We humans tend to think that we are in total control of our own thoughts. We believe that if we can’t trust our own mind, then we can’t trust anyone or anything. The reality is that what goes on in our heads loosely has our best interests at heart but might not be so adept at coping with modern life.
Hardwired to solve everyday problems, help us attract a mate and keep us alive by making us aware of potential dangers, our minds wield their rudimentary power over our day-to-day lives. The problems start to occur when we fail to question its sources. Now, it can be generally assumed that our minds are not lying to us, more that they have developed some unsavoury habits since the day we came into the world.
The natural function of the brain is to connect ideas, actions, thoughts and consequences, to create a blueprint for each of life’s situations. However, sometimes these connections are made to our disadvantage, and can be of little relevance to each other. These faulty connections, if you like, can wreak havoc with our personalities and the way we deal with whatever might crop up.
Correlation does not necessarily equal causation, but our brains don’t make this connection so easily. There is a glitch in the mechanism of the brain in relation to how it interprets our everyday experiences. A prime example is how we might view a coincidence; we are likely to make a false assumption about what it really means. The same thing happens when we make a connection between two thoughts or events that take place at roughly the same time, even when there is no relationship between them at all.
Psychologists have a range of terms and explanations for this glitch, but we only need to focus on the term cognitive distortions, often used in relation to studies of our thoughts and belief systems. For the sake of clarity, I am going to refer to them as unhelpful thinking styles, of which there are eleven that are most prominent. These present themselves as patterns, and we are going to look at how they can mould and be detrimental to a person’s perception of reality, and how you can overcome their effects.
One – The mental filter
When presented with a range of ideas and experiences around the same point in time, our brains funnel these things together and often arrives at one single conclusion. This means that unfortunate or bad events that happen can carry with them many different associations. These events and their associations get magnified, triggering an automatic response to similar events in the future.
Classic examples of this include avoiding a piece of music that you heard when receiving some bad news or steering clear of curry after a bout of sickness caused by one three years ago. If we can learn to disassociate unfortunate events from the peripheral associations by doubling down on the key issue, we can revisit the other things without any negative feelings. A coach can help you identify unhealthy associations and take you through the process of separation to allow any future experiences the clean slate they deserve.
Two – Jumping to conclusions
Jumping to conclusions is not best practice, as it often cements an incorrect set of views. We tend to make a negative predication of a future event based on previously learned knowledge, and often make these predictions with very little evidence or experience of the matter. We think we know what people are thinking about us, but it’s often based on our own insecurities.
Sometimes referred to as fortune telling or mind reading, we fall into the trap of assuming the worst about other’s views of us based on our own belief systems. If you leave the house feeling like your hair looks silly, you’ll read any reaction you see as being a direct result of this – your mind will find those in the street laughing and assume it’s at you, even when it isn’t. Reprogramming your belief systems allows you to take each new experience on face value and react the way you and your coach have agreed on.
Three – Personalisation
It’s not all about you, you know! Although many of us really think it is. If you go around thinking that the reactions of others are a direct consequence of your presence or actions, life can get a bit stifling. This over consciousness can lead to you becoming a lot less confident about yourself, affecting the way you act in public and around those you love.
Another incarnation of this issue is when we feel the need to pitch ourselves against everyone that we meet, by comparing intelligence, looks and perceived wealth. This only serves to damage your own image of yourself, leading you to blame yourself for external events that were entirely out of your control and not at all your responsibility. To assure yourself of your own irrelevance in the wider world can have its advantages – taking time out under the stars can help to remind you of our insignificance as individuals and can be very healthy.
Four – Magnification and catastrophising
We love to make a mountain out of a molehill, and this is because we’re hardwired to do so. Taking a small event and imagining all manner of disasters off the back of it is quite standard for us humans. Parents will be particularly acquainted with this way of thinking, as we often see the potential dangers in just about every new situation. It’s designed to keep us from harm.
It does go a little too far sometimes. Maybe a partner doesn’t text at the time of day they usually do, and you imagine an accident, infidelity or worse. Maybe your boss sends you an urgent email at midnight saying she wants you in her office first thing in the morning, and you take in a box in case you need to clear your desk. Worst-case scenarios are what many of us fly to but learning to control this can bring huge advantages to your life.
Just remember that these are simply thoughts, we have the free will to do with those thoughts what we wish (arguably this acceptance or rejection of our thoughts is the only thing we as humans truly have any control over – scary thought, eh?). If you find yourself catastrophising, step back and look at the real evidence, see the scenario for what it really is: the magnification of a thought, your own thought. Coaching works with the mind’s processes to make you the master of how you react to your thoughts.
Five – Rigid Rules
We have rules about how we and others should behave, it’s normal. We also get annoyed, angry and guilty when these rules are broken. It’s false to believe that a good way to motivate yourself is through what you feel you and others should or shouldn’t do – you’re setting yourself up for a fall. It creates unrealistic expectations that are impossible to uphold, and therefore almost certainly results in disappointment and disillusionment in yourself and others around you.
This fosters an atmosphere of inflexibility; it causes you to seek the approval of everyone and leads to anxiety in social situations as you become increasingly aware of how much better you could be adapting to the world around you. You must be flexible with your own expectations of yourself, this should dissipate the unrealistic expectations that see you get hurt by the reactions of strangers.
We all have our own rulebooks, so for others the rules may be different and not in line with your own standards. Everyone has different priorities; it’s what makes us human. You don’t make the rules for all, nobody must do what you expect of them. Instead take the approach that you hope, want or would prefer someone to be a certain way. Your coach will help you find a way to stop seeking the approval of others and to ditch those unrealistic demands that ultimately stress you out.
Six – Generalisations
Just one single event in the past or at the present time can form a generalisation. You assume that every future interaction of the same kind will follow a similar pattern. Every action or situation is unique, each time we drive to the shops carries the same risks, but we are usually so falsely confident in our ability that it goes smoothly.
When things go wrong, we start to feel helpless, with a sense of never being able to master the task or challenge in hand. Maybe a driver of a certain brand of car nearly causes an accident, you may then get angry or agitated the next time you see that same brand or model in your vicinity. Putting things into perspective helps. Maybe that brand of car is very popular, raising the chances of a bad experience.
Challenge all your negative assumptions. Was the woman in the shop miserable with you because she hates you, or is she just having a shitty day? Did you just follow an utter arsehole who gave her a really hard time? Make sure you have enough evidence to make your assumptions, and if you haven’t then don’t allow them to flourish and hurt you. Your coach will encourage you to challenge your assumptions, be your own critic for the sake of your personal contentment.
Seven – Deletions
Our brains are programmed to forget the small pains that are of little use to our everyday existence. Uneasy or inconvenient thoughts are dismissed to help you get on with the task of being ‘you’ in the world today. This means we should find it easier to remember the good stuff than the bad.
We delete around 80% of the data that reaches our brain, at both critical and non-critical moments of our lives. This data is deleted for a range of different reasons, but mainly to help focus on the crucial elements of a task, filling in the majority with pre-learned information we deem to be generic enough to improvise with confidence.
A common trait of anxiety causes sufferers to focus on the wrong – usually negative – aspects of a situation. For example, the person who told you to ‘get lost’ at the party, as opposed to the ones you had meaningful chats with across the evening. A valuable tool in coaching shows you how to become explicitly aware of every single detail surrounding you in a given situation, to a point of being overwhelming; this allows you to consciously select the best things to concentrate on, putting you in control of your focus. This can be applied to most situations in life.
Eight – Distorting Reality
Looking for meaning in events and communications with other people can create a dangerously distorted reality in our minds. We overthink things, we trust our minds to create an interpretation of reality based on things that may not even exist. Days can be ruined by a small interaction that was misinterpreted or a comment that was misunderstood.
It’s incredibly easy to get the wrong end of the stick, but the danger comes when you fail to notice before any resulting negative feelings get internalised, turning into negative thoughts and feelings about yourself and those around you. Your coach will open your mind up to the notion that every comment, glance and interaction from another person can carry with it a thousand different interpretations. They will also help you interpret these interactions to build a set of positive and helpful belief systems, that in future will ensure that you interpret things to your advantage.
Nine – Labelling
Labelling is when we define ourselves entirely by the way we reacted in one or several similar situations. To define ourselves by one behaviour, which is usually a negative one, we don’t give enough attention to our positive actions or character traits. Dwelling on failure is damaging, and although it’s necessary to a degree for our own development, it needs to be balanced with the appreciation of our wins, our successes and our positive behaviour as a result.
Scrolling through posts on social media can also damage the image of people around us, the places where we live and the lifestyle we lead. All from a few posts of bad news that may focus on the negative points of say, our hometown. Using a life coach will teach you how to strip away the labels you have attached to certain things in your life, ensuring it happens much less in the future. It’s a weirdly liberating experience that shocks you into realising it had been possible all along.
Ten – Minimalisation
In part one we talked about the magnification and catastrophising; making things bigger than they we’re in our minds. Minimalisation is quite the opposite but can also be unhelpful. Playing down our own positive traits – or the severity of a situation in which we are mistreated – can be damaging in the sense that it makes us vulnerable to further abuse, and others may take advantage of the low sense of self-worth that arises within us as a result.
Abusive behaviour against us will then fit naturally with the image we have formed of ourselves, making it almost acceptable to us. Humility often leads to the idolisation of others, which can only serve to devalue our own self-image. Those of us lucky enough to have not had problems with self-esteem might see others that humbly put themselves down as attention seekers, but there is a great chasm between those who fish for compliments and those who genuinely believe what they are saying about themselves.
Your life coach will help to clarify your position, giving you a safe environment in which to question your own use of minimising (and magnifying) traits. They will help you reverse the application of these thoughts, allowing you to continue along the path to humility should you wish, but without feeling ashamed or guilty. They’ll also help you take away any arrogance that might be associated with the process, ultimately resulting in an approach that fosters contentment not resentment.
Eleven – Black and white thinking
Living in a world that is becoming more polarised – politically and socially – black and white thinking is almost inevitable, but it’s not a good fit for life in general. Despite the divisions of social and traditional media, life is becoming more fluid, with very little fitting the ‘all or nothing’ model.
Those who take on a black and white view of the world and their lives may find it exhausting to live at the extremes. Seeing ourselves as either perfect or a failure, beautiful or grotesque – and viewing everyone else through the same goggles – fails to allow for the sheer complexity and range found within most people’s characters, or within many situations in our lives.
Coaches always aim to bring you back to the middle ground, from where you can see the pros and cons of both extremes. More importantly, this puts you in a much better position to acknowledge the shades of grey that exist between black and white, and from this central position you can take a more reasonable approach to things – as might be useful in politics and society as a whole.
In association with Elavus, Estonia