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October 15, 2014

Entrenched Resistance: Ineffective Thought Patterns

There is an old saying in the field of psychology: If something happens once, it is an incident; if it happens twice, it is a coincidence; if it happens three times, it’s a pattern. Many people go through life wondering why the same unwanted things keep happening to them. What psychologists know from many years of studying human thought process is that human beings are capable of continually applying ineffective patterns of thinking without realizing they are doing so. The thought patterns are so overlearned that they become schemas, or filters through which we view the world and interpret the things that happen to us. Most people believe that their patterns of thinking are simply the “truth” of how the world operates. The problem is that when you apply the same ineffective patterns of thinking over and over again, it is like playing the game of life with the wrong rules. You never come out the winner.

We remain entrenched in thought patterns that aren’t working and that create resistance to future goals for several reasons. One reason is that we may have been taught to think unproductive thoughts by other people, such as our parents, who were also thinking ineffectively. In essence, incorrect thinking can be passed on from one generation to the next. Another reason is that thought patterns may be reinforced by other people who share the same patterns of thought within our family or culture. In other words, when you think a certain way, other people around you may agree with you and tell you that your way of thinking is correct. For example, some cultures teach people that they should not say no to others. If never saying no works, then there is nothing wrong with thinking that way, but if it is causing you distress, then holding on to that pattern of thought is ineffective at best and destructive at worst.

Many recurring negative emotions are the result of an ineffective thought pattern. Disappointment, anger, resentment, and deep hurt often stem from viewing the world and other people through a distorted lens. You find yourself constantly trying to make the world fit your way of thinking, which leads to endless frustration, because you don’t recognize that your way of thinking is not necessarily an accurate view of how the world works.

Becoming aware of ineffective thought patterns is essential to changing how you think about the future. As you begin to recognize your thought patterns, you will begin to shift your view of who you are in the world and where the power over your life lies. Initially, some people are resistant to letting go of their old patterns of thinking because admitting how they’ve always thought might not be entirely correct can feel very threatening. Below is a discussion of several common patterns of ineffective thinking; as you review them, keep an open mind and remember that the purpose of identifying these patterns is to free you from a way of thinking that is keeping you from developing a better future.

I Should Be Somewhere Else

You can only be where you are. Many people waste endless energy and thoughts making themselves unhappy by believing that they should be somewhere other than where they are: I should have gone to school; I should have a fancy car and house by now; I should be married with kids at this age; I should be thinner. This belief that you should be somewhere else generally stems from comparing yourself to other people — seeing where they are and believing that somehow you should be there too. This is an ineffective thought pattern because comparing yourself to someone else does not take into account the fact that you have had completely different life experiences. Even if you had exactly the same life experiences as someone else (which isn’t possible), you were born with different genetic makeups and, therefore, would have different responses to events in your lives. Essentially, people do not all come out of the same starting gate; therefore, head-to-head competition with others does not make sense. It only keeps you from taking credit for what you have achieved based on your own set of circumstances.

Your life experience is your own. Everything is as it should be based on what you have learned and what you were given in life in terms of biology and experiences. If you really could be somewhere else, don’t you think you would be? At any given moment, given our circumstances, we make the best choices we can about what we believe will help us thrive. Even when you know in advance that you will regret a choice, at the time it feels like the thing to do; otherwise, you wouldn’t choose to do it. If you were in a position to overcome your fear or access the power inside you and make a choice that you knew in the long run was better for you, you would. The truth is that you don’t do it because you simply aren’t there yet.

Keep in mind that you can only look back because of how far you’ve come. The fact that you have enough insight to recognize an alternative shows that you have already grown beyond where you were at the time you made your decision. I will say it again: wherever you are in your journey of becoming who you want to be is simply where you are. This observation isn’t an excuse to maintain the status quo; rather, the goal is to always keep reaching forward to close the gap between where you are and where you want to be. Doing so is the very definition of thriving. But do realize that getting to where you want to be is a process, and beating yourself up because you’re not there already is a waste of precious resources. Instead, ask yourself what you can learn from the situations in the past or present that may bring you closer to what you are hoping for in the future. If your life is not what you want it to be, there are still so many things for you to achieve, and you are in the process of learning how to obtain more of what you desire. Accepting that where you are is the only place you can be at the moment will allow you to spend more of your energy and thoughts on where you are going.

I Can’t Be Happy until My Environment and the People in It Change

Your happiness is determined by what you think. As we’ve seen, our emotions are determined by what we think and believe. Allowing your emotions to fluctuate with the events of the environment is referred to as regulating to the external. Most people do not consciously attend to their thought process, so they allow their emotional states to fluctuate based on whatever is going on. As a result, they often believe that what is happening outside them is causing them to feel a certain way. In fact, you have the power to maintain any emotional state you choose, regardless of what is happening outside you, by changing how you think about the situation. If you find yourself thinking that something in your environment must change in order for you to feel happy, take a step back and see if you can instead change how you are thinking about the situation.

Having a preference for one environment over the other does not mean your environment is determining your emotions. You can prefer sunny days but still be happy when it rains. Remember that formulating preferences is a normal part of how we function and helps us determine what we want. As you will learn in chapter 7, however, knowing that your emotional well-being is not dependent on realizing every preference gives you much more control over your life.

One of the most common areas in which people regulate to the external is in their relationships with others. If you presume that how you feel is dependent on how other people behave, you have relinquished all control over your well-being to people over whom you have no control. And yet we do this all the time. Here are some examples of this type of thinking:

  • If my sister apologized to me I would stop being angry.
  • If my husband would just be more romantic I would feel more content in the relationship.
  • If my kids would pick better friends I could stop worrying about them all the time.
  • If my neighbors would stop playing their music so loudly I wouldn’t have to get so upset.
  • If my friend would call me more often I would feel happier, because then I would know she values my friendship.

Believing that your happiness depends on someone else almost always results in frustration and unhappiness. If you have to wait for other people to change before you can be happy, you ride the wave of other people’s whims. Additionally, you may generate resentment from others who do not feel it is their job to please you.

What Other People Think Is More Important Than My Own Opinion

Your opinion of you matters most. We all love validation. When someone pays us a compliment, it feels great. When someone apologizes, it feels good, because it validates our perspective. We were right, he was wrong, and he has agreed to accept our view. Because it feels so good to be validated by other people, other people’s opinions of us often become more important than the opinions we have of ourselves. However, trying to make everyone else happy by changing who you are or what you do is a losing battle. You will eventually run into those who can’t be pleased, or you will find that pleasing one person ends up displeasing someone else.

What matters most is that you learn to value your own opinion of who you are and what you do. This is not the same as being narcissistic. Narcissism stems from underlying insecurity and often involves seeing oneself as better than others. Liking who you are means that you assign yourself and others equal value; it doesn’t mean that you disrespect or devalue someone else.

When you value yourself, you do not spend your time trying to become what someone else wants you to be but rather what you want to be. We are all born with an internal instinct that tells us when what we are doing is in our own best interests. If you listen, this instinct will guide you. If you grew up in an invalidating environment in which you learned to doubt yourself and your inner voice, you may have to work a bit harder to tune back in to it. However, your internal instinct, which points you in the direction of thriving, is always present.

You might find yourself in situations that have an inherent power difference, such as an employer-employee relationship in which your boss’s opinion of you does matter if you want to keep your job. But this does not mean that your boss’s opinion is more important than yours. Your boss may tell you that you are a worthless human being every day, but that doesn’t make it so. That is his or her opinion, and you are choosing to endure that opinion so that you can keep your job and earn an income. In other words, while other people’s approval may provide us with the opportunity to obtain something we want, that doesn’t mean their opinion is inherently more valuable than our opinion of ourselves.

Valuing yourself as central to the process of creating your future is about recognizing a very simple premise — that your experience in the world starts with you. We’ve discussed the concept of a self-fulfilling prophecy; when you feel good about who you are, you will create a self-fulfilling prophecy of success, since your beliefs and actions will generate experiences that you feel good about. When you do what is truly right for you and take care of yourself, the people who care about you will be happy for you. Those who only care about what you do to make them happy are probably not worth having around.

From the book Think Forward to Thrive. Copyright © 2014 by Jennice Vilhauer, PhD. Reprinted with permission from New World Library. www.NewWorldLibrary.com

About the author

Jennice-S.-Vilhauer

Jennice S. Vilhauer, PhD is the Director of the Outpatient Psychotherapy Program at the Emory Clinic. Dr. Vilhauer specializes in the use of cognitive therapies for the treatment of adult psychiatric disorders. She has dual subspecialties in women’s issues and health psychology.

Dr. Vilhauer received her undergraduate degree in psychology at UCLA and her doctorate degree at Fordham University in New York City, and she completed her postdoctoral training in clinical research at Columbia University.

To know more about Dr. Vilhauer, visit her website www.futuredirectedtherapy.com.




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