5 Things You Need to Stop Telling Yourself if You Want to Improve Your Mental Health
Your brain is an editor. One of its tasks is to choose how to narrate the story of what happens to you every day. It determines how every conversation and calamity fit in with your own life saga. How your brain interprets that fight with your partner or that failed job interview ultimately determines whether these events will cause negative emotions and self-defeating thoughts.
When you feel anxious or stressed out, your editorial brain is tempted to cut corners for self-preservation. One such shortcut is the “must” filter. Musts are beliefs that we have about how the world should work and how we should behave in it. They are nice little boxes into which your brain tries to cram every event, but the reality is that these “musts” tend to not be accurate or rational. They ignore the complexities of the human experience for black and white truths. Here are a few common “musts” to watch out for when you start to worry. Stop telling yourself these five musts and see the changes it can bring to your mental health.
1. I must be loved by everyone at all times.
Many self-defeating thoughts and behaviors stem from the expectation of total and unconditional acceptance. Though it is incredibly human to want to be accepted, loved, and praised, when you are constantly adjusting your actions and reactions to achieve this desire, you start to lose your sense of self. You become a chameleon, quickly changing to suit others’ perceptions. You can’t remember what’s important to you because your focus is on everyone else. You equate self-worth with Facebook likes or pats on the back.
The reality is that you can never make everyone happy all the time. This “must” is as dangerous as it is irrational. Instead, try focusing on your own values. What actions create self-respect? How can you be kind to others rather than simply seeking out their love? What recognition from your peers is practical, and what is just vanity?
2. I must be successful at everything.
Setting yourself up for every behavior to be perfect can inspire fear and anxiety. You’re also more likely to procrastinate when your expectations for yourself are impossible. Often the most successful people have failed numerous times and embraced their flaws. Rather than being paralyzed by perfectionism, consider how your life can be full in spite of and because of your limitations.
To fight this “must,” be careful not to make generalizations when you do fail. Not getting that job interview does not imply you will never find employment. Getting stood up on a date does not mean you’ll be forever alone with 70 cats. When your brain begins to shift into autopilot with words like “always” and “never,” then you know you’re in irrational territory.
3. I must be upset by things I fear.
Today’s world makes it easy to endlessly obsess over your worries, especially with 24-hour news networks and social media. You get caught in the loop, assuming that the second you let your guard down or focus your mind on something else, you’re putting yourself in danger. Obsessing, however, is not the same as examining. Often when you examine the nature and reality of your fears, you’ll find that you can either face them or accept their inevitability. Acceptance doesn’t mean surrender—it just means focusing on what you can control rather than what you can’t. You can’t stop the inevitable heat death of the universe, but you can recycle your trash.
4. I must avoid all conflict.
Cutting off or distancing yourself from people who are difficult can seem like the safest solution. Anxiety goes down, and we can dodge those unpleasant and messy emotions. But this escape act is only a temporary fix. You’ll experience more emotional reactivity and self-defeating dialogue within yourself when you always choose the quickest exit.
In life, we will all encounter people with whom we have conflict. There will be disagreements, and misunderstandings, and stress about communicating. Facing conflict head on by seeking to understand can seem impossible at first. But communication is a muscle that must be flexed to achieve a calmer and ultimately happier existence. The better you become at being thoughtful and articulate in times of uncertainty and stress, the less that interpersonal drama will bother you in the long run.
5. I must have control over everything.
Feeling a strong sense of control over what happens to you isn’t an unhealthy trait. In fact, people who have more of an internal sense of control are likely to be more resilient during life’s challenges. However, when this expectation extends to all events and situations, it becomes a dangerous “must.”
Much of what happens to you in life is because of sheer chance. We can’t make 100% accurate predictions, but that doesn’t mean we should crawl back into bed and hide from the world. Instead, consider how you can still enjoy life and be resilient despite the roll of the dice. You’ll recover more quickly from negative events, and you’ll experience less self-blame and guilt.
Challenging your brain’s editorial process starts with a simple examination. Practice writing down your thoughts and expectations about a situation, and consider which of these “musts” applies. Ironically, it’s the acceptance of uncomfortable and uncontrollable moments that gives you more power over your emotions and reactions. When you embrace the nuances of your humanness and the world around you, it’s amazing how much more fascinating life becomes.
Kathleen Smith, PhD