problem thoughts

How Harry Potter Can Change the Way You Think

Think about the last time you had a critical thought about yourself or someone else.  Was it this past week?  This past hour?  What were the words that popped into your mind?  How did you react to them?

Automatic thoughts are thoughts that arise in your mind unconsciously, triggered by the circumstances around you or your daily life events.  They are usually accompanied by emotion, and sometimes by an action in response.  You might notice these thoughts most strongly when they are negative.

For example, let’s imagine you’re walking around in the grocery store and see a beautiful woman walking in front of you.  If you’re a woman, you might think to yourself, “I could never be that pretty.  I’m just an ugly old hag.”  If you’re a man, you might think, “I could never date or marry someone like that.  She would never give me the time of day because I’m so unattractive.”  Emotions associated with that thought might be anger, sadness, or hopelessness.  These thoughts could lead you to stop and get a coffee or a muffin to cheer yourself up, get in a fight with your spouse when you get home, or even (if you’re feeling particularly combative that day) “accidentally” tripping the woman as she walks by you.

What are we to do when we have these negative thoughts? Cognitive-behavioral therapists teach a concept called “thought stopping,” which is meant to help control the automatic thoughts as they pop into your mind.  They recommend imagining a stop sign in your mind, thinking or saying aloud the word “stop.”  While the effectiveness of this technique is questionable, the philosophy behind this action is to remind you that you don’t have to think those thoughts and you can redirect your mind elsewhere, reducing the power of the thought at hand. 

When I was recently reading some training materials about thought stopping, they suggested that you consider creating a “replacement thought,” or an alternative image in your mind that can replace the negative thought with a positive, happy memory.  As I read this, I was reminded of major characters in the Harry Potter series: dementors.

If you’re familiar with Harry Potter, you’ll know what dementors are.  If not, dementors are frightening creatures that feed on happiness and therefore lead nearby people to feel despair, fear, and depression.  In effect, they trigger negative memories and emotions.  In Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Harry’s first experience with a dementor leaves him in a dead faint out of fear.

Have your negative thoughts ever left you in such a state that you feel as though you’re paralyzed, in despair, or terrified?

Part of the effect of the dementors is their ability to steal joy from people around them.  In order to “fight back” against the dementors, Harry has to learn a spell (the Patronus charm) that requires him to recall a happy memory in his mind.  In the scene where he is learning to use the spell, he tests out several different memories before finally settling on one where he feels truly joyful.

Thought stopping is a lot like casting a Patronus charm.  Instead of becoming consumed by the negative beliefs that steal joy in your life, you can resist by calling to mind an experience where you were confident, capable, and secure.

What are some memories you have where you felt confident, capable, and secure?

My challenge to you is to take some time and think of the most common automatic thoughts you experience.  What are the dementors in your life?  What words do they say to you?  Write a list of these words.

Then take a moment to think through memories or images of times when those words were proven wrong.  In contrast to comparing yourself with the beautiful woman and coming up short, you might remember your wedding day where you felt particularly attractive or beautiful to your spouse.  Sit with this memory for a little while, recalling it in vivid detail.  You can write it down as if it were a story, or close your eyes and imagine yourself there. 

Notice, too, that Harry had to try several different memories before finally finding one that fit.  You may need to seek out several different images or memories that can affirm the positive in your life.  While some images might work well in a certain circumstance, at other times they won’t be as effective.

Thought stopping is not intended to be permanent fix.  The Patronus spell didn’t kill or destroy the dementors – it simply drove them back for a little while, but they would eventually return.  Similarly, you might notice your mind trying to think up ways to invalidate your positive memories, or communicate that those things aren’t true now.  When your negative thoughts come back, it is likely time for you to do some deeper work of re-evaluating the automatic thought, which involves processing how it came about and why it has such an effect on you due to your own particular story.

What are the dementors in your life that are plaguing you?  What type of positive memories would you need to search for in your memory to fight back?

 

Negative thoughts may be a daily reality in your life.  If you are feeling overwhelmed by despair and hopelessness, and most of your internal dialogue is these negative thoughts and assumptions, we understand how difficult that can be and we’d love to help.  Restored Hope is an Ann Arbor and Novi therapy office where we want to support you through your goals to live a more wholehearted and joyful life.  Give us a call at 734.656.8191 or fill out the form here to talk with us and hear about how we can help.

The Curious Difficulty of Letting Go

This past summer, my family held a garage sale, which is often quite the production.  Between my parents, my sisters and I, we have 4 separate households from which to sort through overstuffed closets and forgotten storage cabinets, hoping to find hidden treasures to add to the sale pile.  I’m often surprised by just how much stuff we’re able to produce from those parts of our home we barely think about.

One of my contributions to the sale was a Keurig coffeemaker. I loved it when I first received it.  But over the years, it had gone through some wear and tear.  Coffee brewed from it didn’t taste as good, I could only use filtered water in the tank, and I had to reset the clock settings often due to a frequently tripped fuse in my home.  I also noticed I had started drinking coffee less often, replacing it with a newfound love for tea.

Once, that Keurig was my lifeline.  Working early mornings with small children created a serious need for coffee. But as I entered into a new career, I used it less and less until it just became another piece of stuff to sell in a garage sale. That coffeemaker sat on my counter for over a year with me barely using it before I realized it was time to give it up. 

This makes me think about how we cling not just to these material items, but also to relational patterns, distorted thoughts about ourselves and our world, and defense mechanisms we learned in childhood that help us cope.  Oftentimes, we start these behaviors or thought patterns because they work – they ease our pain or anxiety.  They serve us in some way or another, meeting a need or a desire that we have difficulty fulfilling in a healthy way.

Before we know it, these habits become ingrained in our minds or in our daily practice and can develop into codependent relationships, depression, anxiety, addictions, or any number of difficulties in our lives.  We can often look at these patterns and know they cause problems, but they can feel familiar and safe after being used for years.

In a different season of life, we needed these thoughts or behaviors to cope.

Think of a child who is physically abused by her parents when she speaks up to protect her brother from similar harm.  We might expect that child to learn to stay silent and spend time alone in her room, avoiding interaction with her family.  As she gets older, she may make herself feel better by turning to food, sex, perfectionism, or alcohol.  These behaviors might have provided temporary relief for her then, but if they continued to be her only source of coping into adulthood, they could easily become addictive or problematic behaviors.

Maybe you’ve experienced a similar story. As a child, you may have learned to do what you needed to do to find ways to deal with the pain.

But these thoughts and behaviors might be holding you back and creating problems in your present-day life.

As adults, we have the opportunity to choose a different path, letting go of the old behaviors and stepping into newer ways to cope.  Often, though, that process isn’t something that can happen overnight.

When I sold that hardly-used coffeemaker, it felt like I was cutting off an arm.  I could think of about 100 reasons why I needed to keep it, and I almost felt physical pain at letting it go.  But I needed to clear it out, to have more physical space and declutter my home.

If this is how I felt about a piece of junk I barely used anymore, how much more difficult is it to let go of the unhealthy ways we’ve dealt with pain in the past?

Sometimes, giving these up feels impossible.

Many times, these behaviors and thoughts are based on past experiences that are no longer threatening us now.  It is important to learn how to let go of those things that are causing more frustration, pain, or harm than they’re worth.

But we can’t let go of these life patterns without filling that space with something different.  We need to learn to adopt new behaviors and thoughts that fit in our current season of life.  We need to get rid of the things that take up that mental and emotional space in order to make room for things like healthy self-care, more accurate views of ourselves and our world, and restored relationships.

What thoughts and behaviors are you clinging onto that helped you at a different season of life, but need to be let go of now?  

Now I don’t think about my Keurig much.  I’m in a season where I drink coffee once every few days, avoiding the caffeine because I know how it affects my anxiety.  I still find comfort in wrapping my two hands around a warm mug, but typically it’s filled with tea.  While this material example is minor compared to changing old coping patterns, it’s reminding me to let go, to create space in my mind and heart for the things that I need in the season I’m in right now.

Maybe you’re in a season where letting go of these thoughts and behaviors feels unattainable.  Or maybe you’re ready to let those patterns go, but you are unsure about how to get started.  It could be that you’ve tried different positive coping behaviors in the past, but it hasn’t felt like any of them have worked.  At Restored Hope, we want to help you on your journey of learning new ways of coping so that you can lead a more vibrant and wholehearted life.  We offer therapy in the Ann Arbor and Novi areas of Michigan, and you can call us at 734.656.8191 or fill out the form here to hear more about our services and how we can best help you.