Sir Ken Robinson, the author of The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything, describes the difference between being seen as a loner and being seen as a philosopher, pointing out that perspective makes all the difference. And yet, perspective isn’t solely relegated to how others perceive us; it’s mired heavily in how we see ourselves and the behavior that results. Similarly, Eileen Bailey and Michael G. Wetter, authors of What Went Right: Reframe Your Thinking for a Happier Now, tell us that what we often focus on is not what events went well, but rather, what isn’t working or hasn’t worked in the past.
We may feel that because we didn’t get the job we interviewed for, we will never get a job, or that because our friend hasn’t yet arrived for dinner, none of our friends like us. We can focus on one negative event and allow it to color our perception of everything in our lives. We can let our emotions regulate our thinking to the point where anytime we feel nervous, we are certain we will be fired, abandoned, or rejected. We can also jump to conclusions the minute something doesn’t go well and instantly spiral into a catastrophic — if unlikely — version of our lives. All of these ways of thinking and acting are examples of the many problematic thought patterns that contribute to an unhealthy self-image.
Bailey and Wetter tell us that self-image, which weighs heavily on our self-esteem, is what we reflect back to ourselves about ourselves, and often determines our life path. If we find ourselves apologizing often, seeing the glass as half-empty, having difficulty forgiving and forgetting, criticizing ourselves frequently, or worrying constantly, we could be struggling with low self-esteem. We could also be trying to compensate for negative early experiences by constantly seeking the approval and affection of others.
Correcting self-esteem, the authors contend, begins with restructuring our thoughts, and the internal perceptions we hold. They write, “Your experiences in life influence your feelings and opinions, which in turn influence your thoughts. Sometimes we develop subjective bias when we automatically respond to new situations based on only our feelings and opinions and resist or ignore new information that might change our thinking.” For example, we may not try something new because we have already cataloged everything that could possibly go wrong. Catastrophizing like this means we are overestimating what will happen and underestimating our ability to cope.
But we can also have thought patterns that affect our happiness. Basing self-esteem solely on achievements, which is a form of all-or-nothing thinking, constantly pits our accomplishments against an unreachable standard. When we fall short, we feel like a failure. Thinking that we should or must do things is another way of sidelining self-esteem. Like with perfectionism, we live by unrealistic standards that dictate how we feel about ourselves.
For each of the problematic thought patterns Bailey and Wetter cover, they also offer several useful exercises, challenges, and tips. To break the cycle of mental filtering, for example, they suggest paying attention to everything that goes on around us and keeping track of not just the negatives, but the positives as well. In moving past personalization and blame, the authors advocate looking at situations as a way to grow and learn rather than to blame or take responsibility.
Bailey and Wetter provide the overarching theme of incorporating logic, balanced thinking, and self-monitoring to become more aware and more in control of our thoughts. From there, we can redefine ourselves by becoming more clear on our values, practicing mindfulness, exercising and eating right, taking time for ourselves, finding a passion, creating a support group, and setting goals. Yet here, Bailey and Wetter are careful not to overpromise. They write, “Changing your thinking is hard. But the simple fact is that if you want to be good at something, you must practice.”
When we ask ourselves questions such as, How did I handle what happened today? Was my thinking process healthy or unhealthy? Would I have changed how I responded? we can become more mindful of ourselves, the way we live our lives, and the resulting effect on our self-esteem. But perhaps the most important question we should be asking, the authors intimate, is What went right?
While not peppered with research, What Went Right offers the solid evidence based approach of cognitive behavioral therapy and moves past the theoretical to the practical, providing numerous strategies to demonstrate that when it come to our own perspective, we are in the driver’s seat.
What Went Right: Reframe Your Thinking for a Happier Now
Hazelden Publishing, August 2016
Paperback, 200 Pages