Today, I want to talk to ya'll about cognitive distortions, the things we tell ourselves that just aren't true and not based at all on reality, and how these lead us to give up. Lately, I've been struggling quite a bit with feelings of defeat creeping up. With the big changes happening in my life, particularly starting a graduate program in a field I have very limited knowledge in, I've noticed that when I find myself getting frustrated with the process of learning something new, I often jump to just wanting to give up.
I believe this is something a lot of us struggle with when trying something new. Maybe a new job, starting school, moving to a new place.. Putting ourselves into new situations and trying to just figure it out as we go can be incredibly aggravating and lead us to that feeling of, "Oh, fuck it! I'm never going to get this, so why try?" Read: those pesky cognitive distortions start to take hold. That thought seems to be creeping in more and more the farther I get into this program at school.
One thing that I've learned over time about these thoughts and feelings is that they often are hiding the underlying message that we're telling ourselves - "This is too hard." "I should be able to do this." "I'm just not smart enough to get this." Sometimes, we even jump to the conclusion that, "I'm too stupid to learn this," which is a real shame, because another thing I've come to realize is that most of us can learn most things with time, practice, and patience. The 'ole, "you can do anything you set your mind to."
Now, this is not to say that if you happen to find the one thing you just won't be able to get that something is wrong with you. There is certainly a balance between giving up prematurely without enough effort and continuing to push through when it's not worth it anymore. It comes down to deciphering the reason behind why you're wanting to quit or stop putting effort into something.
There have been a couple times in my life where I kept failing at something, and it finally came to a point where it didn't seem to make sense to keep going. One was basketball - no matter how much time I put into it, I never felt like I got much better. There was little progress here and there, but it never felt substantial. After a couple years of playing on my school team, then making the transition to high school, I had a moment where I asked myself, "Why are you working so hard at this? Do you even enjoy it?" And, the answer came out to, "No." I wasn't enjoying it, and the only reason I kept with it for so long was because I had friends playing and I didn't want to be seen as a quitter, but I was not enjoying myself anymore and didn't really care all that much about playing it. Luckily, after quitting, I found other sports, particularly tennis and dance, that I both enjoyed far more and was much better at.
But, this post isn't about quitting; it's about finding those things that help you get through the tough parts of stepping outside your comfort zone. Do I think that I should quit studying political science because I'm finding it difficult? No, I don't think that's the answer. Sure, this program is hard, but it's supposed to be. Not only is it a new field for me, but it's a graduate program in a new country. I think it's actually pretty normal that I'm finding it difficult, and most likely I have the abilities to get better at it.
So, what is one to do when you're working hard at something but it's proving to be rather difficult, which is creating a breeding ground for those cognitive distortions? You've decided that this is something you don't want to quit, at least not right now, but those negative thoughts keep coming up and discouraging you. Well, I've compiled a list of a few tips that I've found helpful throughout the years, and I'm hoping you'll also find them helpful in getting you through challenging times.
1. Remind myself that I'm doing something new and take it easy on myself. Using this affirmation isn't meant to ignore the feelings that are coming up or excuse myself from putting the work into improving or learning. Rather, it's just meant to walk me off that ledge that all the negative thoughts have pushed me towards. It reminds me that trying new things are indeed hard, and that I'm not supposed to know everything..that's the whole point in learning something new! For me, using this reminder is helpful in bringing some groundedness back into my relationship with this challenge and help me regain focus to keep going.
2. Keep up my self-care routine. When stress hits, it's so easy to let all those healthy routines fall to the wayside. For me, I tend to exercise less, sleep in more, and reach for comfort foods. These things aren't inherently bad; if I'm really feeling tired from stress, maybe I'll give myself an extra hour of sleep. The issue arises when I'm sleeping in more days that not or reaching for a third cup of coffee and all the junk food. We tend to justify these actions, but really, we would be far better served to keep up our routines. When I get stressed, that's the perfect time to keep up my yoga routine, drink lots of water, and have some healthy meals. This is the time when my body and mind need it the most.
3. Think of things I'm good at or successes I've had in the past. With school, a big reason why I find myself getting frustrated is because I'm new at political science. My entire background has been in psychology and social work, so of course making the shift into a new field will be challenging. Reminding myself that I've had successes - finishing my masters in social work, being an effective therapist, becoming a yoga instructor, being able to overcome other difficult things in life. By doing this, I'm arguing against the thought that I'm stupid or incapable of succeeding, because these thoughts simply aren't true and I have the proof.
4. Take breaks. This goes back to taking care of and knowing yourself. One thing that I've been trying to work on with school this time around is giving myself more time to complete assignments. With my MSW, I could whip papers out much quicker and easier than I can in this program. I had four years of undergrad education and two years of experience in the field to pull from, but I have very little experience when it comes to political science. Knowing that, I'm getting started on papers sooner and taking multiple breaks to prevent myself from getting so frustrated that the case of the "fuck it's" takes over.
5. Reach out to friends and family to vent or get reassurance from. This is a big one for me. Often when I find that I'm struggling with something, I will stuff it all in and end up taking my anger out on those around me. When we hold onto our struggles, we actually start to create an inner environment of shame. So, not only are you dealing with some pretty negative thoughts, but now you're adding shame on top of it. Not a good combo! I've learned that by actually telling someone, usually my husband, best friend, or my mom, I feel much better and can get some ammo against those negative thoughts. The people supporting me are usually very quick to remind me that believing I'm just too stupid to get this is completely false. They bring me back to reality and remind me of the successes I've had in the past. Talking about it also allows me to process what's happening out loud and sometimes get helpful advice about moving forward. It's an opportunity to be vulnerable with someone important to you, which actually creates a deeper connection and brings more peace into your life.
Just keep climbing.
What's at the top is amazing.
I hope these tips were helpful, especially for all you trying new, challenging things. Keep up the hard work! I know you've got this.
What are some ways that you all get through difficult times and have fought those cognitive distortions? Are there other things you've found helpful? I'd love to hear what's worked for you. Let me know what could be added to this list.
May you fight those negative thoughts
May you find the strength to keep going
May you reach your goals
May you learn how capable you truly are