“There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.
We can’t always control what happens to us, but we do have the power to control how we think, interpret, and respond. Irrational thought patterns and overly hasty emotional reactions are among the leading causes of stress and anxiety.
By making ourselves consciously aware of, identifying, and then correcting distorted and/or anxiety-inducing beliefs, we can think and act more calmly and rationally, and ultimately make ourselves less stressed, more satisfied, and happier as a result.
Though there is some overlap among them, there are five types of negative thinking we are all guilty of at one time or another.
1. Catastrophizing (or Magnifying)
Exaggerating the harmful effects of a negative incident out of all proportion. Unrealistically turning a minor occurrence into something major. Sometimes referred to as “making a mountain out of a molehill,” it’s acting as if the sky is falling every time something even slightly bad happens.
- Your boss offers you some negative feedback or minor criticism, so you assume you’re going to be fired.
- You weren’t invited to that important meeting, so you start inventing all kinds of conspiracy theories about how your co-workers are trying to screw you over.
- Your significant other is late for dinner, so you — of course — assume they must have gotten involved in some kind of fatal accident – or possibly even kidnapped! – instead of the more realistic probability that they are just stuck in traffic.
Seeing yourself (falsely) as the cause of a negative event. Feeling guilty, and thinking “it’s all my fault,” even though it may not be, and probably isn’t. In fact, it might not even have anything to do with you.
- A prospective client decides to go with a competitor, and you completely blame yourself, even though you delivered a great presentation and did everything within your power to win their business.
- A friend, colleague, or client has not responded to your email in the past 24 hours, so you assume they must hate you. And, not only that, they’re probably talking about you behind your back at this very minute.
- You struck out or made an error playing softball, so now you feel like you are single-handedly to blame for your team losing the big game.
3. All-or-Nothing Thinking
Reducing complex situations to absolutes. Feeling that if you didn’t come in first, you might as well have come in last.
- You did a great job on that report, except for one minor, barely-noticeable typo, so you feel like the entire report is ruined.
- Your company is awarded second place among the top ten companies in your industry, but you feel like you came in last place because you didn’t come in first.
- Because you weren’t offered that “dream job” you interviewed for – or either of the lower-level, back-up positions that you applied for and didn’t even want anyway – you feel like a total loser.
Unrealistically interpreting one or two unpleasant or negative occurrences as being part of an endless pattern. Making broad, sweeping general statements that may be an out-of-proportion exaggeration and not an accurate reflection of reality.
- Your assistant comes in late once or twice, and you berate him or her for “always” being late.
- You are passed over for that promotion you wanted, so you assume that “everyone” thinks that you are unqualified, and that you will probably “never” be promoted no matter what you do.
- Feeling like, because it rained a couple of days, your entire week-long beach vacation was ruined.
5. Mental Filtering
Focusing on the negative while screening out and ignoring the positive. Looking at the dark side of a situation, rather than seeing “the silver lining.”
- Out of 10 sales calls, you dwell on the three sales you lost, rather than celebrate the seven sales you made.
- You obsess about the fact that you got a B+ in one class, even though you got straight A’s in every other class.
- You get a completely unexpected performance bonus, yet instead of being happy about the recognition and the unanticipated windfall, you’re disappointed in the amount.
So what’s the solution? How can we change our thinking to change our reality?
First, we need to be aware of it, and realize that we are looking at things through a lens of negativity. If we’re not aware of it, and we’re too close to it, we can’t change it.
Second we need to step outside ourselves and try to see things objectively, put things in perspective and in proportion, and consciously and proactively decide how we are going to respond.
And thirdly, we can look at the negative or disappointing outcome as a learning experience, and explore how we might think about things differently and react more productively going forward.
While it’s easier said than done, if we can be more “emotionally intelligent” and more aware of our own thinking and feelings, we can then consciously change it. By not taking everything so personally, by keeping things in perspective and proportion, by not making yourself the center of everyone’s universe, by not acting the victim, and by realizing that we are the master of our thoughts, we can then do a better job of reframing things in a more positive and productive light.
Or we can just choose to continue to go through life like the two elderly women eating lunch at a bad restaurant in the old Woody Allen joke:
Woman #1: “Boy, the food here is really terrible.”
Woman #2: “Yeah, I know…and such small portions!”