4 Ways to Identify (and Challenge) Maladaptive Thoughts
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“It’s too late to go back to school and start a different career.”
“I don’t have the money to travel.”
“All the good, loyal men are taken.”
“I have to be at my goal weight before I get on any apps.”
“I’ve poured so much into this relationship already, I can’t back out now, can I?”
“They’re family, so I have to spend my free time with them, right?”
Do any of these beliefs sound familiar? Have any of them popped up in the last few weeks as you thought about what your goals and plans for 2020 included?
If you haven’t had these thoughts exactly, you likely have your own version of them: Sneaky, intrusive thoughts that pop up and seem to scold you out of pursuing what it is you want or shame and blame you into “more realistic” goals and dreams.
In other words, lies your brain tells you.
Almost all of us have thoughts like this — ways we shut ourselves down, or talk ourselves out of going after what it is we want in life.
It’s normal and natural to have beliefs like this.
We likely learned these beliefs at some point in our lives, and perhaps they may have even served to keep us safe at some point (or we thought we were keeping ourselves safe), but now these beliefs are getting in our way and possibly contributing to our emotional distress.
These beliefs have become maladaptive thoughts. And they need to be addressed.
So today I want to explore the concept of maladaptive thoughts with you, provide some prompts to help you recognize your own maladaptive thoughts, and provide further exercises you can use to challenge these maladaptive thoughts and come up with more functional, healthier patterns of thinking.
My hope is this will support you in going after your goals in every way, in all your days this year.
So, what’s a maladaptive thought?
Maladaptive thoughts are firmly established patterns of thinking that are often intrusive, negatively biased, rigid, distorted and inaccurate.
They don’t have to be just one single thought (“He won’t go for a woman who looks like me!”), but rather they can be entire schemas — patterns or core beliefs of thought (“I’m unloveable”).
Maladaptive thoughts form in much the same way any of our beliefs about the world form: We form in relationship to the relationships around us. So, in other words, we absorb the messaging and beliefs we receive implicitly and explicitly from our early relationships, like from our parents and caregivers, our siblings, our school peers, even our church and local communities.
While some of the beliefs we absorb may be functional and helpful (“Don’t get into a van with a strange man!”), others may be less helpful. Such as when you grow up with a parent who has narcissistic tendencies and they give you the message (through their actions and perhaps words) you are fundamentally unlovable.
Maladaptive, by its definition, means these particular beliefs fail to help us adjust adequately or appropriately to the environment and situations we are in.
So, while it may have been a sane, appropriate belief if you grew up with a parent who was incapable of loving you, to believe the thought, “I’m unloveable to this person,” it becomes a maladaptive thought if you maintain this thought as you grow up and surround yourself with more functional individuals who are capable of healthy love.
In other words, your belief is no longer adaptive to the situation you may find yourself in now.
So, what’s the cost of maladaptive thoughts?
On the more “mild” end of the spectrum, maladaptive thoughts can stop us from going after what it is we hunger and long for. They can become the excuses we use for not going after the job, the romantic partner, the travel, the lifestyle design we truly want.
And on the more “serious” end of the spectrum, these cognitive distortions can impact greatly our emotions and daily well-being, possibly contributing to anxiety, depression and a sense of hopelessness and powerlessness.
So, it’s important that we get in touch with what our own maladaptive thoughts may be and then challenge these thoughts to untwist our thinking and come up with more functional, adaptive beliefs.
Inquiries to identify your own maladaptive thoughts:
Below I provide a list of inquiries to help you get in touch with your own maladaptive thoughts (the lies your brain tells you). (Hint: think about any resistances or blocks that have come up for you in the past few weeks as your thoughts about any goals you want to pursue.)
1. What kind of lies does your brain tell you?
What are the automatic thoughts you have that tell you why you can’t do something/why things won’t work? What does your brain seemingly shout at you when you start to feel vulnerable or move toward something you want?
2. Do your maladaptive thoughts tend to have a particular flavor?
These thoughts can often fall into buckets centered around categories like defectiveness (“It won’t work out because nothing ever does for me!”), being unloveable (“Other women can find men on those apps but I can’t because of my baggage”), abandonment (“Why even bother trying to date? He’s just going to cheat on me anyways”) and powerlessness (“What’s the point of applying? It’s a boys club and I don’t have a chance at the promotion”).
3. Examine the source.
Where does this belief (or beliefs) come from? Does it remind you of anyone you know or knew who would preach something similar? Whose voice does this sound like?
4. Explore the cost.
How has believing this lie impacted your life so far? What have they stopped you from doing? What’s the cost of continuing to believe these stories?
“When a creature is exposed to violence, it will tend to adapt to that disturbance, so that when the violence ceases or the creature is allowed its freedom, the healthy instinct to flee is hugely diminished, and the creature stays put instead.” ― Clarissa Pinkola Estés
Exercises to challenge your maladaptive thoughts:
Now that you’ve identified some (or possibly many) maladaptive thoughts and explored how they’ve impacted your life so far and what the cost of continuing to believe them may be, I want you to practice challenging these thoughts and seeing if you can come up with some other more functional, healthy beliefs. Here are a few exercises to help you do this:
1. Use another person’s perspective.
Who is someone in your life who doesn’t seem to buy into this lie like you do? What would your mentor or best friend or therapist say? What’s a story or belief they probably think instead? What would it be like for you to tell yourself this story instead of your maladaptive belief? What impact would that have on your life?
2. Use data to disprove yourself.
Can you come up with three examples of people or situations that disprove your belief? For example, if the belief is that you’re not skinny enough to find love, can you think of three examples of women or men who seem to have found love despite whatever size they are?
3. Use logic to poke holes in it.
Ask yourself, is this thought realistic? Is it, perhaps, black-and-white or all-or-nothing thinking? Is this thought based on facts? Am I thinking an extreme or overexaggerated thought? Can I think of any reason why this thought may not be 100% true?
4. Ask yourself what you would tell a loved one.
Ask yourself if you would tell your best friend or your child this thought. No? So, what would you tell them instead? And what would it be like to tell yourself this thought? What new story would that be then?
“It takes great courage to break with one’s past history and stand alone” ― Marion Woodman
Wrapping this up.
Almost all of our brains tell us “lies,” or rather, maladaptive thoughts, about who we are and what we are capable of in this world.
This is normal and natural and a consequence of growing up in society writ large, let alone whatever household we were lucky or unlucky to have grown up in.
You’re not wrong for having these beliefs. We all have them in our own way.
But I want to invite you to get to know these “lies” more — these maladaptive thoughts — and to choose how well they are working for you and whether or not it would be more helpful for you to believe something else instead.
When we can create some choice and flexibility in our thinking, that’s where our freedom lies.
When we uncover and own our resistances, our stories and introjects (lies we swallow whole), when we challenge them and then choose something different — this is where change can really start to happen. Doing this can be a huge support in moving toward your goals.
And now I’d like to hear from you in the comments below: What’s one way you challenge your own maladaptive thoughts? What one trick has worked well in combating the “lies your brain tells you?” Leave a message in the comments below so our community of blog readers can benefit from your wisdom.
And until next time, take very good care of yourself.
Getty image by Evgeny Gromov