#5: Cognitive Restructuring

by Nick Wignall

Do you ever feel like your emotions are all over the place? Like your moods ping-pong around erratically and unpredictably?

If so, you probably wish you could feel a little less at the mercy of external events — able to stay cool and keep your calm no matter what was happening.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with feeling any emotion. And it’s normal for our emotions to fluctuate. But some people are able to control their emotional reactions better than others.

And while there are many reasons for this — from genetics and upbringing to how much sleep you got last night —here’s what matters most:

The ability to be strong in the face of difficult emotions often comes down to better habits and skills.

What follows are 7 skills you can learn that will help you to become more emotionally strong.

1. Metacognition

Metacognition means thinking about your thinking.

More specifically, it’s the ability to be aware of and assess what’s going on in your own mind — thoughts, emotions, beliefs, moods, expectations, self-talk, etc.

Most of the time our minds are on autopilot — stuff happens and we react:

  • Your spouse gives you a nasty look, so you fire back with a nasty comment.
  • Your boss sends a passive-aggressive email you don’t know how to respond to, so you distract yourself in Facebook.
  • A painful old memory pops into your mind and you end up lost in ruminations and regret.

The more you ignore your own mind, the more your behaviors become reactions rather than choices.

And this leads to a lot of emotional volatility and stress:

  • If your default self-talk is to catastrophize negative events and go straight to the worst-case scenario, you’re going to feel pretty anxious all the time.
  • If your default response to criticism is to criticize back, you’re going to find yourself pretty frustrated and angry all the time.
  • If your default interpretation of negative events is to criticize yourselfand internalize things, you’re going to end up with a lot of shame and fake guilt.

On the other hand, if you can learn to pause and observe what’s happening in your mind, you give yourself the opportunity to act intentionally and purposefully.

Stop trying to control your emotions and learn to be curious about them instead.

“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

Viktor Frankl

2. Attention Shifting

Most people spend their time thinking about whatever grabs their attention.

Whether it’s doomscrolling social media or fantasizing about a new car, our minds are easily pulled from one thing to the next, often with very little deliberation on our part.

Here’s the problem with that:

The contents of your thoughts determine the contents of your moods.

Think about it:

  • If you’re always worried about the future, you’re going to feel pretty anxious.
  • If you’re always dwelling on past mistakes, you’re going to feel pretty ashamed.
  • If you’re always ruminating on how you’ve been wronged, you’re going to feel pretty angry.

If you want to change how emotional you feel, you’ve got to change what you spend your time thinking about.

Unfortunately, this can be tough:

  • When you’re caught in a worry spiral, it can be difficult to refocus your mind on your work.
  • When you’re stuck ruminating on some slight against you, it’s hard to be present with the person sitting next to you.
  • When you’re trapped in obsessing about how you feel, it’s hard to take action on the things you know will make you feel better.

To free yourself from unhelpful thinking patterns—and the painful feelings they produce—you must learn to control your attention.

But here’s the thing: Your ability to control your attention is a muscle. And if you don’t exercise it, it will remain weak. This means your mood and emotions will be at the mercy of whatever comes to mind.

Mindfulness meditation is a great place to start.

“The present moment is filled with joy and happiness. If you are attentive, you will see it.”
Thich Nhat Hanh

3. Self-Compassion

Self-compassion is a somewhat technical-sounding term for a very simple idea:

When you’re struggling, treat yourself like you would treat a good friend.

Most of us have this strange habit of beating ourselves up and being overly self-critical anytime we make a mistake. This is especially ironic since, at the same time, we’re usually incredibly compassionate and understanding when other people make mistakes!

Unfortunately, most of us learned growing up that the “secret” to success and happiness in life is to be hard on yourself. Like the tough drill sergeant yelling at his new recruits, we mistakenly learn that being tough on ourselves prevents failures. Except, that’s not really true…

Most people succeed despite their self-judgment, not because of it.

And in fact, most people could be both far more effective and far happier if they stopped beating themselves up for every failure or misstep.

Because when you beat yourself up for making a mistake, you only add more painful emotion and stress onto the original frustration or sadness that goes along with making mistakes.

If you want to avoid these spikes and spirals of painful emotion, learn to practice self-compassion instead of self-judgment.

“This is a moment of suffering. Suffering is part of life. May I be kind to myself in this moment. May I give myself the compassion I need.”
Kristin Neff

4. Emotional Tolerance

Much of emotional strength involves learning better ways to respond to difficult emotions and moods so that they don’t explode out of control.

But the initial difficult feelings are often inevitable:

  • No matter how self-compassionate you are, making mistakes still stings and will likely lead to some amount of guilt or shame.
  • No matter self-aware you are of your painful emotions, they will still hurt when they show up unannounced.
  • No matter how good you are at managing your attention, you will still get stuck in worry from time to time and that will lead to anxiety.

All of which means…

You have to be able to get on with life despite feeling bad.

Just like a runner needs to be able to keep running despite feeling tired if they want to finish the race, you need to be able to live your life despite feeling difficult emotions.

Because really, what’s the alternative?

You can’t wait around to do important things with your life until you feel perfect. That’s a recipe for chronic procrastination and regret.

But doing even small things when we feel bad emotionally is tough, no doubt about it. The trick is to build up your emotional tolerance.

The only way runners are able to keep going for so long even though they’re tired and in pain is because they’ve built up their tolerance and strength. They started with running a couple miles until they got stronger, then worked up to 5 miles as they got stronger, then 10, and on and on.

Well, emotional tolerance works the same way…

You have to practice feeling bad if you want to get better at feeling bad and getting on with your life anyway.

So, the next time a difficult emotion hits you, instead of asking How can I not feel so bad? ask yourself this: How can I use this as an opportunity to improve my emotional tolerance?

“The man who moves a mountain begins by carrying away small stones.”
Confucius

5. Cognitive Restructuring

How we think determines how we feel emotionally. And a huge part of how we think comes down to self-talk — that running narrator in our head.

This means that if you want to get better at dealing with difficult moods and emotions, learning to deal with your self-talk is key.

Unfortunately, many of us grow up internalizing an extremely negative and pessimistic style of self-talk:

  • The minute something bad happens, you catastrophize: “Oh my God, it’s all over now…”
  • As soon as you make a mistake, you generalize it into a core character defect: “I’m such an idiot!”
  • Whenever someone looks at you sideways, you interpret malice: “She’s always so judgmental!”

The problem with this overly negative self-talk is that it creates self-fulfilling prophecies…

When you’re constantly telling yourself how bad everything is, everything starts feeling pretty bad.

The way out of this dilemma is to retrain your self-talk to be more realistic and accurate. And a powerful technique for doing this mental retraining is called Cognitive Restructuring.

In short, it means learning to:

  1. Identify your negative self-talk and what triggers it.
  2. Observe the connection between how you think and how you feel.
  3. Generate alternative ways of interpreting what happens to you in more realistic terms.
  4. Paying attention to the emotional and behavioral benefits that go along with these alternative stories.

If you’re interested in learning more about how to use cognitive restructuring to retrain negative self-talk, you can read this guide: Cognitive Restructuring: The Complete Guide to Changing Negative Thinking

“Words matter. And the words that matter most are the ones you say to yourself.”
David Taylor-Klaus

6. Assertiveness

Most people hear the term assertive and they think rude or pushy. But in reality, assertive communication isn’t rude or pushy at all.

Assertiveness is the healthy middle ground between passive communication and aggressive communication:

  • Aggressive communication means not respecting the wants and needs of other people (manipulation, for example).
  • Passive communication is when you don’t respect your own wants and needs (being a “pushover.”)
  • Assertive communication is when you honestly express your own wants and needs, but you do it in a way that’s respectful of others as well.

Why does this matter for emotional strength and managing difficult moods?

Here’s the deal:

When you habitually avoid external conflict, you end up creating internal conflict.

This happens most often when people are overly passive in the way they communicate:

  • You usually just “go with the flow” when there are group decisions to be made.
  • You chronically hold back from voicing your opinions or ideas.
  • You give in easily in order to avoid conflict.

Here’s the problem with being so passive and overly accommodating of others:

  • When you constantly give in to other people’s wishes — and ignore your own — you start to feel bad about yourself and your self-esteem drops.
  • Your frustration and anxiety levels also tend to go up because you’re never getting your needs met.
  • Finally, you end up resenting other people because they always get what they want and you never get what you want.

Now think about it…

If your self-esteem is low, you’re full of frustration and anxiety, and you’re resentful of your most important relationships, how effective are you going to be trying to manage more difficult emotions on top of all that?

Yeah, not very.

On the other hand, when you learn how to be assertive, your ability to be strong and balanced in the face of difficult emotions goes way up because your self-esteem and confidence are much higher.

Learning to be more assertive is the single most underrated thing you can do to improve your emotional health: Assertiveness: The Complete Beginner’s Guide.

“As soon as you trust yourself, you will know how to live.”

— Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

7. Values Clarification

You can spend all the time in the world avoiding what you don’t want, but if you’re not sure where you’re going, how likely are you to get there?

No, that’s not a brain teaser or a world problem. It’s just meant to get you thinking about a simple but frequently overlooked idea:

Fundamentally, life is about moving toward the things you want, not running away from the things you don’t want.

Consider this…

  • It’s no little kid’s dream to grow up to become really good at managing their anxiety.
  • It’s no little kid’s dream to become really good at anger management when they grow up.
  • It’s no little kid’s dream to one day be an expert non-procrastinator.

Little kids want to become astronauts and doctors and scientists and professional athletes! They want to do cool, awesome stuff!

Of course, along the way, they’ll have to figure out how to be courageous in the face of fear or stick to a habit even when it’s hard. But these are secondary to the big picture: Going after the stuff they really want!

Well, is this any different for us adults?

As important as it is to learn the skills that will help you deal with difficult things like bad moods, fears, and low self-esteem, let’s not forget about the big picture…

Ask yourself this question:

If I had tons of confidence, never experienced a bad mood, and always felt motivated, what would I do?

What are the really good things in life that difficult moods and emotions are holding you back from? What are your goals, your dreams, your aspirations? What are your values — the things that matter most to you in life?

Here’s one last way to think about this:

Are you more likely to work through difficult moods and emotions when you have crystal clear goals and values you’re moving toward or when you’re just stumbling through life hoping to avoid much pain or discomfort?

Obviously the first!

So, take the time to get to know your values. Everything’s easier when you do.

“Look well into thyself; there is a source of strength which will always spring up if thou wilt always look.”
Marcus Aurelius

All You Need to Know

If you want to be more emotionally strong — able to manage difficult moods and emotions with confidence and calm — work to build these skills:

  1. Metacognition
  2. Attention Shifting
  3. Self-compassion
  4. Cognitive Restructuring
  5. Emotional Tolerance
  6. Assertiveness
  7. Values Clarification

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Thanks for reading,

— Nick

Originally published by Nick Wignall for Personal Growth on Medium.com.

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