Some things are not debatable. The rain is falling from the sky. The elevators go up and down. Orange traffic cones are orange. But because we interpret the world through our experiences, a lot of things aren’t so definitive.
The boss can say “Good job” and we wonder why he didn’t say “Great job”. We see someone looking in our direction and they seem angry, so we think they are angry with us, and no other explanation makes sense.
What happens is we distort our experience, jump to conclusions, read minds, and move on to the worst case scenario. When we do this, we are reducing our successes and maximizing our “failures”, and since this can be an automatic process, it’s hard to tell when this is happening. “You don’t know you wear loupes,” says Dr. Luana Marques, associate professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School.
So what can you do to see things more clearly and with a more balanced perspective? It takes practice and a willingness to tolerate the discomfort, but like any problem, it starts with awareness.
What happens when we amplify failures and jump to negative conclusions?
We like to process information quickly and we use filters to help us do this. If we believe, “I’m not okay,” all the words and behaviors that support that statement make everything easier.
“The brain doesn’t want to spend energy trying to fight this,” says Marques. And the brain reacts according to the distortion. If something is causing anxiety, say from a curious look or comment, the limbic system is activated and we are in fight or flight mode, hyper focused on the threat, not thinking creatively or considering. alternative options, less threatening.
But sometimes there is no threat involved. We only think, probably overthink, when we question our abilities and downplay our accomplishments.
So what can you do about it?
Label the type of thought distortion
It helps define our distortions, the most common being:
- Catastrophic: Take a small incident and go for the worst case scenario.
- Thought in black and white: Seeing only the possibilities of all or nothing.
- Jump to conclusions: By assuming what will happen rather than waiting to see what will actually happen.
- Telepathy: Assuming what someone thinks without much evidence.
When you label it, you can better understand and recognize what your favorite distortion is, because “we tend to do one more than another,” says Marques.
After that, it helps to take your emotional temperature by asking yourself: am I stressed out? Am I sweating? Is my heart beating strong or my breathing weak? It immerses you more in the present moment and allows you to think about what you were doing that elicited the response, for example: “I was trying to guess the result”. It’s another way to identify the distortion you tend to favor, she says.
Defy the distortion
Regardless of the bias, you want to test your hypothesis by looking for other evidence. If you are wondering about your boss’s reaction to you, ask yourself: what is my boss really to say? What does this person say about others? Have I received raises and promotions? Do I get good plans?
An easy trap with distortions is that they are plausible. Someone who is angry with me would take a look at me. Someone who hated me wouldn’t answer me. Maybe, but think of five other possible explanations, says Marques. This exercise engages the prefrontal cortex, which kicks you out of fight-or-flight mode and broadens your thinking. You then solve the problems and don’t just focus on one option.
You also want to ask an essential question: is this reflection useful? You may find that everything you think / wonder / worry about only makes you anxious. Gaining that presence might be enough to get you out of the way of distorted thinking. “Asking and answering the question about your thinking interrupts the brain and you can potentially see the world differently,” she says.
Be balanced and caring with ourselves
As you examine and try to control your distortions, be aware of how you are treating yourself. Self-criticism is a very easy trap to fall into, but try to talk to yourself as you would a friend. Better yet, imagine talking to a child. Your language would be considerate, encouraging, and you wouldn’t use words like “stupid” or “silly”. This approach also shifts you to the detached third person. “You get out of your head,” Marques says. “We clean our loupes a bit. “
Finally, know that you are not trying to change your attitude from “I’m unworthy” to “I’m super awesome”. It’s just trading one extreme for another. All you want is to counteract your distortion, then let it go. Countering thought distortions is a lot like meditation, where you train yourself to recognize your thoughts without latching onto them. “You don’t need to enlarge or minimize.” said Marques.
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