How do you talk to yourself? When you wake up in the morning, when you look at yourself in the mirror, during a workout — what kind of things are you saying? Would you say those things out loud or to a friend? If the answer is no, it's time to reevaluate. Negative self-talk and thoughts can actually create a massive roadblock in your wellness journey, sabotaging your goals.
We talked to bestselling author of Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy, acclaimed psychiatrist Dr. David Burns, MD, who is an expert at addressing and treating these negative thoughts, known as cognitive distortions.
"All of our feelings, positive and negative, do not result from what happens to us, or how smart or gorgeous or loved we are, but rather from our thoughts — the positive and negative messages we give ourselves, the ways we interpret things," said Dr. Burns. "Distorted negative thoughts cause unhealthy negative feelings, such as depression, anxiety, inferiority, loneliness, frustration, and anger, to name just a few." Can they get in the way of your fitness and health goals? "Absolutely!" he said.
Have you been nitpicking at parts or all of your body, striving toward some kind of unrealistic expectation? "One of the mindsets I sometimes encounter is called 'physical perfectionism,' where you believe your body has to be perfect in order to feel happy and lovable," said Burns. "So you may focus on some physical defect or flaw, like thinking your thighs are too heavy or you're too short or your breasts are not big enough or whatever. This is often combined with the belief that others judge you as harshly as you judge yourself."
"Distorted thoughts are enormous barriers to joy and meaningful, loving relationships."
Dr. Burns described his treatment of a woman with a very severe case of this cognitive distortion as it relates to body image, known as Body Dysmorphic Disorder, and how he helped her "recover completely after half a dozen therapy sessions" by identifying the categories of distorted thoughts and challenging them.
"She was a beautiful and talented electrical engineer who became severely depressed and anxious after she got a gash on her nose during a minor earthquake," he told POPSUGAR. "Although the wound healed beautifully and the scar was virtually invisible, she became convinced she had an ugly scar on her nose and that anybody who saw her would be immediately disgusted . . . she rebuffed her husband's attempts and her parents' attempts to reassure her that she was still beautiful."
Sounds awful, right? But it may be happening to you, too. How does this happen? Distorted thinking! The thing is, there isn't just one type of distorted thoughts. These sneaky, damaging, self-sabotaging thoughts come in tons of forms. Dr. Burns listed some of the many distortions in this type of thinking — he goes in depth with each of these in his book, Feeling Good.
- Mental Filtering: "Thinking only about this or that flaw or error you might have made and overlooking all the positives in your life." Maybe you had a great yoga class but you fell out of your Half Moon Pose for a moment, and you only focused on that moment, discounting your awesome Tripod Headstand!
- Discounting the Positive: "Insisting that your good qualities or the positive comments of others don't count or aren't genuine." Example: your friend tells you how beautiful you are, but you think she's just being nice.
- All-or-Nothing Thinking: "Telling yourself that if you're not 100 percent, you're zero percent, as if shades of gray do not exist." Do you ever think if you're not the fastest runner in the race you shouldn't even run?
- Overgeneralization:" Generalizing from some flaw or shortcoming to your entire self, which you think is worthless or inferior." Maybe you think because you're not able to lift 30-pound weights, you're not strong and shouldn't even try to work out. Not OK!
- Emotional Reasoning: "I feel ugly, therefore I must be ugly!" Sound familiar? Your feelings don't always reflect reality.
- Should Statements: "Thinking: 'I should not have any flaws; I should be perfect; or I should be better than I am.'" Stop using "should" and start believing in how great you are!
- Magnification and Minimization: "Blowing your flaws out of proportion and minimizing your good qualities." Maybe you have a tiny bit of cellulite on your legs, but superstrong, lean arms — but you focus on the cellulite and think your badass arms are NBD. Check yourself!
- Mind-Reading: "Assuming you know that others are judging you and are turned off by your appearance." Example: "That girl in the gym looked at me funny, she thinks I'm fat." Um, hello? Did you talk to this girl? She's probably just having a bad day. Maybe she's even jealous of your outfit. Bottom line: you don't know!
- Blame: "Blaming your unhappiness and lack of self-esteem on some flaw or shortcoming." Have you ever thought you were depressed or had bad self-esteem because of your weight, thinking "If I just lose 5 pounds, I'll be happy!"? This is wrong.
Do any . . . or all of these . . . sound familiar? Can you identify with these categories of thoughts? Fill in the blanks with what you've been saying to yourself or thinking over the past week or so, and see what patterns you fall into. Oftentimes, your thoughts aren't rooted in reality. "I have treated many gorgeous and highly successful men and women who were incredibly depressed, anxious, and lonely because of their distorted thoughts about themselves and others, which were enormous barriers to joy and meaningful, loving relationships with others," said Burns. Don't let that be you!
Once you start getting in a habit of assessing your thoughts and placing them into these categories, you'll have a better handle on reality and a better ability to generate positive feelings. Start a journal — keep notes of your thoughts and start treating yourself better so you can live your happiest, healthiest life.
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