselves when they can't accomplish it all perfectly. Their external speech is filled with "Absolutely," and "I must" and "You have to." Their internal speech (self-talk) is filled with fear and worry and self-hating. Perfectionists will not accept second prize. They will not abide the compassionate maxim "just doing the best I can" - because "best" for the perfectionist is translated into a completely unrealistic standard, set higher than any god could achieve! They are hard on themselves and hard on others. If life doesn't conform to their expectations, they just push harder.

Jumping to conclusions. Many folks follow this pattern to think themselves into deeper and deeper levels of suffering. They assume that they know the end of the story when they are only on chapter 2 - and in their own cases, the story will usually have an unhappy ending. They tell themselves, even before they ask, that people will say no to their requests. They make up scenarios in which they will get left with the short stick, no matter what the issue is. When the phone rings, they assume it is someone calling to berate them. When the phone doesn't ring, they assume it is because people don't like them.

Catastrophizing, a variation on jumping to conclusions, happens when we make a mountain from a molehill. When my spouse is late from work, I automatically visualize an accident on the highway. When I notice a sore throat, I think immediately of cancer. Can you see how much unnecessary pain we carry around?

Taking it personally. While all of these hurtful patterns are forms of self-obsessive thinking - reflecting a core belief that "Everything is about me!" - this one takes it to the extreme. It assumes that the weather, the traffic, the crowds, the price of tea in China . . . is all either aimed at me, or my fault, in one way or another. If there is a traffic jam, my irrational belief system offers one question: "Why is this happening to me?" "Everything conspires to make my life miserable!" "If my daughter isn't invited to the school dance, it must be because of something I've done wrong!"

Equating feelings with facts. Here we take our emotional state and give it a life of its own. If I feel dull, it means I am dull. If I feel sad, it means I'm hopeless. If I feel confused, it means I'm not a good person.

These are just a few of the ways in which negative thought patterns show up, and we each have our own unique ones. Regina knows her "tapes" about needing to be good at all costs, as John knows his about justifying his existence by constantly having to prove his worth. The important thing is to learn to recognize our own patterns, or "tapes," ideally before they sink their teeth into our guts; then, to take a step back from them, to reject identification with these unhealthy judgments. Finally, we need to keep choosing to live mindfully and heartfully in the reality of what is, rather than in the self-created pain of our illusions.

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