In One Habit Series for Better Mental Health, today we will dive deeper into exploring how to prevent minor problems before they get out of hand.
Some people can be happy very easily. Others, on the contrary, are always unhappy. Because we use this concept of happiness or unhappiness in our daily lives in a non-healthy way, It is difficult to identify problems. The truth is, being unhappy isn’t always a bad thing. Moreover, it is impossible for us to always be happy. Then what we need to do is to learn how to deal with our problems, the tasks and responsibilities of everyday life even when we are not happy. People realize, in the end, that the purpose of their lives should not be happy, but more complete satisfaction and awareness. So, what can we do to protect this notion of being content?
The subject of our One Habit series today is to solve the small problems before they grow into bigger ones. I can think of many examples in my life that I can’t do this behavior, this habit. Maybe what holds us back from doing this is that we feel hesitant, or being afraid. Maybe we simply don’t want to deal with problems so we outright ignore them. But when there is a problem, we need to realize how fast things can get out of hand if we don’t stop the problem beforehand because of fear or anxiety.
Why Are We Hesitant to Take Action?
In many psychology classes, we learn about the concept of negative thinking and the notion of discipline. I think these concepts are very relevant to this post, and I’d like to connect these two topics. The lack of discipline and negative thinking problems can cause the reluctance of solving problems and taking actions.
First of all, we have to constantly control ourselves, our behaviors and emotions. The concept of control here is not meant as a form of inhibition, but rather a movement of monitoring our development. The motivation of this control mechanism must come from one’s own awareness and discipline because others cannot control your problems, emotions or thoughts. This monitoring action must also be continuous and should be done at regular intervals.
An example would be good in this case. While studying for university exams, SAT’s, language classes and so forth, we all tried to improve our scores. Many of us have often tracked our scores, number of correct answers and wrong answers from one exam to another. We checked and followed our progress, to see if our score increased over time.
This is how one should follow his progress, checking the thoughts and behaviours constantly over time. Let me explain this with an example from daily life. Imagine that a person is very unhappy at work. But can unhappiness be explained by a total score, like the example above? This is exactly what we need to do. We call it “operational definition” in psychology. That is, to make a variable operational, ready to use.
How Do We Score Our Behaviors and Thoughts?
In this example, first, you need to define what being unhappy at work means for you. There may be many dimensions of this definition, for example, your salary may be insufficient, or you think that the work you do is worthless. Taking notes of such dimensions, or even rating them, will help you understand how well or worse the situation has gone.
The point of that is; instead of classifying something as good or bad, happy or unhappy, we need to separate it into dimensions and give scores to those dimensions.
After this scoring system, we can evaluate ourselves with it. Are we going in the direction we want or not? Are things going for better or worse? For example, a person who is unhappy with his job may say that he is increasingly unhappy. However, everything in this grading system may have remained constant. Maybe the money I received is the same, my duties have not changed, but I feel even more unhappy. In such cases, this grading system will be useful in understanding whether this unhappiness is caused by work or other factors are effective. At the same time, it will be much more effective, with this grading system, to control the problems before things get worse and grow further.
At this point, keeping a diary to monitor the development of your thoughts and emotions can be a good suggestion. This way, you can easily see what makes you happy, when and with whom you are happy. You can also track what you are afraid to do, and when and why you are unhappy. Keeping a diary will also be very helpful during the therapy sessions if you are going to therapy and willing to share the content of your diary. Even if you don’t have the habit of keeping a diary, your therapist may ask you to start keeping a diary.
Negative Thinking Patterns
Back to the unwillingness of taking action. We said that another reason might be negative thinking patterns. By negative thinking here, we mean the topics of irrational beliefs and cognitive distortions. These topics are very popular in psychology classes and psychology literature, especially when learning about cognitive behavioural therapy. You can see examples of them in this post. So how do cognitive distortions prevent us from monitoring ourselves and keep us from taking actions to solve problems?
One of the reasons people use cognitive distortions and irrational beliefs is them being defense mechanisms. When we face some difficulties, we return to our old habits of using cognitive distortion patterns. As an example of cognitive distortions, let’s discuss black and white thinking. Also called splitting, black and white thinking is a cognitive distortion where we think something is either completely good or bad.
When used as a defense mechanism, this kind of thinking can stop us from taking an action to solve a problem we face because we think that the result will be either very good or bad, no matter what we do. This means that we have no control over the situations or events. When we give up such control, we do nothing but wait for the problems to grow and cause a collapse. This dichotomous thinking was only one of the cognitive distortions, but there may be many that we use. Therefore, to constantly control ourselves, we need to be aware of our irrational beliefs and cognitive distortions.
So What Can We Do?
We need to learn how to solve minor problems before they get big and cause serious issues.
Setting Healthy Boundaries and Learning to Say No
The first thing to be done for this is to learn how to set healthy boundaries for ourselves and others.
It’s hard for some people to say no. We see this especially in people who are people-pleasers. However, people who cannot say no will eventually exhaust themselves from working hard, carrying everyone on their backs and being responsible for everyone’s feelings.
We must learn to say no to people and protect our boundaries before we get to this exhaustion phase.
In psychology literature and the clinical settings, many psychotherapy methods teach a client to protect their rights and say no. There are thousands of cases in which these psychotherapy methods have been successful.
For this reason, it would be appropriate to say setting some boundaries and being able to say no without feeling bad is a learned behaviour. So if it can be learned, why shouldn’t we?
Unfortunately, people do not come to therapy except in extreme situations. There are many reasons for this, to name a few, the social or economic reasons. Therefore, I leave a few book suggestions on how to say no that you can read without going to therapy. These books do not replace the effect of therapy, but they are a start.
How Can We Communicate More Effectively?
Another way to prevent problems from getting bigger is effective communication. In order to communicate effectively, we need to convey what we want to say to the other side without being offensive, getting angry or without starting an argument.
Case: Amy moved to a new house with her boyfriend. She then realizes that her boyfriend is very messy and doesn’t pick up after himself. Amy does not tell her boyfriend that his behaviour upsets her because she doesn’t want to make him unhappy in this new home. Instead, she does all the cleaning by herself and wears herself out.
Analysis: Because Amy does the whole housework instead of trying to communicate, she is burned out. She automatically assumes that having this conversation with her boyfriend will upset him. However, she doesn’t know what the end result of the conversation could be. Her boyfriend could receive the conversation very well and take actions. But the reluctance of Amy’s taking an action can create a bigger problem where she will resent her boyfriend. In the end, she might end up explode and start a fight. The best course of action is to express your needs and expectations as they come up, not sometime later. When you clearly express yourself, the others will take action. If this action is not what you wished it would be, then you can start thinking about other ways to solve the problem.
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