There are times when we talk to ourselves critically. Perhaps we just think it, or perhaps we voice it out loud. “I’ll never get this right.” “I’m such an idiot.”
Phrases like this are a sure sign that emotional hijacking is at work. If we become aware that this is going on, however, we can challenge the thought rather than become a helpless victim to it. Challenging allows us to better control our emotions. The emotions are sure to be giving us some message, but the real message is more than likely to be obscured by emotional hijacking and so we risk misinterpreting what is actually going on.
How should we best challenge these types of thoughts? Well, a good structure to use is this:
- What might the thought actually be about? Is it saying you are tired or hungry or overstretched, that you need some new skills in that situation, or that the difficulty is something over which you have no control?
- What would you say to a friend in a similar situation?
- Will it matter in a week’s or six months’ time? A year?
- Are you actually taking all of the facts into account?
- Is the thought helping me? If not, why am I giving it houseroom?
- What thought or action would be helpful instead?
A client called Lucy came to see me recently. She worked full-time in a firm of solicitors and had done so for some years. She had a tendency to be self-critical. There were a number of stresses for her when I first met her. Lucy’s appraisal was soon coming up (which she always dreaded), and she felt under pressure generally. We talked about how to challenge self-critical thoughts. The next session she came in smiling and told me how she had handled things well the previous week despite the pressure she felt under. Lucy had been asked to produce a report in the usual house-style format. No matter what she did, the document would not come out right. She had little time to finish it. She described to me that she had become aware of a particular self-critical thought. What happened next, however, was a new and strangely reassuring experience for her. She told this as if what happened next were two different scenarios – the potential emotional hijacking version and the actual emotionally intelligent version. Here they are:
Scenario 1 – emotional hijacking
“I’m useless at this!” she said to herself and stomped off, close to tears, to have her sixth cup of coffee that morning, and helped herself to some cream cakes which were up for grabs in the office kitchen to celebrate someone’s birthday. It took ages for her to calm herself down again, and she missed the deadline for producing the report.
Scenario 2 – emotional intelligence
“I’m useless at this!” she said to herself. She caught herself with that thought and paused to challenge it. She made a mental note that she had been feeling under pressure lately, she had missed breakfast, had already had five cups of coffee that morning and was tired, having stayed up too late the previous night to see a film to the end. So, all in all, perhaps it was not so surprising that those stressors had caused that sort of thought. She didn’t have to believe it, though. The challenge continued: Was the thought helping her? No, it was more paralysing, really. What other thought or action might be helpful? Well, she could perhaps consider whether there might be another explanation. If a friend had a similar problem, she would suggest checking with the IT department or looking at her inbox in case there was a wider issue. She looked at her emails and saw an email to all staff explaining that there was an IT issue that was being worked on which was causing some issues with documents. That email had come in over an hour ago, but she hadn’t noticed it because she had been agonising over the document. Another email then came through confirming that the IT issue had been resolved. She smiled and, breathing out deeply, resumed work on the document (which she finished well before the deadline). Afterwards she considered what had happened and made a mental note to learn from this: Plan to access late programmes earlier in the evening another time by using a “watch again” option on the TV or online, get a good night’s sleep, have at least something for breakfast, stick to two coffees in the morning, and use emotional intelligence if things appear to be going pear-shaped another time.
Using a structure like this helps to create new templates in the brain, and after using it for a while it becomes increasingly instinctive to think this way. We can never stop the first thought that comes into our mind, but we can train ourselves to have increasing control over what we do next.