The carnival ride that was my day started at 4:30 AM. This seems an unnatural hour for a human to be awake. And yet I am frequently up at this time attending to domestic or professional responsibilities, or some combination of both. I am not alone in this, I know. As I haunted our still apartment, pumping fresh milk for the baby and packing my tools for the flower market, I began preparing mentally for the day ahead. In the muggy blackness of the morning, I set out for the Manhattan Bridge---the city on the other side, still/already bustling with activity. Driving over, I fantasized about the delicious coffee beverage I would enjoy before hitting the floral vendors, did a quick survey of all the tasks I had to complete before my 2 PM installation (including pumping two more times) and mustered up an extra helping of confidence and sense of competence. I thought, “I have a lot going on and I am really doing it! RIGHT ON, SISTER!” My primary objective is always to keep that thought (or something just like it) as my ballast. I aim to stay the course psychologically with something helpful and supportive as my guide, until I am back at home base, checked in for the night. It is not easy, has never been easy, will never be easy. Forthwith, a record of my efforts on this particular, not necessarily unusual, day. I came close to totaling the car when the cab in front of me decided to slam on the brakes (appropros of nothing) while crossing an intersection through a green light. I navigated the interminable construction on Houston (fight or flight response still kicked into high gear) and eventually slid into a parking spot near the coffee place. I took a minute to regroup---my heart still beating a little too noticeably---and thought to myself, ‘UGH, THIS CITY!’ I knew I would live a full day before most people even crack an eye. Then, I did a reframe that went something like this, ‘So, that makes me lucky, I’ll get twice the day out of it.’ I let out a sigh (an audible dusting myself off), shoved open the car door and spilled onto the street with my bloated purse (Why always so HEAVY, Sarah?) and clipboard, ready for action.
The process of taking negative thoughts and replacing them with positive thoughts is a very simple component of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). The basic tenet of CBT is that you can change the way you feel and behave by changing the way you think. In the above example, my automatic thought was that this city was making me crazy. If I continued down the path of that negative thinking, I might feel awful about my situation and then engage in self-defeating behavior. When you interrupt the process of barreling straight from the thought bubble to the emotion to the behavior, it is like pushing the reset button over and over. You get a fresh start on each experience and eventually, you may find that the maladaptive thinking begins to lessen. The positive feedback loop is that the sunnier your thoughts, the happier you feel and the more effectively you move through life. It all sounds so heel-click-y and effortless, right? Depending upon myriad factors, including temperament, physiology, environment et al, the phrase “easier said than done” may have strong resonance here.
Among my all-time “Aha!” moments in terms of challenging negative thought patterns came years ago from a superb clinical supervisor at an outpatient psychiatric clinic. During our supervision (a weekly meeting that’s sort of like professional therapy for therapists), we covered many esoteric concepts. We discussed the theoretical underpinnings of the work I was doing. We reviewed patient after patient and delved into my private response to each of them, how my past experiences and intimate feelings might impact our sessions. We discussed psychotropic medications and which of the patients seemed to be benefitting.
One week, I came in fit to be tied about some issue at graduate school over which I was completely powerless. It was distracting me from my work that day. My supervisor sat and listened patiently as I described the nature of my snit. Finally, he said, “Have I ever told you about my commute?” Incredulous, I thought, ‘This jackass isn’t even LISTENING to me.’ I managed a, ‘No.’ And then he proceeded to tell me that he drives an hour to and from work, every day on the busiest freeway in the city. He said that both ways, he sits in bumper-to-bumper traffic for an hour, sometimes more. For various reasons, he did not have an option to change this commute, so he was resigned to this fate. I flashed on the sense of helplessness and frustration that I was sure must well up inside him while sitting idle on the freeway. I asked, ‘How INSANE must that make you?’ He replied with this: “It doesn’t make me crazy at all. I just decide to relax and use the time to think and dream and listen to great music.” Genius. I couldn’t believe it---he was explaining to me that there are actually options from which to choose when interpreting your life circumstances. For whatever reason, no amount of study or my own therapy put as fine a point on it as that miniature sketch. My mind was officially blown.
Which brings us back to now. During the course of the day in question, I was confronted with many, many opportunities to lose my shit. These opportunities ranged from, “Good GRAVY, NO!” moments to “Well, that’s annoying.” interludes. I experienced a little witching hour---right around 3PM things got dicey and I drifted into approximately 13 solid minutes of self-pity. I gave myself permission to indulge until I was back at the apartment. Interestingly, I found I didn’t need all the time I had allotted.