We all want to be happy, fulfilled, well-adjusted and stress-free. The challenge, of course, is figuring out how to get there and I don’t need to tell you that it’s a heck of a lot easier said than done. In an ideal world, the stigma surrounding mental health would be lifted and we’d all visit with a psychologist or counselor for regular checkups the same way we see the family doctor, dentist or optometrist.
Sadly, that’s not really the case, but that doesn’t mean you can’t apply some fundamental principles from psychology to help you cope with day-to-day life. I experienced an episode with my daughter last night at bedtime that really drove this point home to me. It’s all about shifting your perspective.
Misconceptions About Psychology
Let me preface this by saying that while I majored in psychology in university, I am not a trained professional by any means. That said, I do have a basic understanding of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and how it’s supposed to work. And I’d like to pass some of that basic understanding onto you.
Many people have this vision in their head of what a psychotherapy session looks like. They conjure up what they might know about Sigmund Freud with the deep unconscious, traumatizing events as a child, penis envy and the Oedipus complex. Cognitive behavioral therapy is wholly different. It’s not looking for a deep-seeded resentment toward your parents or hidden meanings in your choice of partner. Instead, it’s much more goal-oriented, helping you solve your real world problems in a practical way.
The main objective is to shift your patterns of thinking and adjust your patterns of behavior to alleviate the difficulties and stresses that you are facing. It’s about re-framing your existence in a different light.
As I said, a great example of this happened last night.
It’s Story Time
I was putting my two-year-old daughter through her usual bedtime routine. She was surprisingly enthusiastic about going to brush her teeth and I took that as a positive sign. I lay her down in her bed and proceeded to read her a bedtime story. She got fidgety, so I tried to calm her down. I told her it was time to sleep.
I take her out of her sleep sack, take her out of her crib, and bring her over to the toilet where she does indeed proceed to relieve herself. Except now, she’s wide awake again and we have to start all over. After cleaning her back up, we go back to her room, get her back in her sleep sack, and continue reading the story.
And again, not two pages into the book, she once again demands to be taken to the washroom. I’m skeptical, but I’ve learned from experience that doubting these demands oftentimes leads to more trouble (and a bigger cleaning job) than it is worth. So, we go through that whole procedure again, except this time there is no tinkle. Nothing. She just sits on the potty and laughs at me. She thinks it’s play time again.
Long story slightly less long, what I thought was a very successful 15-minute bedtime routine became an hour-long marathon. My original intention was to write some variation of this blog post last night after putting her to bed, but I was just too drained. I crashed. And so here I am typing these words first thing in the morning instead.
Feelings of Failure
My initial reaction, how I felt last night, was that I had failed in some way. If I had the forethought to take my daughter to the washroom before trying to put her to bed, I may have avoided the episode altogether. If I had done that, then I would have had more time (and energy) afterwards to get some work done.
I felt like yesterday was not at all a productive day, because I was only able to get an hour or two in front of the computer to deal with some admin things and take care of a little bit of client work. I had come up short. I had failed. Again.
Looking back, I can recognize the faulty pattern of thinking that led me to such conclusions. By taking some guiding principles behind cognitive behavioral therapy, I can frame last night in a completely different light.
What Can We Learn?
It’s not that I didn’t get much work done; it’s that I spent practically the whole day with my daughter. That bonding time is invaluable and work as a “stay-at-home dad” is still work. It’s about recognizing my identity as such and embracing the immeasurable value that this time provides.
It’s not that I failed; it’s that I allowed myself to get caught up in negative self-talk. I didn’t fail in putting her to bed. She just wanted to spend more time with her daddy. She wanted to play, because she enjoys her time with me. And I did get her to go to sleep eventually. An hour isn’t that bad if you ask some other parents. It’s not a failure. It’s a small victory that isn’t that small after all.
And it’s not that taking her to the washroom in the middle of a bedtime routine is frustrating. It’s that we have been surprisingly successful with potty training, even overnight, and she knows to tell us that she needs to go. That’s definitely no small victory.
By consciously recognizing and deciding that I should think about and act upon such episodes differently, I hope to improve my overall outlook on life. By working to recognize the cognitive distortions — catastrophizing, polarized thinking, jumping to conclusions — I can form a new reality for myself.
As dear old Hamlet once said, “For there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”
You can choose to think differently. It’s just easier said than done.