Changing your negative thinking patterns – how to identify mind traps and free yourself up
You think your innermost feelings are hidden. Maybe you’re not even often sure what they are. But the language you use provides all sorts of clues about the way you’re feeling, your attitudes, fears and more. In fact, our language can highlight distortions in our thinking, and it does it surprisingly clearly.
When we catch our thinking and notice what we’re doing, we face a choice: we can change the frame, we can restructure the way we talk to ourselves. And that, in turn, is a remarkably powerful way to change our ‘take’ on any given situation. Here’s an exploration of an aspect of CBC – cognitive behavioural coaching.
What is CBC?
CBC Cognitive Behavioural Coaching is a subset of CBT, cognitive behavioural therapy, an approach that reveals how what we feel and the way we act is often down to our feelings about people and events, not the people and events themselves. The philosopher Epictetus, way back in the first century AD, knew its power. As he said, “Men are disturbed not by things but by the views they take of them”. CBC helps people catch and identify their mind traps and replace limiting and negative thinking with positive, more affirming alternatives. It takes time and the commitment to keep practising but it really can help.
The ABC model
The ABC model taps into the theory, where an Activating event and the Beliefs it creates has emotional and behavioural Consequences. It isn’t the activating event itself that causes the consequences, it’s your beliefs about the activating event, and they can be changed. Next time you feel stressed or worried, examine your thoughts. They are almost certainly negative, and it’s the negativity that’s making you anxious. Luckily you can change things to make life look and feel better. It takes time and effort but this approach can be extraordinarily powerful.
Cognitive distortions – Recognising toxic language
Photo by Christopher Windus
There’s a strong link between what we think and what we feel. Our thoughts and feelings can so easily trap us. Hem us in and capture us.
When we feel unhappy our thoughts can quickly become over-dramatic: “I’m rubbish at what I do, I can’t cope, everyone thinks I’m an idiot”. But these are actually cognitive distortions, where your beliefs are far from the truth. They’re often way off, and they can spin you into a negative loop so strong you feel you can’t escape. If you often feel low, or suffer anxiety, or have poor self-esteem, you’re probably engaging in distorted thinking.
Negative feelings and bodily sensations combine to drive your behaviour. That behaviour triggers another negative thought and off you go again. A cycle soon kicks in, and it’s hard to step out of it. It helps to know what cognitive distortions are, recognise them for what they are, and replace them with more positive thoughts.
The most common cognitive distortions
Photo by Laurenz Kleinheider
How easily do you fall into these ten common mind traps? These are all thinking errors that frame our reality. We tend to believe the things we tell ourselves. They become our narratives and, over time, they harden into habits or default thinking positions.
Have you encountered any of these feelings and thoughts?
- Mental Filtering – When you only focus on the most negative features of the circumstances, ignoring anything the least bit positive. Example: Rather than focus on the praise you’ve been given by 95% of the people you focus hard on the 5% who said you need to improve.
- Magnifying / minimising – Do you exaggerate the importance of negative events and minimize positive ones? It’s a common trait in many people and leaves you unable to see any other outcome than a fuelled negative one, even if it’s highly unlikely. It leans to ‘awfulising’. You see a set of negative things happening ahead, like dominoes falling down – one after the other. Example: you make a spelling mistake in an important document, and that means you’ll lose your job and then your home.
- Personalisation – Where you take responsibility for negative things you can’t control and feel guilty as a result. Example: The project team misses an important deadline, but you blame yourself for not doing this or that, even though it was a joint effort and you did your best given the circumstances. Yes, there is some learning for everyone to take on but you amplify the part you played and shoulder all the blame.
- Rejecting positive thoughts – You’re having some positive thoughts but you keep on dismissing them because you feel they aren’t relevant or don’t count. Example: someone compliments you on a piece of work that you have produced well, but you think that they only did it to be nice, they didn’t really mean it. You discount what they are saying to you.
- All or Nothing – Where you see everything as black and white, with no subtleties or gradients of grey, characterised by words like ‘always’ and ‘never’ – Example: you always do this, you never do that… you constantly endorse your own all or nothing categorisations.
- Labelling – Which is a potent kind of ‘all or nothing’ thinking involving mass over-generalisation. There are no specific behaviours here, just the certainty that there’s no room for change. Two different examples: you make a mistake when completing a job application and decide it was because you’re stupid rather than acknowledging you were so busy you just made a simple mistake. You make assumptions about others based on their age, background, ethnicity or gender, stereotyping them in your mind. This then leads to you not seeing beyond the label you have given to yourself or others.
- Ought and should – When your rigid opinions or your perfectionism about what you or someone else really should do, don’t bear fruit and you end up feeling angry, frustrated, resentful and disappointed. There are a strong set of expectations at play. Example: you would not behave in a particular way and be polite. Others are not behaving rudely but do not see the same need to act in this way, but you think that everyone else should uphold your high standards – no matter what the circumstances.
- Over-generalisation – Where a single event is blown up until everything seems terrible and you feel nothing will ever go right again. Example: you don’t get the promotion you wanted so that’s it – you will never, ever be promoted.
- Jumping to conclusions – Making negative assumptions and predictions even though there is no evidence for them. You feel like a mind reader and take things overly personally. You are pretty sure that you think you know for sure what other people feel or think about you. You anticipate the worst when you actually can’t predict what they are thinking or know the future. Example: you just ‘know’ you’re going to fail your next professional exam, even though you are preparing well for it or that your new boss will not like you because she led a big meeting and did not even notice you there.
- Emotional Reasoning – Where you are convinced that your feelings reflect the facts even when there’s no evidence. Your emotional responses and moods lead the way for you. They tend to be strong, reactive and at times unpredictable. If you feel it, it must be true! This can lead to self-fulfilling prophecies, where your thoughts end up creating the behaviour you predicted. Example: you get something small wrong. You feel inept, you berate yourself for being so clumsy, and as a result, you actually start making a string of bigger mistakes.
How to deal with cognitive distortions?
Photo by Landry Gapangwa
Tracking your thinking can help you divert these powerful negative cognitive distortions. Your ideas and opinions can be strong but you can develop new habits of letting them go. You might hold your beliefs and points of view dear but you can also open yourself up and accept that others have different views.
Your convictions – your values, morals and self-concept – are involved here, but you can incorporate and appreciate that other people’s ideas might also be valid too. They may simply be different. The key here is the ability to consider before drawing conclusions. You can alter your mental habits and redirect your thinking.
Your NATs, Negative Automatic Thoughts, are powerful habits and patterns that you have developed over time but they as such they can be realigned with the real world, your actual situation.
To apply the ABC model, we begin by helping you identify your current logic, for example, a client says A made them feel C. It is about developing curiosity rather than judgements about your thoughts. Stepping back enables you to observe and to loosen the hold habitual thought patterns may have in your life. This helps you to identify the beliefs created by the link between A and C, and we can examine them closely together. Did the thoughts and beliefs we uncovered together really lead to the consequences you expected? It’s an illuminating question, and answering it honestly will usually deliver a more accurate, realistic and positive picture for you to work with.
Everyone deletes distorts and generalises
We all do tend to delete, distort and generalise our experience and view situations through our filters and interpret the world around us via our own preferences. Yes, the meaning we attribute to something is the glue of experience. This is how we make sense of a complex world. But when we notice our negative language and the potential pitfalls involved, we have the chance to change the construct and then change the meaning. These key choice points make it so much easier to avoid those tricky, easy to fall into mind traps and move quickly towards freeing and more effective thinking habits.
If you think exploring your negative thinking patterns would be of great value personally and career-wise, then contact us. We will be delighted to discuss our coaching with you.