Argue On Paper

When you feel anxious or demoralized, get two pens of different color, say red and black. In red write a thought you have about the situation. For example, "I'll never feel safe again." Now in black, argue with that statement. Consider yourself personally affronted by the statement, as if your worst enemy had said it to you with a sneer. Once the statement is outside your head, it becomes more objective and less subjective, so it becomes easier to argue with than when it is inside your head, part of you, something you think.

Stare at your written statement (in this case, "I'll never feel safe again"). Try to find something wrong with it. What can you say to that statement? How could you argue with it? Why is it a stupid thing to think? What is mistaken about it?

You might write, "I don't really know that. I'm just guessing."

That's pretty good. And that's true, isn't it? Nobody knows if you'll ever feel safe again. Do you see how that is different than trying to look on the bright side or repeating to yourself (without conviction) "I am safe I am safe I am safe?" So that's your first doubt: Your thought might not be true. Good job.

But don't stop there. Come up with as many arguments as you can against each statement. You might write, "Maybe there are actions I could take that might help me feel safer. A feeling of safety isn't all-or-nothing anyway." And so on. Here is a complete list of 22 thought-mistakes to look for in your negative thoughts.

The method is simple: Write something you think about the situation (something negative you truly believe) and then argue it into the ground. This is a very effective way to change the way you think about something. It's kind of fun too, once you get going. And you can feel the negative emotion dissipate as you destroy the validity of the pessimistic assumptions that have been lurking in the back of your mind. You will feel better rather quickly.

Let me remind you that your arguments must be real. You're not just playing the "devil's advocate" here. Really look at the statement and find what is really wrong with it. This is not glossing things over with nice thoughts. Negative, pessimistic, self-defeating thoughts are almost always wrong. They are incorrect. They are exaggerations, overstatements, conclusions you have jumped to, rumors you have heard, or merely bad habits of thinking you picked up while growing up.

Your goal with this exercise is to look at your own written statements long enough to discover what's really wrong with them. As Carl Sagan said, "Skeptical scrutiny is the means, in both science and religion, by which deep thoughts can be winnowed from deep nonsense."

The moment you recognize one of your negative thoughts is nonsense, it has an immediate impact on your feelings. If you think, "I'm helpless to do anything about it," and you really look at that assumption and find you have very little evidence to justify such a sweeping allegation and plenty of evidence against it, your anxiety lifts. As soon as you recognize you have been mistaken, your demoralization vanishes, literally within minutes. Your feelings are influenced by your thoughts, but only the thoughts you truly believe. That's why positive thinking sometimes doesn't work. But it's also why as soon as you find something wrong with a pessimistic thought, the moment you stop believing it, your feelings change.

Another way to apply this method is to write out everything you think about what's bothering you. And then go back and argue with each sentence one at a time. This is a good variation to use on a computer. Type out every negative thought you have about the situation. And then go back and separate out a sentence and rip it to shreds in a different font. Then take the next sentence and tear it to pieces. And so on. Print it out and carry it around in your pocket for a few weeks. Re-read it a couple of times a day.

In his book, Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life, Martin Seligman has a very good list of what to look for in your arguments when you're arguing against a negative thought. Read his list here.

A good list to memorize ahead of time is the 22 Virus Definitions. This is a complete list of thought-mistakes humans are prone to make.

Make the process of changing your thoughts easier by calming your body first. This is similar to the increased effectiveness of cognitive therapy when it is combined with antidepressants. With the body in a better state, thought habits are easier to change.

Your brain has a naturally-occuring negative bias and when combined with an imperfect brain that makes mistakes, it is a combination terrorists can exploit. Take actions to shore up this weakness, first in yourself and then in those around you.

Adam Khan is the author of Principles For Personal Growth, Slotralogy, Antivirus For Your Mind, and co-author with Klassy Evans of How to Change the Way You Look at Things (in Plain English). Follow his podcast, The Adam Bomb.

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