Does this pattern seem familiar? You feel bad about some occurrence; perhaps you got into an argument with a co-worker or your significant other. Then, as you ponder the event that you feel bad about, you begin feeling bad for feeling bad. You begin to beat yourself up for feeling bad because you tell yourself you shouldn’t feel bad. After all, only sad sacks and losers feel bad. To be a good, strong person you must be optimistic and positive always. But, by this point you feel pretty crappy. You’re upset about the original event, now you feel bad about feeling bad, and worse…you begin feeling bad that you felt bad about feeling bad.
You’ve shoulded all over yourself and gotten into a pretty terrible headspace where you feel rather down about not only some event but your subsequent thoughts and feelings around that event. This is spiral think, and it’s a rather nasty way of going about the day. Trust me, I’ve lived bits of my life this way and it is no fun. This post is going to talk about how to recognize spiral thinking and what to do/ways to reframe your mentality.
The above example is a picture of internal negative spiral think, but spiral think can be external as well. Take, for example, the drive to work where, oh no, traffic is backed up for hours (as it tends to be in our lovely Boston). Finally, after an hour drive that is only supposed to be 15 minutes, you’re late, you rush into the office to get a cup of coffee only to find that it is burnt, weak, and there is barely enough left to cover the bottom of your cup. Could this day get any worse?! And it isn’t even 9:30am yet! Why, yes the day could get significantly worse, if you choose to continue spiral thinking. It could wind up being one of those days where, “nothing went right.” Even in the crappiest, most frustrating of days, something went right. However, in spiral think, everything becomes interpreted through the perspective of a negative, downward spiral.
The message here is not to become diluted by believing everything in life is peaches and rainbows. Quite the opposite, to avoid and prevent spiral think, noting that something kinda stunk or was bad is crucial. But, the key here is that once you’ve noted that a meeting didn’t go well, the grocery store was out of your bread, or that conversation with your friend was awkward and unpleasant, you move on from the thought rather than allowing it to linger.
That is to say, a negative experience or thought can be treated like a passing car in traffic. You can simply note, “oh okay, that was a negative thought or feeling,” and then move on. It is when these challenging or less than ideal experiences are allowed to stick, and become personal, that spiral think begins. I’ll give an example from my baseball career.
Let’s say I’ve struck out my first two at bats of the day and they were ugly. Now I start beating myself up for my poor decisions when hitting and I make it a personal attack against myself for not being more prepared mentally, not warming up properly, or being better. I start attacking my ability and telling myself that I suck. This negative, self-conscious and self-critical thinking then carries over to the rest of my game and every time I go to throw the ball it ends up going everywhere but my intended target. This pattern continues for the rest of the game and I end up striking out another time or two and making a few errors in the field. Then, the cherry on top of this mental tornado is that I allow myself to continue thinking this way even after the game. The psychological barrage goes on for hours when I could have simply stopped it after the first strike out by thinking to myself, “huh, that was a bad strike out. Whoops. I missed the ball. Next time I’d like to do better,” and move on.
Now, as with much habit change, this is going to be easier said than done, and it will take practice. But, the good news is that is change is a rather easy one to begin practicing. Being mindful and aware of not just what you’re thinking but how you’re thinking is as simple as noting whether or not what’s going on in your mind is a thought or a feeling. That’s all.
And this is an important practice to begin not just to combat negative spiral think but also to recognize positive spiral think, or those moments where you feel like everything is going right! By noting the thoughts and feelings you are having during this good moments of spiral think you can more easily notice what types of patterns, actions or habits lead you to a good, clear, and confident headspace. By doing this, you can begin crafting environments and daily practices that foster and spark positive mental states, the ripple effect of which can be profound and wonderful.