How I Transformed Our Blended Family by Changing My Thinking
Everyone 'signs up' for stepfamily life with the best intentions…and usually some pretty high expectations. We choose to focus on positive thoughts and outcomes — everything is going to work out and love will save the day! We avoid those nagging concerns in the back of our mind and put them aside, telling ourselves 'That won't be a big issue for us — it'll be fine once we're all living under the same roof'.
I was somewhat naïve and unprepared entering into blended family life. I knew things would be different than first family life, but I didn't want to think about what that actually meant. And when the challenges hit, I was reluctant to deal with them. I often chose to ignore the relational issues and tension that seemed to keep coming up. And when Mike refused to ignore what was going on and tried to communicate with me, I would shut down.
I struggled to make sense of our reality — which certainly didn't match all the positive outcomes and expectations I was still holding onto. And then I started to experience disappointment, anger and disbelief. I felt overwhelmed as conflicting emotions clouded and distorted my thoughts.
Hitting the Wall
When Mike and I coach and teach step-couples about the difficult realities that every blended family faces, we usually see one of two reactions. The first is an "a-ha" response of clarity and openness to learn more. This is the person who's taken off the blinders and is ready to deal with reality.
But we also see another reaction, that's very different and easy to recognize. This is the person who visibly changes when they hear something that defies their ideas about "how things should be". Their body language swiftly closes off. Facial expressions become harsh and the wall goes up — they've shut down. They may not want to hear tough truths or they simply aren't willing to deal with reality…or they're stuck in their own Cognitive Distortions.
What are Cognitive Distortions?
When working toward healthy communication, decision-making and personal growth, we need to be aware of ways that our thoughts can become distorted or misleading. Psychologists refer to these biases as cognitive distortions, or patterns of thinking that aren’t reality-based. These patterns can hinder your ability to accept information or internalize something new. They keep you stuck behind a self-imposed wall of resistance and isolation.
Here's 5 examples of distorted thought patterns that Psychologist John Townsend explores in his book: Leading from Your Gut: How You Can Succeed by Harnessing the Power of Your Values, Feelings and Intuition.
As you read them, see if you recognize any of these patterns in your own thinking:
- Helplessness — the sense of “I’ve tried and nothing helps” — as if there are no choices available to you.
- Passivity — a pattern in which you are afraid or hesitant to take initiative, so you wait for someone or some circumstance to provide the solution.
- Negativity — a well-known pattern in which there is an imbalance of negative over positive. It is often justified as being “realistic”, but it is generally built on fear of failure, not reality.
- Self-protective rationalizing — a scenario in which you are unable to own your own contribution to a problem or you're unable to accept another person’s feedback, so you rationalize your position to the point of uselessness.
- One-solution thinking — the idea that there is only one answer to a situation. This kind of thinking is very limited and is usually produced by anxiety or a perfectionist streak. Sometimes there is only one answer, but most of the time there are several. The best thinking occurs when you look at various scenarios and play them out, either in your mind or with others.
Distorted Thoughts that Lead to Avoidance
When faced with difficult issues and conflicting emotions, I have to admit that passivity and negativity were my go-to distortions. In stepfamily life, we've seen that distorted thinking can easily lead couples to repeat the same behaviors over and over, and yet they expect different results — this is the definition of insanity (I've been there too).
We claim that we want our family to be healthy and for things to get better, but we aren't willing or able to put forth the effort to get there because distorted thoughts have taken over. I remember hoping that everything would somehow magically improve our family. But in reality, everything got worse because I chose to avoid the issues. Maybe you've experienced thoughts like these that tend to keep people stuck:
- I just don't have the time or energy to focus on this stuff or learn anything new about stepfamily dynamics - there's just too much to deal with!
- We don't really need to get help…we can figure this out and eventually it'll all come together, right?
- Doing something new isn't gonna work anyway. From my perspective it's fine…we just need to get used to the way things are!
But here's the truth that I had to learn the hard way: Avoidance doesn't solve problems!
And here's the goal if you want YOUR stepfamily to survive and thrive: Avoid Avoidance!
Moving Beyond Distorted Thoughts
According to Dr. Townsend, we all have some of these patterns to one degree or another. He also offers healthy tips to move beyond distorted thoughts, which will help us to avoid avoidance!
- Identify the patterns that you might be challenged by. Take some time to be mindful by honestly observing your thoughts, especially when you're faced with a stressful situation or decision.
- Do a reality check with a couple of trusted people who know you well. Ask for their honest opinion of how you handle decisions and how well you cope with reality. And listen to their feedback without getting defensive.
- If you discover that patterns of distorted thinking exists, commit to a thirty-day practice of reviewing the decisions you make each day. For each decision, look for any evidence of the cognitive distortion patterns that you've identified. Simply being aware of your patterns will go a long way in helping you to move beyond distorted thoughts.
- Once you become aware, ask some well-grounded people (a counselor or an expert), “How would you have thought about this specific issue?” Having others model healthy ways of thinking will help you to continue moving yourself in that direction.
The Challenge to Change
I believe that everyone can tear down the wall and move beyond distorted thought patterns - if I can get there, so can you! It can be challenging to maintain an open attitude and accept the difficult dynamics that come along with blending a family.
But why is this stuff so hard?
Because many of these dynamics tend to be emotionally charged and painful. Disagreements and conflict with our partner leaves us feeling disconnected and unsure about the future. Issues that impact our children are close to our hearts. Disputes with the Ex and hurts from the past create frustration. All of these things are relationally complex and packed with emotional intensity.
Emotionally charged issues and challenges don't have to lead to distorted thinking - you can choose to change those patterns and take healthy steps forward. You can learn how to resolve conflict and work though painful issues in ways that are healthy and healing.
When I started to correct my distorted thoughts and stopped avoiding, our family experienced many positive changes. It wasn't easy or perfect every time, but we made progress in resolving our issues and facing those difficult dynamics. I want to encourage you to take steps today to overcome distorted thinking. YOU CAN expand your knowledge and develop skills to improve your stepfamily's journey…and like me, you'll be so glad you did!
QUESTION: Which distorted thought patterns do you identify with and what's your next step to overcome them? Leave your comments below…