How To Avoid The Everyday Thinking Traps That Sabotage Your Success
Have you ever noticed yourself thinking about a person or situation then finding that your mind has wandered down a rabbit hole of stinking thinking?
(Originally published on Forbes.com January 15, 2019)
Not long ago, I wrote an article titled “Thought Twist! 11 Everyday Thinking Errors That Sabotage the Plot of Your Life.” I submitted my article to a small online publication feeling confident that it would soon be published. After about a week, I received an email saying: “Thanks very much for your article proposal. We took a look, and unfortunately, it’s not a good fit for this publication. We wish you success with publishing the article elsewhere. Keep writing!”
Admittedly, they were right. However, at the time, what I saw was:
“No, no, no! We took a look at your article proposal, and you’re an awful writer. Sorry, but this article probably won’t get published anywhere. Stop writing!”
Despite my years of academic research, professional experience, and everything that led me to write the article in the first place, I had fallen into the same, old thinking trap that I had written about! How had this happened? I read the research on cognitive distortion and knew the signs. I had coached leaders in challenging their own distorted thinking, and I was now about to allow my own thinking to sabotage me.
Have you ever noticed yourself thinking about a person or situation, then found your mind wandering down a rabbit hole of negativity? Or worse, have your automatic, negative thoughts tricked you into taking negative actions? These thoughts are cognitive distortions, and the negative actions equate to self-sabotage.
The word “cognition” means “thoughts,” so a cognitive distortion is simply a distorted thought. These thoughts occur when certain ideas and experiences are irrationally given more focus than others. It sabotages different aspects of our lives. We all do it. It’s automatic. These negative thoughts happen both consciously and unconsciously, and they ultimately shape our emotions, behaviors and destinies.
A Thinking Model
In early studies of the relationship between cognition and behavior, psychiatrist and cognitive therapy pioneer Dr. Aaron Beck, discovered that many of the difficulties experienced by his patients with depression and other psychological disorders were tied to 11 key cognitive distortions. In Dr. Beck’s cognitive therapy model, he showed how our perceptions of situations are actually more connected to our internal dialogues and reactions to the situations, than to the situations themselves.
Later, psychiatrist and New York Times best-selling author Dr. David Burns used these 11 cognitive distortions as the basis for a methodology to conquer depression without the use of prescription drugs.
The 11 cognitive distortions that appeared in Dr. Beck and Dr. Burns’ original work include:
1. Mental filtering
2. Jumping to conclusions (mind-reading and fortune-telling)
3. Personalization (or blaming)
4. Black-and-white thinking
5. Catastrophizing (or magnifying)
8. “Should-ing” and “must-ing”
9. Emotional reasoning
11. Disqualifying the positive
At work, cognitive distortions can lead to negative emotions and inhibit performance. For instance, suppose you are selected to lead an upcoming presentation but you have repeated thoughts of being inadequate. These thoughts can become a distraction, causing you to lose focus and fail to adequately prepare.
The performance of an organization can be sabotaged by a management team who blames the staff for decreased productivity without recognizing their role in the downturn. A writing opportunity can be sabotaged by seeing one “no, thank you” as a personal attack and indication that you won’t ever be published.
Like the clinical cognitive behavioral therapy methods used by Dr. Beck and Dr. Burns, these same principles can be used in non-clinical settings. In the world of work, different evidence-based, cognitive behavioral coaching methods focus on removing barriers to both individual and organizational performance.
Identify And Conquer
Before you can conquer your own cognitive distortions, it helps to be able to recognize them and when they occur. Can you recognize which cognitive distortions I had when my article was declined by the publication?
Again, here’s what they said:
“Thanks very much for your article proposal. We took a look, and unfortunately, it’s not a good fit for this publication. We wish you success with publishing the article elsewhere. Keep writing!”
Now, here were my automatic thoughts:
“No, no, no! (mental filtering) We took a look at your article proposal and you’re an awful writer. (labeling) Sorry, but this article probably won’t get published anywhere (fortune-telling). Stop writing! (disqualifying the positive)”
If you notice yourself falling into a rabbit hole of negative thought, it helps to follow a basic ABCDE framework (registration required).
1. Activating Event
2. Belief Exploration
4. Disputing Evidence
5. Effective Change
In my case, mental filtering had briefly caused me to focus on one negative detail and ruin my hope of publishing my work. To remove mental roadblocks, ask yourself:
1. What triggered the thought? In my case, the phrase “not a good fit” was the trigger, and it had activated my mental filter. We all hear “no” occasionally, but it was my trigger, nonetheless.
2. What beliefs are at the root of these thoughts? I believed that “not a good fit” meant that I was an awful writer.
3. What emotions and behaviors come from the beliefs? By believing that I was not a good writer, I developed a sudden fear of submitting my work again.
4. What evidence can you find to challenge the beliefs and manage the situation more effectively? My published dissertation was evidence that I did have some writing abilities.
5. What change in thinking can you make to be most effective moving forward? In order to move forward, I had to quickly change my thinking from “I can’t write” to “I can’t write on this platform.” Instead, I just published it on my own blog and social media platforms. It may not have been the move forward that I was going for, but it was a move forward nonetheless. And here we are.
What recent trigger has blocked your productivity?