How to Keep These 3 Thinking Patterns From Holding You Back From Success

A psychologist suggests how to find the cognitive distortions that drag us down, and adjust our narratives accordingly.

LemonTreeImages/Getty Images
LemonTreeImages/Getty Images

Often, when you’re on the verge of trying something new that you’ve been ruminating over, or when you’re about to give a presentation that’s been making you nervous for days, a new voice materializes in your mind: the obnoxious roommate in your head, otherwise known as an inner critic. You may recognize that character from movies you watched in childhood: a shoulder devil who stood next to the protagonist’s ear, and dictated negative thoughts that would ultimately hold the hero back from being their best self. We all struggle with that voice, and our own internal thinking patterns can keep us from being our most confident, productive, and successful.

In a recent TED Ideas piece, Joan Rosenberg, a psychologist in California and author of Ease Your Anxiety discussed the most common thinking patterns that drag us down — the “cognitive distortions” that instantly change the way we think when we’re given a daunting task. She points out that in order to succeed, we must actively alter the way we construct our inner thoughts. “You need to be aware of the distortion, catch yourself using it, and then replace the thought pattern with more constructive and optimistic thinking,” she says. ”What’s on your mind — or what you think — is determined by how you think.”

Whether you’re nervous to make your voice heard in a meeting, or you’re scared to take the leap and start a new venture, it’s important to address each distortion, and silence that voice as soon as it shows up. Here are three common patterns that often come up at work, and how to keep them from holding you back:

Overgeneralized rules

When we face a new situation, we tend to apply former outcomes to our present one, and then create overgeneralized rules that hold us back from pursuing our next opportunity, Rosenberg notes. “Your rules are usually negative rather than positive,” she explains. “For example, when you don’t get a job you want, you think, ‘People don’t like me.’” Instead, if you find yourself generalizing how others see you, remind yourself that every circumstance is different, and one result doesn’t symbolize a greater trend. “Notice the times that you do this,” Rosenberg adds. “Keep telling yourself: ‘This one outcome is just that — one outcome.’”

“Should” statements

Our list of to-dos at work can often feel daunting, but Rosenberg says we tend to put additional stressors onto ourselves by adding “should” statements to our tasks. “Your internal dialogue is full of statements that include the words ‘should,’ ‘ought to,’ or ‘must,’” she explains. “These words sting — using them frequently can result in feelings of frustration and anger.” Instead of telling yourself you should be doing everything at once, be selective about your self-talk, and remind yourself that it’s OK to take some pressure off of yourself.

Positive disqualification

It’s common for people to reject positive statements at work by insisting they “don’t count,” Rosenberg says. (This is also why it can be difficult to accept compliments.) When your boss gives you a compliment, for example, you may disqualify the praise because you underplay your own capability. Instead of buying into that, make the effort to get a fresh perspective. “Whenever you disqualify the positive, you’re wrongly reinforcing negative beliefs about yourself and your world,” Rosenberg says. “Take a little time to imagine what your life would be like if you believed the words were true.” If you’re having trouble envisioning this for yourself, writing in a journal can help you see your qualities through a more objective and compassionate lens.

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