All or Nothing Thinking and My Bipolar Brain

Unhealthy Thought Patterns

I champion Cognitive Behavioral Therapy every chance I get. I use what I learned from it nearly every day of my life, and I think it can help most, if not all, people who fall somewhere on the mental illness spectrum. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT for short) is a way for people with unhealthy thinking patterns to train themselves to identify, respond to, and recover from the flawed logic that shapes their approach to life. One thinking pattern that runs rampant in my bipolar brain is All-Or-Nothing Thinking. From the link:

“All-or-nothing thinking refers to thinking in extremes. You are either a success or a failure. Your performance was totally good or totally bad. If you are not perfect, then you are a failure. This binary way of thinking does not account for shades of gray, and can be responsible for a great deal of negative evaluations of yourself and others.”

Identifying this kind of thinking as flawed was the key to me finding a new, healthy direction to grow.

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Is This Real?

Both because of my bipolar disorder and because of trauma I experienced as a child, the all-or-nothing way of thinking is my instinct. My first response to my own actions is to classify them as “good” or “stupid.”
SIDE NOTE: When I’m manic the words switch to “BEST EVER WOW” and “O great sorrows, why would God do this to me?”

Before I had the tools to fight against such judging, I assumed my judgments were real, as real as anything I could see or hear or smell. While I wouldn’t call myself a witchy person if I didn’t believe in the power of thought upon reality, understanding any thought in and of itself as REAL seems dangerous to me in any circumstance. When I thought my own judgments were real, I felt that when I had done something "bad" I was “stupid,” I was responding to the emotions that I felt in response to disappointment. I can trace this back to an abuser from my childhood, who imprinted upon me that I was quite stupid unless I did “good” things; i.e., things that person wanted me to do.

When my brain feels the emotions it remembers first feeling in childhood, it still responds the way my child brain responded. Added to this is the very real chemical imbalance that manifests in bipolar, which adds neurotransmitter fuel to this negative-thought fire. It’s as if my disappointment in the outcome of a project (or whatever happens to trigger this thought pattern) is a lever that pushes self-loathing to the forefront of my mind. With CBT, I can confront this unhealthy pattern directly. 

Where would any of our blogs be without cheeky tangential references to 00s-era boy bands?

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Process

First I try to step out of my mind, which is hard at first but becomes easier with practice. We want to get to a state where we can understand that our brains are giving us these thoughts and emotions, and that thoughts and emotions do not comprise reality. After I feel removed enough from the thought, I can identify it as one of many unhealthy patterns. Then I can assess what I really need for myself to be in a better space. Sometimes I just need to focus on my breath, sometimes I need to cry, sometimes I need to be alone until the mood from the whole situation passes.

Of course, it’s not a guarantee that this process will work exactly as outlined 100% of the time. In another post, I will talk about visionwork strategies that turn the CBT process into a more narrative form, which stimulates more creative thinking that can bypass unhealthy thinking patterns when they are too overpowering to distance.

What are y’all’s experiences with CBT? Do you think there’s an element of magic in changing your thoughts?