Beau visiting the Crazy Horse Memorial in the Black Hills of South Dakota (Courtesy Beau Washington)

Coyote Thoughts: Tricksters Can Spoil Your Day

Dr. Beau Washington
7/7/12

The basic belief in evidence-based psychology is that thoughts cause feelings in most cases.

Let’s say that a mountain lion came into the room where we are. For most of us, we would think of danger and our heart rate would increase, pupils would dilate, we would start to sweat, some would run and perhaps worse. Our minds are connected to our bodies.

However, if we knew the mountain lion was raised and trained by the kindest person we know, our heart rates would slow down, we would feel at ease and we would probably want to pet the mountain lion. Still it’s a mountain lion, but different ways of thinking about that animal gives us different responses. If we think of danger, we feel fear. Thinking of safety, we feel calm. Makes sense, eh?

Seeing problems accurately is important to good mental health. In the introductory Coyote Thoughts, we learn about Trickster Thoughts, the thoughts that are possible but not accurate. They trick us into believing they are true. For instance, I want to drive to town to go to work, and I see that I have a flat tire. My first thought is, “Crap, a flat tire!” Then I think, “It will take 15 minutes to change it. I will call them and let them know I will be late.” It does not control my day or thoughts.

But if I get depressed from time to time, I will think things like, “Crap, a flat tire! This always happens to me. I can’t do anything right. I am so stupid. I am such a loser. They will fire me for being late.” And it will be a start of a bad day.

Those are trickster thoughts that are ganging up on me. All of those thoughts can make me angry, frustrated and/or depressed. I would be letting a 15-minute flat tire control my day. “This always happens to me” is not true; it is a trickster thought. I haven’t had a flat tire in years, yet I get tricked into believing it is true.

Same way with those other thoughts, a flat tire has nothing to do with my intelligence or whether I am a loser or not. It’s a flat tire, nothing more or less.

The interesting thing about Trickster Thoughts is that everybody who thinks has them; they are part of thinking. The problem comes when we keep and believe the trickster thought, the thought/option that is wrong. When we think about something, we may think is it option A) “This always happens to me”; or B) I haven’t had a flat tire in a while. I wonder what I ran over.” If we stick with Option A and think no further, it could lead to a bigger problem.

In this case, it is a trickster thought called “Over Generalization,” which is stereotyping that this always happens. The truth is that I don’t always get a flat tire, but the trickster wants me to believe the thought that is misleading me. If I start to believe the first trickster, it will call in other tricksters like “Labeling” which is calling myself stupid or a loser and “Magnification” that makes the problem bigger than it actually is by thinking I will get fired. Getting fired is possible, but since I am usually close to being on time, most likely, it won’t happen.

The more tricksters I believe, the more miserable my day becomes. The ability of being able to spring back from problems comes from chasing away the trickster thoughts and looking at what is accurate, that is: The flat tire is just a 15 minute “pain in the neck” (my wife would be proud I used the word “neck”).

We have never liked others lying to us, so why should we allow ourselves to believe trickster thoughts and thus lie to ourselves? The trickster thoughts, also called Cognitive Distortions, have names like “Over Generalization,” “Labeling” and “Magnification.” We can bring the tricksters out of the shadows by recognizing them for what they are. One thought can, and often does, fit into several cognitive distortion (trickster) categories. Listen for them in others.

Tricksters are sly and not always harmful. Sometimes having trickster thoughts is good for our mental health. For instance, it’s been jokingly said to, “Hire a teenager while they still know everything.”  Teens often think they know everything; it helps their self-esteem. They may be overwhelmed and feel stupid if they actually realized the amount of knowledge that they know pales in comparison to what an elder knows. Learning is a lifelong process.

Hunting tricksters and chasing them away will pay off in helping you feel better. I enjoy thinking about thinkin,  and I hope you will too. It is easier to think about thinking when we have names for the types of thoughts we have. Happy hunting!

Related: "Coyote Thoughts: A Native Explains Mental Health"

Dr. Beau Washington received his doctorate from the University of Northern Colorado. A member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, Beau grew up at Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence, Kansas, where his Father was a teacher. While researching depression, he also discovered the wide range of problems that rumination (dwelling) on problems creates in other mental problems as well. His active understanding of ruminative thought lead to developing a technique for effectively stopping the painful thoughts that plague distressed individuals. In addition, Beau developed cognitive models of depression and addiction. His therapy is being piloted in the Primary Care Clinic setting at the University of New Mexico Hospitals. Clinical trials are in the development phase to add Beau’s therapy to the short list of evidenced based therapies now used in therapy. Dr. John Gray at UNM calls his therapeutic approach innovative. Beau understands that part of the key to successful intervention is making psychology consumer friendly, for example, changing the term “cognitive distortion” to “Coyote Thoughts.” He has also developed a Native suicide prevention program called “Coyote Thoughts” ©2011. Beau has trained Native mental health clinics and presented at reservations as well as regional and national conferences. Visit his website coyotethoughts.com.

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