Thinking Behaviors That Are Sabotaging You (Mindset Series 1/2)

Have you ever stopped to think about how your thoughts may be helping or hindering you? Is the way we perceive the world always spot on, or could we be way off and not even be aware?

Psychologists Aaron Beck and David Burns researched these questions and concluded that sometimes the way we observe the world is erroneous because we have negative biases that we inherited from our ancestors who were equipped to constantly lookout for dangers. These flaws in our thinking are known as cognitive distortions — exaggerated or irrational thoughts that can do us great harm. For example, we can view the world through a negative filter and fail to see any positives. This thinking pattern is so habitual that we do not even realize what is going on and conclude that it is simply the way we are. But, does it have to be?

Here are 12 common irrational thought patterns that simply are not serving us:

1. Catastrophizing is when we blow circumstances out of proportion and think about something unbearable happening that we will not be able to endure. Maybe we made a mistake on a project and now think about the worst-case scenario, such as getting kicked off the team, fired, and possibly rendered forever unemployable!

2. Emotional Reasoning is when we interpret reality based on how we feel in the moment; our moods determine how we see the world, and if we feel something, it must be true. We may be feeling sad about our work performance after a poor presentation given in a meeting and then conclude the job is just not working out and we are not meant to be in this field.

3. Overgeneralizing is when we perceive a global pattern of negativity based on a single incident. Failing once can translate into believing we fail all the time. The clue that you may be overgeneralizing is when you use the words, “always,” “never,” “every,” or “all.”

4. Dichotomous Thinking is about having only two ways of thinking — all or nothing; feeling like the victim or the oppressor; you either win or lose; something is either good or bad. Saying, “I get rejected by everybody” or “it was a complete waste of time,” shows an inability to see the hundreds of interpretations in between. This type of thinking keeps you rigid and stifles your creativity and problem-solving abilities.

5. Mind Reading is about assuming you know what people are thinking without having sufficient evidence of their thoughts. “They think I’m a lazy contributor on this team.” We jump to conclusions because we think we know what the other person is believing. We could be presenting on a video call and one of the team members yawn so we conclude that they must think we are boring or do not respect me, but in reality, they were up all night from their new baby and their tired expression has nothing to do with us.

6. Labeling is assigning negative traits to yourself or others where it becomes part of your identity. You may engage in forgetful behavior where you fail to do a part of a project and condemn yourself to be an absent-minded and disorganized person. This can have massive negative impacts. For example, thinking you are an incompetent person can cause a looping effect where it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Over time you will develop schemas about yourself and your prospects and become the inept person you carelessly labeled yourself to be. Engaging in a few isolating behaviors is not the same as your character.

7. Attachment is thinking you “have to” or “must do” something because it is part of your identity. When we adhere to only one vision of ourselves and believe that possibly this one person or this one job can only make me happy, we close ourselves to many other options that could make us even more fulfilled. Sure, living in NYC can mean a blissful life, but so can living in other cities (I think). You may have your heart set on being a teacher because you like helping others, but there are multiple other ways you can achieve those same ends, such as being a coach, a facilitator, working in learning and development in an organization, being a mentor, volunteering, and so on. We cannot be sure unless we approach the situation with an open mind and welcome other possibilities.

8. Negative Filtering is when you focus exclusively on the negatives and seldom notice the positives. Thinking about all the people who do not like you at your company, instead of the ones who do. You may get 6 pieces of positive praise on your presentation and 1 piece of constructive criticism and your mind zeros in on the negative and forgets the positive. How do you take a moment to look at the whole picture and really take in the good?

9. Discounting Positives is when you claim that the positive things you or others do are trivial or do not really count because of various circumstances. For example, disregarding your best friend’s compliments of you because that is what friends are supposed to do. Or, if success came easy then it does not really mean much because you did not have to work hard for it.

10. Blaming is about focusing on others as the source of your negative feelings, maybe you blame your parents for how you turned out or you hold your boss culpable for your unhappiness and refuse to take responsibility for changing. It is common to think, “if this person would just quit their full-time job of making me miserable, all my woes would disappear.” What purpose is blaming serving? How do you start with yourself and your contributions?

11. Always Being Right is the belief that we must always be correct and will fight to prove that we are. In this mindset, we fail to consider the other person’s feelings in the discussion, and it becomes hard to sustain a relationship because nobody wants to be in constant competition. Meir Ezra notes, “The more a person needs to be right, the less certain [they are].” What is behind that desire to be right? What do you win? More importantly, what is lost?

12. Personalizing is when we attribute a disproportionate amount of the blame to ourselves for negative events, and we fail to see the role others play in causing certain events. “The partnership ended because I failed.” Yet, you do not take into account their part.

These types of twisted thinking can interfere with our intellectual development and harm our mental health. Epictetus stated, “What really frightens and dismays us is not external events themselves, but how we think about them. It is not things that disturb us, but our interpretation of their significance.” When we can identify our thought patterns, we can decide what we want to do about them. We have more choices than we realize.

Quote of the day: “The primary cause of unhappiness is never the situation, but your thoughts about it. Be aware of the thoughts you are thinking.” ― Eckhart Tolle

Q: Which one of these distortions do you most often use, and when do you use them? Comment and share below, we would love to hear from you!

[The next blog (2/2) will focus on strategies for correcting our counterproductive thought patterns.]

As a leadership development and executive coach, I work with leaders to explore their blind spots around their mindsets and assumptions to better serve their actions, contact me to explore this topic further.

Manage your mind for more happiness

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