Bursting negative thought bubblesWritten by Danny Huerta
What's inside this article
We’ve all seen the cartoons and comics where a character’s thoughts are revealed inside of cloud-shaped thought bubbles. Imagining our own thoughts as thought bubbles can be a great way to examine what is happening inside our minds at any given moment and can give us power over our negative thoughts.
Like many people, my thoughts can fill up with negative stuff, especially when I’m feeling worried or anxious. The coronavirus, especially, has created some new anxieties and concerns that none of us expected when the new year rolled around.
So how can we manage our thought bubbles and keep negative ones from constantly surfacing? Our thought bubbles can be contagious. Negative thoughts in us as parents can lead to negative thoughts in our children. Let’s talk about what shapes our thought bubbles and how we can burst the negative ones.
Negative thought bubbles
Did you know that researchers have determined that the average person has about 50,000 thoughts per day? And we all think about things and interpret them differently from the people around us. Thoughts can be influenced by our genetics, gender, experiences, senses, beliefs and our relationships. We can also be influenced by our complex personality differences. Those personality differences create our own unique filter from which we think about moments, situations and relationships.
One of the reasons our thought bubbles can become filled with negative messages is because our brains are poor at making predictions. Instead of producing accurate forecasts about the future which might include good outcomes, we often just project our worries onto the future. Asking “what if” questions and worrying about what might happen only fuels our anxiety. Emotions, especially, can have a dramatic impact on the shape our thought bubbles take.
Thought bubbles and parenting
One of our goals as parents must be to manage our own negative thought bubbles so that we can be a model for our kids. Our children’s minds are even more vulnerable to emotion-driven negativity than ours are, so we must be intentional about bursting the negative thought bubbles that we have.
Thought bubbles will come at you full speed as a parent and will become a constant part of life. Our thoughts are naturally prone to anxiety when we experience unknowns, stresses, failures and comparisons. Since these thought bubbles belong to you, spend some time learning about them and how to navigate them. The better you corral your negative thought bubbles, the better you’ll be able to model this for your children.
Romans 12:2 tells us, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” Being intentional in managing the multitude of thought bubbles that pop up each day will help us to focus on what is good and will open our hearts to be able to see what the will of God is in our lives.
How thoughts can mislead us
Researchers have identified many ways that our minds can be misled. When emotion is involved or we are experiencing stress, insecurity and fear, our thinking can mislead us to believe that certain things are true. Here are a few ways that our thoughts can mislead us:
Catastrophizing or minimizing
We can easily be convinced that the worst is going to happen. At the same time, some personality types can tend to ignore important information – including warning signs – that should spur us to take corrective action. Instead of projecting your worries and “what ifs” onto the future, fix your thought bubbles to focus on the present. Seek accurate perspectives rather than avoiding them.
Discounting the positive
Sometimes our filters screen out positive input. For example, if someone compliments you on being a great mom you might say, “Thanks, but you don’t see me every day. My kids aren’t usually this good.” Don’t deflect affirmation – accept it! There will always be critics and negative moments, so be sure to take the positive when it comes.
It’s easy to assume that when things happen, they are personal to you. When my son or daughter’s friends don’t text or call, their first assumption might be that it has something to do with themselves. Their thought bubbles can quickly fill with discouraging questions, such as: “Did I do something wrong? Am I not fun to be with?”
It’s natural for our brain to personalize, so we must train ourselves to think about other possibilities. For instance, “My friends might be busy today. Maybe they’re spending time with their family right now.” Consider what may be happening in the other person’s life rather than assuming that everything is about you.
Jumping to conclusions
We tend to jump to conclusions and react based on very little information. Make sure to slow down the speed of your thought bubbles enough to get the information you truly need to understand what is going on. For example, your kids might get into an argument that requires you to step in. Slow down your own stress and emotions so that you can carefully listen and help them sort through their own thought bubbles.
We tend to extend certain failures and successes to the rest of our lives. For example, news stories can make us think that teenagers are irresponsible, video-addicted, impulsive, lazy human beings. However, there are some teens that struggle and some teens that thrive. Break life down into specific and unique experiences. Just because your children misbehave one day doesn’t mean that your family is out of control or a mess. Maybe today wasn’t the best day, which is why each new sunrise is a chance to reset.
All or nothing thinking
We sometimes look at things in black and white terms: success or failure, good or bad, with no grey area in between. For example, your family may be succeeding in having less conflict, but this might be seen as a complete failure rather than growth toward healthy conflict in the home.
We sometimes assume what is popping up in other people’s thought bubbles. For example, “My child is screaming so they must think I’m an awful parent.” We don’t truly know other people’s thoughts unless they share them. What kinds of automatic thought bubbles pop up for you when you think about others? If your thought bubbles are generally positive, then you are more likely to assume that the other person’s thoughts are positive toward you. Use your thought bubbles to notice the positive in others rather than tearing them down.
The word “should” forms unrealistic expectations in our minds. For instance, statements like “My kids should make their beds every day” or “My kids should help out around the house” leave room for disappointment when those things do not happen. Try to use the word “could” instead. Your kids could do those things but may not. This will help shape your response in a positive way that will help them continue to grow. Your kids will respond more positively to “could” than “should.”
When emotions are in the mix, our thought bubbles can pop all over the place. Try to press the pause button and notice what types of thoughts your emotions are creating. Bring in some reality to help calm the thought bubbles that are infused with emotion.
Emotions are simply the mind’s signals for something that has already been interpreted. Emotions usually follow the thoughts that triggered them. For instance, when you have thoughts that someone you know may get sick and die, it makes sense that you would feel anxious in response to that thought. Focus your thoughts on what is in front of you.
One great way to focus your thoughts on the present is to try a technique called the 3 x 5 + 1 method. If your mind and emotions start racing, follow these steps to bring yourself back to the present reality:
- Look around you. Name 5 colours that you see.
- Listen to your surroundings. Name 5 sounds that you hear.
- Name 5 things that you can physically feel, such as the collar of your shirt against your neck or the breeze blowing across your skin.
Once you have gone through each of these 3 categories and listed 5 things each, ask yourself this 1 last question: “What do I need to be thinking about right now?”
This technique of observing your surroundings is a great way to pull your mind back into the present. This is also something that you can teach your kids if they start to feel anxious. Helping your children manage their thought bubbles will also help to manage their emotions.
Labelling and mislabelling
We tend to label things according to our emotions and very limited experience. For example, I’ve heard parents say, “I’m a bad parent.” I ask them for evidence of how they came up with that conclusion and label for themselves. Many times, it’s because they have unrealistically compared themselves to other parents without knowing the imperfections and challenges the other parents might have.
Reading our thought bubbles
Now it’s time to think about your own thought bubbles. Take the time to look at them as if they are literally popping up above your head as you think. Which thought bubbles are taking up the most real estate? Consider keeping a journal to record the themes of your thoughts. Jot down how emotions colour your thought bubbles. Challenge some of your thoughts and ask yourself, “Is there another way of looking at this?”
When you look back at your journal, what captures your attention? Is there a particular thought or theme that keeps popping up? Remember: what you pay attention to fuels your thought bubbles. Be aware that fear locks in our attention. It leads us to take a defensive posture to avoid pain, failure or other things we cannot control. Work to actively redirect those thoughts to things that you can control.
How to manage your thought bubbles
Here are some practical ways to start managing your thought bubbles and bursting the negative ones. These are just a few ideas; be creative and come up with some of your own. What are some other ways that you can think of to burst those negative thought bubbles.
Take some time outs
I recommend that parents put up a sheet of paper that has space for 5 check marks for time outs throughout the day. Next to it, jot down a list of possible things that you can do during your self-imposed time out. Time outs are great to model for kids as they learn to manage their own thought bubbles. Kids can also have their own sheet with check marks and a menu of things they can do to help themselves burst those negative thought bubbles.
Laughter helps calm anxiety. There are plenty of videos, cartoons and stories out there that are funny that you can access. Sometimes my kids and I will do tickle therapy when our thought bubbles get stuck.
Take a walk or get some exercise
Research supports the fact that exercise and taking a walk and a break are helpful for a person’s mental health. Take a walk around the neighbourhood with your family, go on a hike, or do something active together. Playing a game of backyard basketball or soccer can be a great way to bond and get some exercise at the same time.
Focus on the present
Keep your thoughts focused on the present rather than on the past or worrying about the future. This is especially helpful when you’re trying to listen to your children and connecting with them. In fact, the art of listening requires that your thought bubbles have peacefulness, care and attentiveness to what the other person is saying both verbally and through body language.
Give (or receive) a hug
A hug can help shift thought bubbles. My daughter came up to me while we were all working from home the other day and just gave me a hug. I felt an immediate shift in my thought bubbles.
A smile can also help shift negative thought bubbles. I love it when Elf (in the movie Elf) quotes, “Smiling is my favourite.” That statement itself makes me smile. Smiling and laughter can be contagious and can burst those negative thought bubbles.
Music is a big shifter of thought bubbles as well. Positive music creates positive thought bubbles; negative music forms negative thought bubbles. My daughter loves to sing. She recently got into playing the ukulele when she sings, and this has been a great way for her to manage her thought bubbles.
Managing our thought bubbles as parents and bursting the negative ones is an important practice in our home. Keeping our thought bubbles in check will help us demonstrate to our children how they can navigate their own thought bubbles.
Paul instructs us in Philippians 4:8, “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”
Be intentional about creating a culture of thought bubble management in your home.
Danny Huerta is a licensed counsellor and the director of parenting and youth at Focus on the Family in the U.S.
© 2020 by Focus on the Family. All rights reserved. Used with permission. Originally published at FocusOnTheFamily.com.
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