What’s the difference between bad and awful? The two words seem pretty similar, don’t they? As it turns out, the distinction between thinking something is bad verses awful has a huge effect on how we react. Let me explain.
Thoughts, emotions, actions
I frequently write about this, but it’s worth repeating: how we think leads to how we feel, which then drives our actions. In other words, thoughts determine emotions, which directs behavior. Therefore, if we have some behavior to change, like becoming violent, we have to go back and look at the thoughts that started our trouble.
If we have some behavior to change, we have to go back and look at the thoughts that started our trouble.
Actions like being sarcastic, becoming defensive, yelling, or even turning violent are often rooted in anger. Anger, it turns out, is an emotion frequently generated by irrational or distorted thoughts. The thoughts are irrational because they are either not true or they are exaggerated.
Rational and irrational thoughts
Here’s an example from my personal experience. My ex-wife would make plans with me, and then cancel at the last minute to do something with her friends. Without defending her behavior, my reaction to this situation was way too strong. The problem started with how I thought about her actions.
“What she did was awful,” I’d tell myself. “I can’t stand it when I get dumped like that. She absolutely shouldn’t do that. She’s a terrible person.” These thoughts were irrational because they overstated the truth.
Instead of thinking irrational thoughts, what if I had more rational ones? “What she did was bad, but not awful. I could and did survive from being stood up, so in fact, I could stand it. I prefer to not be treated that way, but sometimes it will happen.”
Here are some other rational thoughts: “While canceling plans is a relationship foul, it was still her right to do so. There may be some legitimate reasons for a person to change their schedule at the last minute. Even if what she did was bad, it does not make her a terrible person because we all do hurtful things sometimes.”
The problem with “awful”
The problem with irrational thoughts is that they lead us to unhealthy feelings like self-pity, depression, anxiety, anger, or rage. In the example above, my distorted thoughts led to feeling angry and even enraged, which wasn’t serving me well. Those powerful emotions compelled me to try to stop what was happening any way I could—usually by using some form of controlling behavior.
Irrational thoughts lead us to unhealthy feelings like self-pity, depression, anxiety, anger, or rage.
Rational thoughts, on the other hand, generate healthier emotions. When we think of an event as inconvenient, unfortunate, or disappointing, then we feel disappointment or regret. These are much more manageable emotions and don’t lead to big, violent reactions. I could be disappointed that she canceled our plans, and I might even tell her so, but I wouldn’t need to stop her from leaving.
Changing thought patterns
Clearly, thinking rational thoughts about a situation is better than thinking irrational ones. The difficulty comes in remembering to do it, especially in the heat of the moment. If we’re in the habit of thinking distorted thoughts, we’re likely to go there the next time something comparable happens.
Habits, including thought habits, are simply brain neurons that have repeatedly fired together in a particular sequence. We’ll likely follow these same thought patterns when we face similar circumstances again. Our brains take the well-traveled path unless we blaze a new trail.
Changing our thought patterns permanently involves practice. Even after the event, we can remember the situation, challenge the irrational thoughts, and replace them with more rational ones. Much like a driving simulator, this exercise helps our brains respond to tough situations automatically in a new, healthy way.
Is there anything that can happen to us that would truly be awful? What about losing a job, having the stock market crash, getting divorced, acquiring a grave illness, or facing death? Those could really be awful, right?
Even losing a job, having the stock market crash, getting divorced, acquiring a grave illness, or facing death doesn’t have to be awful.
That’s where having a relationship with God and putting him in charge of our lives matters the most. Life stops being about our job, possessions, marriage, health, or not dying, but rather about loving and serving him. We can know that he loves us, trust that he has a plan for us, and rely on his promise of an eternal life.
These are true regardless of the circumstances we face. Believing that truth and taking that perspective removes our fear. With our faith firmly planted in God, nothing we face needs to ever feel awful.