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Challenging Thoughts and Changing Behavior


Man in Car

While listening to the news on my drive home from work awhile back, I heard a story about a road rage incident. A driving student hesitated at a stop sign, and when she turned into a parking lot, the driver behind her followed her, got out of his car, and started behaving aggressively.
I like to give people the benefit of the doubt, so I’ll imagine this man was having a really bad day. Maybe he had just had some bad news about the health of a loved one. Maybe he just lost his job. Whatever the reason, being delayed behind a slow driver pushed him over the edge. Thankfully, that incident resolved without major injury to anyone, but that isn’t always the outcome.  

We have all likely experienced frustration while driving. Just this morning, someone suddenly turned left in front of me when I had the green light. We don’t always take time to think about our response to these kinds of frustrating situations. Most of the time, they pass without causing us any major difficulties, but sometimes our response isn’t something we feel good about, and we wish we could have handled things differently.
Cognitive Triangle
In Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, there is the idea of the “cognitive triangle,” which is the triangle that links our thoughts, feelings and behaviors. This is at the heart of recognizing and changing our behaviors.  

I imagine the driver from the news story pulled up behind the driving student, and when she missed her turn to go, he began to imagine why this driver was holding him up. He may have thought she was a terrible driver, he may have thought she was purposely making him late.  Then, he likely started to feel angry that she was making him late. His anger and frustration built up, leading him to act out.  

This cycle of thoughts, feeling, and behaviors can feed on each other, leading us to behave in ways we may not have intended. If we can find a way to stop the cycle, we can change our behavior and how we feel about difficult situations we may be facing.  

Imagine if this driver had pulled up behind the student, she hesitated and missed opportunities to turn, and he started to think about what a terrible driver she was. What if at that point he had asked himself, “What could another explanation be for this situation?”

Maybe he would have come up with the idea that she was a new driver (which was true), maybe he would have thought she was having a bad day.  There are several possible explanations for hesitating at a stop sign.  If he had taken a few minutes to consider other possibilities, it might have changed how he felt about the situation.  He may have still been frustrated, but he may have also felt some compassion or understanding.  Without feeding his frustration or anger, his behavior certainly would have changed.  He likely would have continued on his way, and would have missed out entirely on the altercation.  

Not all of us have problems with road rage, but most of us have thoughts or behaviors that cause us problems in some way or another. Learning to recognize the cycle of our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors can help us change our trajectory. At any point in that cycle, we can stop and ask ourselves questions such as:

*What evidence do I have that this is an accurate thought?

*What could be another explanation for this situation?

*What are the advantages or disadvantages of how I am reacting to this experience?

*Am I blaming myself for something that isn’t my fault?

*Am I taking something personally, that actually has nothing to do with me?
Going through questions like these can help us take a step back to reevaluate a situation and to help us change how we think and feel about it, which helps us change our behavior. We don’t have to stick with behaviors we don’t feel good about.  

Every new experience is a new change for learning to do things differently. It’s okay to not be perfect right away, but with practice, we can change to be the kind of person we really want to be!