Have you ever had a not-so-pleasant experience that causes your mind to automatically jump into autopilot and put its own little spin on the situation?
For example, my client Amelia was a finalist for a recent promotion, but in the end, the other candidate was selected. Amelia’s brain went into overdrive trying to explain why she wasn’t chosen. She was sure she wasn’t good enough. And because she didn’t measure up this time, she figured she would probably never measure up. In fact, she should forget about the idea of being promoted completely.
On and on it went—a circle of thinking doom that turned into a torrent of self-deprecation, rather than the isolated incident that it was.
Amelia’s experience is what psychologists call cognitive distortions. They’re patterns of thinking that take a simple event, apply a very subjective interpretation, and then wreak havoc like a runaway train—all in your head!
When you let cognitive distortions overtake your thinking patterns, you create more stress for yourself, lower your self-esteem, and erode your self-confidence.
Let’s look at five common cognitive distortions and how you can take immediate action to counteract those thought processes.
1. Black-or-White Thinking
This is when life—and all the situations in it—becomes an all-or-nothing game. For Amelia, missing out on one promotion turned into, “I’ll probably never be promoted in my career ever again, no matter how long I live.”
In this distortion, you see one failure and project the same fate upon all your future endeavors, as well.
This is an extreme way of thinking—and it’s not realistic. When you hear yourself going in this direction, push back. Challenge yourself to think about situations in which you’ve been successful, received promotions, or been recognized for work well done.
2. Catastrophic Thinking
Has anyone ever accused you of making a mountain out of a molehill?
You get some information—for example, that a report you need for a presentation is going to be late—and you immediately spin it into a catastrophic outcome: “Without the report, the presentation will suck! We’ll all be fired because we won’t hit the mark! I’ll never be able to work in this industry again!”
When you feel yourself delving into a worst-case scenario, ask yourself one question: “What do I have control over right now?”
Perhaps you can perfect the rest of the presentation while waiting for the report. Maybe you get on the phone with the people responsible for the report and appeal for an earlier delivery date. Focus on what you can control, and you’ll see that you can take action—and lower your stress level in the process.
3. Filtering the Positives
Amelia had actually accomplished quite a bit. But you wouldn’t know if from her perspective on the missed promotion.
In reality, she was one of the top performers in the group. Her manager put her in the running for the promotion. She performed well in the interview process and, with a little more experience, she’ll probably get another shot at a higher role.
But she tuned out all of that to focus on the not-so-positive result: “I didn’t get the promotion; I probably never will.”
She sounds kind of like the office Eeyore—the pessimistic, gloomy donkey known for seeing the downside of just about everything.
When you filter out the positives, you distort your thinking to overlook everything you’ve accomplished—which makes it so much less engaging to go to work!
Every time you acknowledge a negative event or action, force yourself to acknowledge an equally legitimate positive event. To help you do that, create a list with two columns: “what went wrong” and “what went right.” You’ll quickly see there’s far more on the “right” side of the page.
4. Jumping to Conclusions
We’ve all done it. You observe something and then decide you know all the meaning behind it; often without a shred of fact.
Amelia thought, “My boss’ boss doesn’t say good morning when he walks by my desk. He must hate me. No wonder I didn’t get that promotion.”
Really? The only “facts” she has are that the boss doesn’t greet her in the morning and that she didn’t get the promotion. That’s it. From that, she can garner nothing about the boss’ feelings for her or his opinion on her level of competence.
Yet, she’s suddenly jumped from “he doesn’t say good morning,” to “he must really hate me.” Jumping to conclusions at its finest.
When you feel yourself climbing the ladder to a faulty conclusion, there’s only one question you need to ask yourself: “Is that a fact, or is that a conclusion I’m drawing based on the situation I see?” If you stay rooted in facts, you’ll keep yourself off the jumping-to-conclusions stress bandwagon.
5. The Fallacy of External Control
When you see yourself as a victim because of circumstances outside your control, you’re under the fallacy of external control.
In Amelia’s case, it might have sounded like this: “Well, I’m not surprised I didn’t get the promotion. My boss has me working so many hours, there’s no way I could have had time to prepare!”
In reality, though, there’s no way you can blame your boss when it was you who wasn’t prepared for the interview. Blaming others for a situation over which you clearly had choice is simply shirking responsibility.
Here’s a simple test to resolve the external control fallacy: Go to a trusted advisor or mentor and share your logic. Tell him or her you didn’t get the promotion because your boss overworked you and you didn’t have time to prepare. Ask him or her to give you unadulterated feedback on your perspective. A trusted advisor will push back and help you see how much control you really had.
One of the most important elements in changing your thought patterns is to first recognize when you’re having them. When you find yourself wrestling with cognitive distortions, push back to see if those thoughts are based in fact. Finally, develop new thought patterns to counteract them—or get insight from someone you respect. When you’re able to challenge your thinking, you’ll lower your stress level and build your career confidence.
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