Let’s say you’re a designer for a manufacturing company. One day you design a product that you think will revolutionise the market. You organise a meeting with your boss and begin putting together your pitch. The execution isn’t perfect, but you’re happy with the final result. Instead of being met with approval however, your boss seems less than impressed with what you’ve presented. The result of many sleepless nights is met with silence and you leave the office feeling lost and confused. For the rest of the day you agonise over every detail of your product and the way you presented it. Did I leave something out? Did I use the wrong tone? Was there a flaw I overlooked? This is going to cost me my job… I’m such a failure… Your racing thoughts culminate in feelings of dejection, impacting your work ethic, your sleep schedule and even your close relationships.
This scenario outlines the way in which events can bring us down. But if you noticed, it wasn’t the event itself that lowered your mood. The real culprit of this dejection was the series of beliefs that generated in response to this event. This begs the question: if your beliefs about a negative event are positive, can an emotional reaction be tempered, or even avoided altogether?
This question has been contended with as early as 3rd century BC. In Ancient Greece, a school of thought known as Stoicism would praise the virtues of questioning and eliminating faulty or unhelpful beliefs. Their teachings suggested that thorough reflections on our beliefs could help us to reach a sustained freedom from distress and worry, which the Stoics referred to as ataraxia. The following quote made by Roman Emperor and Stoic philosopher, Marcus Aurelius, summarises this important aspect of Stoicism.
“If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.” — Marcus Aurelius.
This sentiment has survived into modern day psychology, with the emergence of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (or CBT). CBT operates on the presumption that thoughts and feelings are interconnected. As such, CBT aims to cultivate in people an active resistance against wrong or unhelpful beliefs in order to improve mood and general wellbeing. The connectedness between beliefs and emotions seems to hold true as CBT has been found to be effective against depression, anxiety disorders and severe mental illness. Additionally, CBT has found use in assisting with alcohol and drug use problems, eating disorders and marital problems.
In the practice of CBT, a practitioner will attempt to correct what are known as cognitive distortions. These can be described as patterns of thinking that are pessimistic, simplistic and don’t always mesh well with reality. Here are some cognitive distortions to be aware of:
Filtering. When we ignore the positive aspects of a situation and focus solely on the negative ones, we are filtering. Humans have a bias towards paying attention to negative information so this can be quite common.
Catastrophizing involves holding expectations that the worst case scenario is sure to happen while at the same time minimising the possibility of any positive outcomes. Expecting the best case scenario isn’t great either, always keep your options open.
We’ve all been guilty of Jumping to Conclusions. We always like to have all the answers, but coming up with an answer based on little information can lead you further from the truth.
Polarised Thinking. Sometimes we like to think of things as black and white, but not everything is that straight forward. Situations can be much more complex than we’d like to think and there aren’t always easy answers.
Control Fallacies occur when blame is misdirected. An inclination toward blaming yourself or towards blaming other people can direct attention away from where it’s needed. Recurring self blame can be harmful to your self esteem too.
Thinking in Shoulds is when we lay down strict rules on how someone or something ought to be. If these rules are broken, judgements on the responsible party are almost sure to follow. Repeatedly high expectations is a recipe for disappointment and frustration.
By familiarising ourselves with cognitive distortions like these, we can begin to take notice of when they affect our beliefs, and hopefully avoid any unnecessary mood changes. Not only that, we can identify these unhealthy thinking patterns in the people around us and give guidance as to how they could reframe their thoughts to keep their cool in challenging situations.
Let’s revisit your design gig at the manufacturing company. Without any clear indication that your pitch was rejected, you jumped to this conclusion anyway. You catastrophized by assuming you would lose your job, despite rejection never resulting in this. You also filtered all of the negative aspects of your pitch without giving any credit to the aspects you excelled at or to the positives that came from undertaking the difficult task. The next day, your boss approves of your pitch, giving you well-deserved praise in front of your colleagues. On top of that, he notices the amount of time and effort needed to pull it off and admires your dedication to the company. It turns out you were worried over nothing.
This happens more than you think. Emotional weight is attached to a belief under the assumption that these beliefs are correct, when this isn’t always the case. Through monitoring our patterns of thought and striving for a more objective sense of how things are panning out, we can help steer clear of unnecessary emotional reactions. The next time you feel yourself having an emotional reaction to an event, ask yourself what belief (or beliefs) are causing these responses. Am I catastrophizing? Am I jumping to conclusions? Could there be an alternative explanation for what’s happening that I haven’t considered? Challenging your beliefs is an important skill to cultivate. It will help you better understand your situation, contextualise your emotions and give you a better chance at adapting to your current situation.
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