“… for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”
Hamlet, Act 2, Scene 2.
Most of us consider ourselves to be rational, intelligent people. But take a closer look at our thinking and the reality is often far from that. In actuality, we spend a great deal of our time operating under all sorts of beliefs and with all kinds of thoughts that, objectively, we would otherwise consider irrational and distorted.
This has a huge consequence for our behaviours – and so the results we get. Because whilst we commonly talk about external events causing emotions (“she made me angry”), it’s the thoughts we have and the beliefs we hold about those events that determine how we feel.
The good news is that shifting the thinking (often just a case of shifting the language) will create a shift in the feelings. The key is to become aware of the automatic negative thoughts that are systematically distorting our reality and getting in our way.
So here are the 6 most common thinking errors that I observe in my coaching practice. And 6 ways you might untwist your own faulty thinking and regain some control over the results you’re creating.
1. All-or-Nothing Thinking
“If I don’t do this perfectly, it’ll be a complete failure.”
Often seen in perfectionists, things are black-or-white, perfect or failure, with no middle ground. Unrealistic expectations, with no allowance for the complexities and imperfections of most situations leads to missed (rejected) opportunities.
What’s needed is to explore the “grey” and ask: do I really need to expect 110% to achieve this objective?
2. Magnification and Minimisation Thinking
“It was all my fault.” and “It was nothing really.”
Taking-on a disproportionate degree of blame on oneself (magnification) or discrediting ones achievements (minimisation) reduces self-efficacy (self-belief in our ability to succeed in certain situations). And that then negatively impacts future goal-setting.
What’s needed here is a sense of proportion.
“They obviously just had a problem with me, personally.”
Personalisation is not just about feeling personally and overly-responsible, but also about perceiving events as a direct attack on us as a person. This limits any future recourse: no matter what we do, we can’t change who we are.
What’s needed here is de-personalisation: this is a reaction to our behaviours, not our person.
“I’m a failure.”
Labelling is when we attach a meaning to a mistake and transform it into an identity statement. Instead of describing an error in its specific context, we make a global judgement – and so write-off future opportunities.
Here, we need to see our behaviours as fleeting and our person as enduring.
“This always happens to me.”
Over-generalisation is about drawing a general conclusion based on an isolated incident which we’ve decided is part of a never-ending pattern of defeat.
Challenge the problem-words like “always” and “never” to uncover the exceptions to our internal rule.
6. Emotional Reasoning
“I feel worthless, therefore I must be worthless.”
This faulty thinking leads us to believe that what we feel must automatically be true. If we feel worthless, undeserving or stupid, we must be worthless, undeserving or stupid.
Here, we need to notice and separate the feeling and the inferred belief.
6 ways to untwist your thinking
My favoured way to untwist the thinking is to come-up a level and “think about the thinking” – rather than do more thinking directly about the issue. So ask yourself: what do I notice about my thinking? To help, try these techniques:
- Talk to yourself as a friend. You would rarely talk to a friend or co-worker in the same harsh tones you regularly reserve for yourself. Talk to yourself in the same compassionate way you would talk to another.
- Look at the evidence. Contest your assumptions and examine the hard evidence – if there is any! Look also for evidence to the contrary (the positive actuals to your negative imaginings).
- Identify the distortion. Write-down your problematic thoughts. This will make it easier to spot the twisted thinking at work – and help think about the problem in a more positive and realistic light.
- Look for the learning. Instead of all-or-nothing extremes, give yourself a score out of 10 and acknowledge what you did do. Then think about what you’ve learnt that will make that 10/10 for next time.
- Get outside opinion. Recruit some help in objectifying your own analysis by asking someone else their opinion. Is your belief realistic, widespread or commonly-held? Perhaps not.
- Soften your language. Substitute any emotionally-charged language for softer alternatives. “I shouldn’t have …” becomes “It would have been better if …” Also define your terms: what labels are you giving yourself?
Thinking about the thinking
With practice, we can learn to catch our own faulty thinking and engineer more constructive perspectives. Do it enough and it becomes a habit. And with it, you’ll find yourself better prepared to take full advantage of the opportunities that present themselves at those pivotal moments in our careers.