Get a Better Mirror: Overcoming Negative Thoughts
by David Spero
Remember those circus fun houses with the monsters and the distorting mirrors? Those mirrors twisted our view of anything we put in front of them. They made us look tall or short or fat or thin, and it was fun because we knew it was a trick.
But many of us have these distorting mirrors in our heads, and they aren't fun at all, because we think the images they show us are real. Our internal mirrors are distorted thoughts that twist our view of ourselves and of everything we see. If your internal thought-mirror makes you look fat, you will always look fat. It doesn't matter how much weight you lose, or how many people tell you how good you look. You will still see yourself as fat in that mirror.
If, like many of us with chronic illness, you have a mirror that shows you as a useless cripple, it won't matter how much you do, or how important people say you are to them, or how much they love you. In your thought-mirror, you will still look like a useless cripple.
Where do mirrors come from?
Where do these mirrors come from? We create them from what we were told by parents, teachers, peers, and media images, and from ideas we picked up about ourselves as children. Maybe it was somebody else's birthday, and they were getting all the attention, and we decided it must be because we weren't good enough to deserve the attention. Or maybe our parents used to tell us how bad we were, instead of how much they loved us.
Sometimes society has a distorting mirror and offers it to us, and we keep it. This happens a lot, especially with minority groups or people who act or look differently than the norm in any way, like people who are disabled.
These distorted thought mirrors can damage our health and happiness. We'll be less likely to take care of ourselves and more likely to act self-destructively if we feel we are hopelessly flawed or wounded. Even our internal healing systems won't work as well if we're constantly stressed with negative thoughts.
Time to Change Mirrors
How can we get a better mirror? First we have to find and identify our distorted thoughts. What thought keeps reflexively running through our head? ("I'm ugly"or "I'm lazy" or whatever.) Then we can test it for accuracy. If the thought is "I'm useless," is it true we NEVER do ANYTHING useful? Probably not. If we can disprove the negative thought - and it's OK to ask a friend for help with this - we can replace it with something more accurate like, "I do as much as I can, and that is all anyone can do." (It's more than a lot of people do!) We might also ask ourselves if having the distorted mirror gives us any benefits. For example, "I'm ugly" is a painful (and distorted) thought, but it might serve to explain everything that has gone wrong in our lives, so we don't have to try to change anything else.
We can decide to get better mirrors. Moving the new ones in and the old ones out will take some work, and you may want to get some help from a cognitive-behavioral therapist who specializes in this kind of work. You can also use a self-help program. Don't forget to ask for help from family and anyone else who cares about you. Tell the fun-house goodbye. You can see much more clearly out in the sunshine.
Some good books on cognitive thought-changing are: Mind over Mood by Dennis Greenberger and Christine Padesky (Guilford 1995), The Feeling Good Handbook by David D. Burns (Plume 1999), and my book "The Art of Getting Well" (Hunter House 2002), has a good introduction to cognitive therapy along with lots of other ways to feel good.
© David Spero
David Spero is author of "The Art of Getting Well: A Five-Step Plan for Maximizing Health When You Have a Chronic Illness".