Without any further explanation of the Mindset mission, I want you to jump with me right into an extremely useful and effective Mindset intervention. This is the concept of Level 1 and Level 2 thinking, a simple but powerful tool for reducing the level of distress you are experiencing, no matter how bad things actually are. Level 1 thinking refers to the basic acknowledgement of the problems with which you are actually struggling right now. Some examples of Level 1 thoughts might be:
I am depressed, anxious or angry.
I’m miserable at my job, and I don’t feel I’m taken seriously by my boss.
I’m not involved in a romantic relationship, and have no prospects.
I am feeling inadequate or unlovable.
Social situations terrify me, and I sometimes have panic attacks
I am worried almost all of the time about something.
I am an addict.
My marriage is not going well, and I might be headed for divorce.
I’m disorganized and I don’t use my time well.
I’m grieving the loss of someone close to me; they either died or they dumped me.
Now, understandably, having one or more of these thoughts or awarenesses could cause you to feel depressed, anxious or angry, and any one of them might even be 100% true. In a later post, I will help you to evaluate the ACCURACY of these thoughts with the Mindset Mood Lenses, or by using techniques such as the Downward Arrow to get a more specific handle on why these thoughts are so upsetting, even if they are true. But for now, I want to help you appreciate what a very heavy and burdensome additional layer of unhappiness comes from the Level 2 thoughts. These might include:
I should have solved these problem by now.
The fact that I have these problems is a sign that I am weak or a failure.
If I were a strong person, I wouldn’t have these problems.
I must hide the fact that I have these problems from others, as they are embarrassing and shameful.
I am ashamed of myself for having these problems.
Others would judge, criticize or dislike me if they knew I had these problems.
I am going to pass these problems on to my children, just as my parents did to me.
I cannot live with myself so long as I have these problems.
So, I would like for you to pause for a moment here. Are you able to notice a difference between the Level 1 and Level 2 thoughts? The Level 1 thoughts represent the actual struggles we may be experiencing, whereas the Level 2 thoughts are the negative judgments and interpretations we are making about the very fact that we even have the Level 1 thoughts or problems in the first place. Basically, Level 2 thoughts are those that make us feel bad for feeling bad. Kind of like a double whammy, that does little more than add insult to injury.
As you continue to work through the Mindset program, you will come to see that most of these Level 2 thoughts do contain elements of the Mindset Mood Lenses at work (sometimes known as thinking errors or distortions). And I will be teaching you how to re-evaluate and re-process these thoughts with additional Mindset tools. But for now, I simply want to help you identify these Level 2 thoughts as a group, and to acknowledge just how much additional unhappiness they are adding to the burden of your Level 1 thoughts. By doing so, we can often reduce their negative impact on our mood, just by increasing our awareness of them.
I would love to illustrate this concept for you right now, using one of my favorite visual aids, which is the pie chart (you know, that round-shaped graph thing). Unfortunately, given the still-developing level of my own graphic and technical abilities, I cannot actually “show” it to you, but I describe it for you and have you either picture it or, better yet, draw one out for yourself. When I first meet with a new patient, I often create a pie chart for them. This helps us both see just how much of their unhappiness is due to each particular area of difficulty in their life (difficult relationship, difficult feelings about self, problems with job, problems with money, etc.). In addition, I also ask my patients how much of their current unhappiness is driven by the Level 1 thoughts, the actual problems they are experiencing, and how much of it is driven by the Level 2 thoughts, their negative judgments about the fact that they have the Level 1 thoughts. Almost every time, we come to see that the Level 2 thoughts are responsible for as much, if not more, pain and frustration than are the Level 1 thoughts. The message here is that, for so many of us, our most serious problem is the nagging belief that we have serious and unacceptable problems. As I am sure you will agree, such a belief can be a far greater source of self-criticism, guilt, shame, anger or fear than the Level 1 thoughts or problems themselves. The visual pie chart is useful because for patients because it gives them a very clear idea of just how much of their suffering they might be able to eliminate by freeing themselves from these Level 2 thoughts. For now, I hope your imagination or simple hand drawn chart will give you the “picture.”
So, my greatest hope at this time is that this basic description of Level 1 and Level 2 thoughts will provide you with a little additional mental perspective on your situation, and that, with such a perspective shift, you can begin to ease up on yourself.
Okay, you may now be asking, “how exactly is my awareness of my Level 2 Thoughts going to help me reduce my distress?” The answer is simple, although it’s implementation takes a bit of effort. It requires nothing other than a little more compassion and gentleness toward your self. This would be very similar to the kindness and understanding you would offer to a close friend, family member, partner or child who was experiencing a similar level of distress. If you are like most of us, the manner in which you respond to someone else experiencing such upsetting thoughts, feelings or problems would be a whole lot more sympathetic than is the way you are responding to your self in the same situation.
Of course, I do understand that, to most of you, the concept of being easier on yourself for feeling depressed, anxious, angry, or having just about any other problem in life may seem a bit odd. After all, it is quite common for us to believe that we should not tolerate, let alone be sympathetic to, the fact that we are struggling with such problems. We usually expect ourselves to suck it up, deal with it, fix it, cut it out, and above all, never whine about it or feel sorry for ourselves. Well, I am here to tell you that I recommend doing the opposite.
That’s right, I am a big fan of openly owning our problems; of struggling with them, resisting the urge to fix them, allowing them to exist, and of complaining about them, and feeling sorry for ourselves for having them. Are you shocked? Well, the fact is that there is solid research to support the idea that being critical or punishing of ourselves for having our problems actually leads them to worsen, whereas being more understanding and forgiving with ourselves allows us to more quickly heal and move forward. I’ll be glad to reference this research later in the Mindset program.
Please stay tuned for more guidance on exactly how to accomplish this unusual but immensely powerful goal.