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Breaking the Cycle of Negative Thinking

By Debra Kissen

I have a confession to make. I have not been to the gym in many years. As a busy mom of three young children and a clinical psychologist, I have justified my lack of formal workouts by telling myself that I rarely have a moment to sit or eat, so my on-the-go lifestyle is practically like working out. But lately, that weakly-crafted justification was beginning to lose its ability to comfort me. I know and have always known that there’s no substitute for cardiovascular exercise, as well as strength training. So I made a commitment to myself to preserve a bit of time each week to work out. I am now on week four of this journey, and I have noticed a curious phenomenon bubbling up in my mind. As I approach each exercise I am about to engage in, my mind screams out, “I can’t do that.” It tells me that I can’t do a pull-up, I can’t do a push-up, I can’t do a crunch, I can’t do a squat, and the list of “I can’ts” goes on and on.

As I observed my mind crying out to me, reminding me of all of my imagined and inaccurate limitations, I thought of so many of my clients who struggle with this same core belief. For example, Jill (name changed to protect client identity) is a 24-year-old woman whose mind constantly tells her how she can’t do anything. She can’t find employment because she will do a poor job and get fired. She can’t have an intimate relationship because she will come off as awkward and inexperienced, which will lead to being rejected. She can’t take college-level classes because she will make too many mistakes on her assignments. Her mind is constantly reminding her of all of the things she can’t do.

Why is the human mind so good at pointing out all of the opportunities for failure? Is it a mean-spirited organ, hell-bent on creating emotional pain? The answer to that rhetorical question is of course no (although there are moments when it couldn’t feel more true). The human mind has developed over thousands and thousands of years to provide our puny species with the ability to think our way past danger. We were not granted the large size and sharp teeth of dinosaurs or the rapid speed of cheetahs or the stinky smell of skunks (well, I suppose that one is open to interpretation). The human secret force that has allowed us to withstand the test of time and obtain power and influence over other much more fierce and powerful species is our brain. We humans have the ability to plan, predict, and foresee future danger. Therefore, our brain is hard-wired to point out and protect us from all potential threats.

The downside of the ability to prepare for future challenges is that we are constantly reminded of an array of potential negative consequences. The good news is that although our mind is pointing out how we cannot or should not engage in an activity does not mean we have to listen to it. We can instead learn to mindfully and compassionately observe the content our brain is offering up, and then make the choice to override select messages in the service of valued living.

And that is exactly what I did this morning as I pulled into the gym parking lot and my mind told me how it was too cold to leave the cozy car (chilly December in Chicago… brrr ). Once I disengaged from that thought and willed myself out of the car my mind told me how I should first answer some emails in the gym lobby before entering an exercise class. Once I moved past this thought and headed right into class, my mind told me that when the class was over, I would be spent and did not have to engage in anymore exercise. I reminded myself that I made a commitment to do one pull-up every time I was at the gym. So I walked up to the pull-up bar and my mind screamed out at me, “YOU CAN’T do this.” And with that, I respectfully told my mind that we will have to agree to disagree about that and jumped up with all my might and engaged in the behavior of my choice, taking my mind, kicking and screaming as it was, along for the ride.

If “I can’t” is getting in the way of you living your life, I recommend you contact a mental health professional trained in cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) or pharmacotherapies or both. You can search for a therapist in your area on the Anxiety and Depression Association of American (ADAA) website to help you with this challenging, but very important work.

Dr. Debra Kissen is CEO of Light On Anxiety CBT Treatment Center. Dr. Kissen specializes in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)...

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