Optimism, part 3: Free Your Mind

In the last post in this series we examined realistic optimism’s possible positive value in schools and learned that research suggests it’s something we can learn to cultivate. Do you change your thoughts first and then your emotions follow? Or do you try a new behavior first and allow the new thoughts and beliefs to follow? There are a few different opinions here, but the overall consensus seems to be our thoughts, feelings, and actions are connected. In this post, we’ll look at one strategy from Albert Ellis/Martin Seligman to challenge unhelpful thoughts and replace them with more optimistic ones. 

We have thousands of thoughts a day. Our thoughts impact our emotional experience, which then further influences thinking as well as our actions. For example, when I was delivering a lesson and not feeing 100% prepared: 

  • My mind raced with thoughts: I should have prepared better…this is going to throw off the whole week…no one is paying attention. 
  • My emotions followed: I feel angry at myself. I feel nervous. I feel anxious about spending the next hour in this room trying to make this lesson happen. 
  • Then I cycle between thoughts and feelings and an overwhelming awareness of the physiological sensations of feeling like you are failing: I’m doing a terrible job, this feels excruciating…I feel nervous and everyone can see how nervous I am….I am sweating…a lot!

Somewhere wrapped up in all of this are unchecked beliefs, operating almost undercover, but still messing with my mind none-the-less: Someone else could do a better job, you aren’t good enough, you will never be good enough. This is not helping my situation and it’s mentally exhausting. Furthermore, when I really look at it, I’m being a big bully. I would never talk to anyone else like this. Here’s technique I use to rewrite these scripts. 

Mind over Matter: Don’t believe everything you think

Just because you think something, doesn’t mean it’s true. You can start with brining in more optimism by examining your thoughts, challenging unhelpful ones and changing your mind. What we may think is truth is really a judgement, an assumption, a bias, and often some deep hang-ups. This simple process ABCDE method from Albert Ellis/Martin Seligman provides a systematic way to examine our thinking. I use it daily. 

ADVERSITY: Begin by describing the adverse event in a clear and objective way. What is actually happening? The hardest part for me is to describe something without using judgements. Half the class is talking while I am talking is more objective then my class is being disrespectful and hates me. 

BELIEFS: Describe your beliefs about the adverse event. What are the stories, assumptions, and beliefs you have around this? Here are some beliefs straight from my own brain when I-just-couldn’t-even: This is unbearable. No one respects me. I am a bad teacher. I should know how to handle this. My students should know better then to act like this. I shouldn’t have classroom management issues in May, these are September-problems. 

CONSEQUENCES: What are the consequences of these thoughts and beliefs? Check in with how you feel. If you are lost in irrational thoughts like the ones I just described, chances are you aren’t feeling so great. 

DISPUTE: This is the magic. Look back over your beliefs. Can you dispute your beliefs? Instead of “This is unbearable” I might say, “Life is filled with challenges, this is really not the most difficult day I have ever endured.”  Instead of, “No one respects me,” I might say, “Most of the students in this class are respectful…I can’t expect everyone in the world to behave respectfully towards me at all times…I need to review our class rules.” Instead of, “My students should know better then to act like this” I could say, “They are struggling with something right now, it could be engagement, it could be that I haven’t taught them how to be successful in school yet…I need to learn more and respond.”  

ENERGY: Lastly, examine your energy after disputing your beliefs. For me, I felt hopeless and helpless after listing my negative beliefs, but quite hopeful and curious after challenging my thoughts. I also often have some ideas for how to respond thoughtfully and not from emotional reactions like anger and embarrassment. 

The ABCDE method is one I use to examine my thoughts and reframe them to support optimistic thinking. As an extra bonus, this reflective process helps me understand inner experiences that sometimes hide beneath the surface of my thoughts, feelings and actions. Taking time to look more closely at my negative emotions have been powerful clues to my own needs. Envy has helped me understand what I really want. My anger helped me learn what boundaries I am missing. 

In the next part of this series, we will look at how to change your behavior first and how that can influence your thoughts and beliefs in a positive way. 

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