Do you believe everything you think? If you answered yes, you might want to rethink that…

Many years ago, I was asked by a coach if I believe what I read in the papers. I sniffed derisively and uttered ‘no, of course not’. She then asked if I believed my thoughts. I was just as derisive as I answered ‘yes’. ‘Ahhh’, she said, ‘well that’s where you are going wrong.’ And it turns out she was right. 

This decade old conversation is brought back to me almost daily by clients whose otherwise laudable critical thinking skills are routinely defeated by their own thoughts. It is not new but given the frequency with which I have this conversation, it strikes me that the fundamentals of what are known as cognitive distortionsare not widely known. As a result, many of us are, at best operating below our potential, at worst assuming that the low level of anxiety we feel about daily life is normal. 

So, what are cognitive distortions? Simply put, they are the inaccurate patterns of thinking that lead us to believe something that isn’t true. They are at the root of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), a ‘talking therapy’ developed by Dr Aaron Beck in the 1960’s and popularised by David Burns in the 1980’s. Though CBT is a psychological therapy, the basic tenet that what you think affects the way you feel and therefore influences your behaviour has application in every day professional life. 

There are many common cognitive distortions, but rather than list them all, I have highlighted the ones that come up most regularly for my clients: 

A.    At 1200 you get an email from a client or your boss that reads ‘Can you call me when you have a moment’? Immediately, your heart starts to pound, you start thinking of all the things that you may have done wrong to precipitate such an unexpected email. Despite finding little evidence of wrong-doing, your breathing is now shallow, and you might even feel a bit sick, hot/cold and sweaty as you picture yourself unemployed and unemployable.  It’s 1202. This is catastrophising.

B.    You are in a new business meeting.  You assume your prospective client wants to trip you up and doesn’t recognise your value. Everything you notice about their face, demeanour and the questions they ask you furthers this belief. Your answers become clipped or rambling, you lose your train of thought or go blank at the simplest of questions. This is mind-reading’

C.    It is your appraisal. 99.9% of the feedback is positive. But, when you go back to your desk, travel home, and brush your teeth, you go over and over the 0.1% of ‘constructive feedback’. ‘What on earth do they mean when they say you can be a little brusque, who said that…don’t they know how busy I am, how much effort I expend into controlling my reaction?’ This is a mental filter’when the single negative excludes the positive.  

D.   The engine sounds funny, I can feel it straining to stay in the air. The plane is about to crash. I feel scared, there must be something to be scared of. My sixth sense is telling me I am in danger. This is emotional reasoning’i.e. I feel it therefore it is true. 

I think that the last distortion ‘emotional reasoning’ is one of the most insidious. When we have an irrational thought, we increase the likelihood that our resulting emotional response will be disproportionate. Because our physiological response is more noticeable than the thought that precipitated it, we fail to interrogate the reasoning that got us there. The thought-feeling process is so quick as to be invisible. If you then act on the emotion, you will doing so from an inaccurate perspective and are likely to be defensive in a situation that actually poses no threat at all. Or in my case as the anxious flyer above, I become hypervigilant and fixate on the flight crew’s faces whilst I write imaginary farewell letters to my family. By the time we land, I am emotionally exhausted, and the flight crew have added my name to the ‘challenging passenger’ list.

This may not have a detrimental effect in the short term, but if these cognitive distortions have become your ‘normal’, it is quite possible that your default approach is based on negative assumptions, that will leave you not only feeling anxious in everyday situations, but also potentially blind to positive opportunities, to other’s support for you and your initiatives and to fulfilling your potential as a confident, calm professional. 

How can you fix it? 

The next time you start feeling anxious either before or after something happens, notice your feelings and identify the thoughts that catalysed them, then ask yourself some or all of the following questions:

1.    Is this thought true?

2.    Is it based on facts or feelings?

3.    What is the evidence for my thought?

4.    Could I be misinterpreting the evidence? What is another explanation? 

5.    Am I seeing the situation in a binary way i.e. black and white rather than grey?

6.    Am I having this thought out of habit or do I have facts to support it?

7.    If I assume positive intent/outcome, how does the situation change?

If you practice this enough, you will create new and constructive patterns of thinking that could help you attain a state of generalised calm. 

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