Trains of thought

In my last post I said I’d explore how an initial irrational thought can lead to a train of connected irrational thoughts, expanding from incident-specific to generalized irrational thoughts. Thinking this way doesn’t help you to feel the way you’d like to feel, or to act wisely.

I used to lead a psychoeducational group (as opposed to a process group) called Skills for Recovery at South Carolina’s largest psychiatric hospital. When I taught my module on rational thinking and irrational trains of thought, I’d draw a crude train on the whiteboard as I taught the concepts. I started by drawing a rectangle on “wheels” on the right-hand side of the board, adding a smokestack and a triangular cowcatcher to distinguish it as the locomotive. Then (right-to-left) I’d draw several more rectangles on wheels – boxcars – behind the locomotive. Inside the locomotive rectangle I’d write Activating Event, then I’d write Thought 1, Thought 2, Thought 3, etc. in the boxcars (right-to-left). My standard rap on trains of thought went something like this:

Trains can take you places, hopefully places you want to go. Trains of thought can also take you places. If your thoughts remain rational, your trains of thought  will take you in positive directions. If they’re irrational, they’re likely to take you places you don’t want to go. Take Luke for example. He’s between girlfriends and looking for a new one. He fancies himself a pretty good dancer, and likes to hang out at dance bars and clubs. He’s attracted to Lucy and has seen her out on the dance floor with different men. He works up the courage to approach her at the bar, introduces himself, and asks her if she’d like to dance. She says “No thanks,” gives no qualifiers or explanations, and walks away. Luke isn’t sure how to read her Mona Lisa smile.

Luke’s first thought is rational. “I’m disappointed that she doesn’t want to dance with me.” If he remains rational, he might think “I don’t know why she turned me down. I probably never will, and that’s okay. It may not have anything to do with me, personally. I’ll find someone who wants to dance with me before the evening’s over. And even if I don’t, it’s not the end of the world.” If, instead, Luke has a gut reaction and starts thinking irrationally, his thinking might go in either of two directions: what’s wrong with her, or what’s wrong with me? If he boards the former irrational train, he might conclude that (T1) she’s either a lesbian, or that (T2) she’s stuck-up and thinks she’s too good for him. After another drink, he might start to generalize that (T3) all women are like that, thinking they’re better than us, and that (T4) they’re all stuck-up bitches who don’t know a real man when they see one. Luke’s behavioral response to these angry thoughts is to get hammered.

Luke may instead think of his rejection by Lucy as proof that there’s something wrong with him. He might jump to the conclusion that (T1) she turned him down because she doesn’t find him attractive – which may or may not be the case. He’ll probably never find out, but irrational thinkers with low self-esteem tend not to give themselves the benefit of the doubt on such self-judgments. Luke may think that (T2) he was foolish to ask Lucy to dance in the first place; he should have known she’d turn him down. He may convince himself that (T3) there’s no point in asking any other woman to dance, because she’d just turn him down like Lucy did. Riding that irrational train of thought, he might generalize that (T4) he’s just not attractive to women. From there he might label himself (T5) a pitiful Loser who will never find love, and leaving the club thinking suicidal thoughts.

Suicide is a mood-specific behavior; people never try to kill themselves because they’re elated. Some impulsive suicide attempts are triggered by a train of irrational thoughts, culminating in the irrational belief that suicide is the “solution” to the present conflict or problem. This kind of irrational thinking can be fatal. Suicide hotlines have saved innumerable lives by engaging people who are in crisis in compassionate dialogue until the suicidal mood passes.

Trains of irrational thought are perpetuated when we don’t recognize them as such, and ruminate on them. Situational depressions can be drawn out by dwelling on negative thoughts. If you should catch yourself ruminating on negative thoughts, learn to identify and challenge them. Luke might challenge his persistent thoughts that he’s a pitiful Loser in this manner: “Is it a fact or do I just feel that way? If it’s a fact, what’s the proof? Some pretty women have been attracted to me, and I don’t even know if Lucy turned me down because she doesn’t find me attractive. I have friends who believe in me and don’t think I’m a Loser. Loser is just a word, anyway. I’m not a Loser! Like everyone else, sometimes I win and sometimes I lose. Anyway, sitting here staring at the floor and feeling sorry for myself isn’t helping anything. I need to go for a run.”

Negative, irrational thinking and ruminations can be a “rehearsal for failure,” while riding rational trains of thought can be a “rehearsal for success.” People  who become mindful students of their own thinking can eventually become experts on their own thinking and where it typically takes them. They can avoid the traps of irrational thinking and ride trains of thought that take them to chosen destinations. Cognitive and cognitive behavioral therapies resonate with the buddhist teaching that all suffering arises from our attachment to things – in this case to irrational thoughts and expectations. Irrational thoughts often lead to irrational decisions and behaviors, based on false assumptions. Becoming a rational thinker means learning to spot and challenge your irrational thoughts before you act on them. It gets easier with practice.