Counselling Chronicle (10)
Encouraging Helpful Thinking
Our brains are constant instant messaging machines. They communicate a variety of information from our environment and seek a variety of input from us. It can feel as if we have an internal ‘narrator’ that provides a constant chatter of input.
Some of this chatter can be helpful “Nice job with that reverse parallel park!”, neutral “Remember to buy milk on the way home”, and some can be negative “You made a complete and utter fool of yourself, what an idiot!”. The way we think influences the way we feel about ourselves, the world and our future. A constant barrage of negative thoughts from our internal narrator will lower self-esteem and increase feelings of worthlessness and hopelessness.
So what do you do if your thoughts are excessively negative and self-defeating? The simple answer is to change them to be more helpful. Thoughts are hypotheses about the world, not truths. Just because you did a silly thing does not make you a stupid person. Consider the example below:
Children learn from the actions of their parents. It is not so much what a parent says, but what they do. You can teach your children about helpful thinking by showing them how you do it. A simple way to explain helpful vs unhelpful thinking is by using an analogy coined by Australian psychologist Andrew Fuller: shark thoughts vs dolphin thoughts.
Shark thoughts are dark and unsettling. They are the theme song of Jaws. They make us worry, feel angry or sad. They try to sink their teeth into us and drag us down. They say “It’s going to be terrible”, “You can’t do it”, “You’ll make a fool of yourself”, “You can’t handle this”.
Dolphin thoughts are friendly, hopeful and uplifting. They are reality-based but encouraging. They say “You’ve worked really hard on this, just do your best”, “You have strengths and weaknesses just like everyone else, just have a go”, “If you think about the situation calmly you will find a solution”. Dolphin thoughts can chase off shark thoughts.
So next time your child comes to you and says “I’m going to fail my maths test”, resist the urge to say “you should have studied harder” (a shark thought). Instead ask your child what a dolphin thought might be, perhaps it will be “ok, so I struggle with trigonometry but I’m pretty confident with algebra. I’ll do what I can on the test and study more trigonometry during the term to improve my understanding for the next test”.
Most importantly, practice what you preach. Be aware of how your own internal narrator treats you, and change your shark thoughts to dolphin thoughts.