Mental Health: Challenging Questions Skill

Challenging Questions Skill

One of the hardest skills to learn as humans is how to retrain our way of thinking. To first be aware of our negative thoughts (CATCH them), then attempt to re-evaluate/test/challenge our thoughts (CHECK THEM), and finally, to use a more balanced belief instead of the original negative belief (CHANGE THEM). A useful go-to phrase is: catch it, check it, change it. Notice the negative thought, test it, and substitute with a more balanced approach.

The “check it” part can be very difficult. There are many ways to intervene and try and come up with more balanced approaches. One of them is asking yourself a set of questions that are called the Challenging Questions. These questions can be used to address thoughts that keep us stuck from moving forward in our lives. We call these thoughts stuck points because they are ways of thinking that we can become trapped in, in order to protect ourselves from negative experiences. Stuck points can also increase negative emotions and cause us to miss out on positive emotions or experiences. The goal is not to ignore these stuck points, but instead to re-evaluate them and come up with more balanced approaches that bring us closer to our values. The challenging questions give us a chance to re-evaluate our thoughts.

There are actually 10 of these questions that we can use to challenge our stuck points and help us to consider more balanced approaches. The focus of this post is on 2 of these questions, which will be explained by using an example stuck point that many people might have: “If I let myself be vulnerable, something bad will happen.”

Evidence For & Evidence Against

One critical question to ask yourself after CATCHING the negative thought and CHECKING IT is: what is the evidence for and what is the evidence against my stuck point? Often times big, stressful life events (like what is happening around the world right now) can make us have some negative emotions like anger or sadness, among many others. If we already have the stuck point that “If I let myself feel vulnerable, something bad will happen,” then this could lead to us hiding those emotions or limiting our social interactions, which can reduce opportunities for positive interactions. These positive interactions that we miss out on might have given us the chance to feel validated or supported, or maybe even challenge the negative thoughts that we were having in the first place.  Holding strong views about vulnerability (like assuming something bad will happen as a result of it), for instance, might prevent us from connecting with others or socializing.

The purpose of examining the evidence for and against stuck points is to honor both sides of the story. We want to recognize the evidence that supports the belief because stuck points come about for understandable reasons a lot of the time- for instance, they can protect us or they can be based on specific experiences that we want to avoid in the future. As a result, we develop a stuck point that prevents that situation from happening again. However, the stuck points often get generalized and become so automatic that they become part of us and we don’t even realize we are having them or making decisions based on them. We become really good at accepting information that agrees with the stuck point (without critically evaluating it), as well as experts at excluding or overlooking information that challenges the stuck point. This is why we want to investigate our thoughts further by pulling up the evidence to support and/or not support the belief.

When we ask ourselves “what is the evidence FOR my stuck point,” we should only use facts- information that would hold up in court because we want to be fair to ourselves. Imagine you are putting yourself on the stand in court and trying to argue both sides of the stuck point- you are both the prosecuting and the defense attorney, but you can only include facts. So, what are the facts that support that if you are vulnerable something bad will happen? We want to get out all the information that supports this stuck point.

Evidence FOR: When I broke down in front of one of my friends last year and told them how much something bothered me, they eventually stopped reaching out as much.

Due to this experience (and possibly others), you may have begun to believe that being vulnerable with others leads to criticism or indifference. As a result, you may have developed a knee-jerk reaction to prevent any threat to your safety- to survive you kept things hidden. You developed a fear that was understandable at the time: that being open with others could lead to that honesty not being reciprocated, feeling invalidated, or left behind.

However, sometimes the evidence we have been using doesn’t stand up to testing. For instance, how do we know the reason that your friend reaching out less was because of you being vulnerable in front of them? It’s always important to consider other possible interpretations, such as something else happening in their life at the time that caused them not to be able to circle back to you. Perhaps your friend didn’t know how to respond, or felt in hindsight that their lack of response was inadequate- in this scenario, their reason for not reaching out was not about you being vulnerable in front of them and more about their own personal interpretations of themselves. The point here is that we don’t have any facts that support the original interpretation that me being vulnerable led to my friend reaching out less.

What often happens with the evidence that we use to support our negative beliefs is that we personalize information- instead of fact gathering, we fill in the gaps with more of a harsh critic view.

The purpose of asking “What is the evidence AGAINST my stuck point?” is to give credit to all the information that conflicts with your stuck point that if you are vulnerable, something bad will happen. Here are some possible scenarios:

Evidence AGAINST:

  • There was one times that I showed some sadness in front of two friends, and even though the emotions seemed out of my control and showed up out of nowhere at dinner, my friends were really accepting and understanding. One of them even continued to check in on me to see how I was feeling.
  • There were even times when it was  productive to be vulnerable in front of others like when I expressed how something bothered me with a colleague and they changed their actions because I was honest.
  • There are even times when being vulnerable in front of others has brought me closer to them. One time that stands out is when I told a classmate how much I was struggling with a course and they confided in me they were having the same struggle.  This surprised me because they seemed like they were doing so well in the class. even though at first they seemed they were doing so well in the class on the surface.
  • There also was a time when I was vulnerable and shared something really personal with a friend and they said ‘so what?’ At first, it seemed rude, but then I realized I had been holding that information in for so long thinking I’d be judged for it when in reality they were really indifferent. Indifference can be a good thing sometimes- I was viewed the same way to them before and after!

As we see here with the skill of evaluating the evidence for and against the belief, it is not that the evidence now disappears, but that we poke some holes in the original stuck point, holes that discredit the stuck point a bit so that it may no longer be as compelling. We make sure to examine ALL the information so that the evidence against the stuck point (that was so easily overlooked before) now gets to have a say and have more value.

Who or What is the Source

A second challenging question is who or what is the source of this stuck point? Did this stuck point develop from someone else telling you this or from you assuming that someone believed this? For example, people often encode negative beliefs about the world or themselves based on something that happened to them when they were younger. So, in the case of the vulnerability example, it could be that the child version of yourself started to learn that if you were vulnerable bad things might happen. The belief never got updated, and instead, got rooted in childhood so that when opportunities for vulnerability present themselves now, the younger version of yourself has a strong voice.

One way to rework this belief is to recognize the following:

Evaluating the source:

  • One of the sources of this belief was reliable years ago because it helped me not be ridiculed, but that younger version of myself is not so reliable any longer because I have different resources now that I’m older- I have a different intellectual grasp on situations, more assertiveness skills, and more confidence in my resilience.
  • Another source of this belief was people in certain authority positions that, when I really think about it, are not as dependable as I once thought. I had been giving those people a lot of power in my life
  • In fact, some of the people in my life that I trust to be reliable, dependable sources of information in my life right now actually help challenge my stuck point and help me realize that vulnerability can sometimes lead to positive or productive outcomes, like specific friends and colleagues.

These are just 2 of 10 questions that you can use to “mentally coach” yourself when you notice (CATCH) having a negative belief/stuck point.  The challenging questions skill allows us the opportunity to re-work or modify (CHECK) our stuck points, to challenge our assumptions, and to help us see the whole picture. This can potentially reduce the intensity of the negative emotion associated with having the thought. The alternative, more balanced approach (CHANGE) to stuck points does not have to be something like the complete opposite (such as “I can be vulnerable with everyone and in most situations- it usually turns out fine”). Nope- we want to be real with ourselves and so we are not necessarily looking for the ‘rose colored glasses’ version of our thoughts. We want a more balanced version, rather than cookie cutter version, of our stuck point.

An example middle ground (CHANGE IT thought) might be acknowledging that: Bad things don’t always happen when I’m vulnerable. Another one might be I can try and see the times when I’ve been open with my emotions or thoughts and it comes out ok. I trust my judgment a bit to know when and where to be more vulnerable.

Now that you can step back and more critically evaluate your thought, you may see that the stuck point may not carry as much weight as it had originally. These questions may help with reducing the frequency and intensity of the stuck point, helping to pull you out of the stuck point rabbit hole a bit faster, or even bypass it on occasion.

By Clinical Psychologist Lauren (Ren) Gibson, PhD