We give our minds a lot of credit, right? After all, they’ve gotten us this far in life. So why question what’s working (relatively) in our favor?
The truth is, as helpful as the mind can be at detecting threat, solving problems or showing us what we want, the mind isn’t perfect. It can lead us down paths to unproductive thinking, lack of resourcefulness and temporary logical paralysis.
It’s not the mind’s fault. All it’s done is produce thoughts that are derived from the happenings in our past and the beliefs that go along with each activating experience.
However, given that our thoughts are produced from the time we’re born up until now, it’s worth “going under the hood” and inspecting what’s really going on in there.
This is a process I like to call the preventative maintenance system of the mind. Just as we perform routine service to our motor vehicles, it’s both advantageous and necessary to question the validity of our thoughts periodically.
The only difference is that while you probably won’t reap any additional benefits from changing your car’s oil every day, there’s no limit to what you can gain from consistently challenging your mind’s first reaction to a triggering event.
To help you get started, below are four of the most common patterns of unproductive thinking, derived from the teachings of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). I’ve also included some of my own personal experience dealing with these thought patterns as a means to see for yourself how self-destructive each can be.
1. Jumping to Conclusions
Within this pattern of thought, it’s common to lead yourself to a quick assumption about the situation that is unfolding. I myself used to be a poster child of jumping to conclusions. As soon as an event would take place, I almost immediately arrived at what the meaning was or what was going to happen next.
I can remember how I used to navigate my romantic relationships with this thought pattern. Most of my brain activity was spent attempting to “read minds” and predict the future, rather than try to make my partner happy. Whenever she said or did something I didn’t fully understand or that seemed out of the norm, I’d find myself instantly arriving at a conclusion that left me feeling completely disempowered. I’d often assume she was about to break up with me, that she couldn’t be trusted, or that she didn’t care about me.
As a result, my actions reflected the conclusions I drew. The conclusions weren’t based on facts or evidence but instead, my feelings and emotions.
Given that these thought patterns were leading me in the wrong direction, it didn’t take long for me to become single again.
The reason for calling it “jumping to conclusions” is the acknowledgement of a very critical step is skipped in the establishment of thought.
In Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, there is a framework that suggests our beliefs and perceptions influence our emotions, which impacts our behaviors and the outcomes these behaviors produce.
This framework is called “A to C Thinking”, illustrated below.
When we jump to conclusions, we fail to recognize the belief produces the consequential outcome and we go right to experiencing the emotion or behaving in a certain way (we go from “A” directly to “C”). When we understand that the belief about what happened is what’s responsible for how we feel (or don’t feel), we become much more powerful to deal with the situation.
Counteraction Plan: Begin getting present to your natural inclination of jumping to conclusions. Review whether you naturally establish facts or instead, experience feelings once events unfold. Challenge your beliefs (or construct a new one if the current belief is played out) to produce a more productive outcome in your actions and emotions.
We’re told from the time we’re very young that history repeats itself. Many of take this in a literal sense and determine that any time a process duplicates itself at least one time, a blanket classification can be attached to it.
When a process, action or behavior repeats itself, we’re quick to chalk it up as something “always” is this way. Or it “never” happens. “Everyone” does this. She’s “constantly” doing that.
This can be summed up by the natural inclination of human beings to be human “doers”. We’re constantly looking to check things off our to-do list, close up open items, and eliminate as much uncertainty as we possibly can.
“All generalizations are false, including this one.” — Mark Twain
I think we all can appreciate how dangerous it is to speak in absolutes, especially when it comes to human beings. No one enjoys being distinguished as someone that “always” or “never” does something, even if that behavior is actually good. Why? Because it establishes a limitation in how we’re being. People don’t like or appreciate being limited. We want to stand for many things. We don’t like being confined. We want choice.
I did this regularly with one of my best friends and it drove a massive wedge in our friendship on many occasions. Whenever he would do something I wasn’t very fond of, all I needed was one prior instance of similar behavior and I was justified in my generalization. I would tell him he “always” did this and it made me feel “this” way.
By generalizing, and indirectly pointing out severe limits in his character (that only existed for me, not for him), we then underwent a period of over three months where we didn’t interact at all. I was so stubborn and unaware of my own thinking that I allowed this to happen more than once.
Had I simply handled the situation based on what happened in that particular moment instead of anchoring it with events from the past, the generalization never would’ve seen the light of day and I wouldn’t have robbed both of us of that time together.
Counteraction Plan: Identify how often you speak in absolutes in your day-to-day interactions. What does this say about you and your world views? Establish if these generalizations are serving you (they’re not) and decide to step outside of them towards a more case-by-case analysis.
3. Rule Keeping
Most of you reading this article probably are (or are on your way to being) a high achiever in life. After all, why else would you be reading an entry on how to think more productively? If we presuppose truth to this assumption, it’s also safe to say that you expect much of yourself. Your goals, hopes, dreams and aspirations are all probably considerably further along the spectrum in reference to where you are in the present.
It’s also safe to say you expect much of others. You have a vision in your head regarding how you and other people “should” act and behave. While these expectations and ways of being may be great things to strive towards, holding ourselves and everyone else accountable to a rigid set of rules is often a recipe for disaster.
No human being is perfect in the execution of their actions. This is as much of an absolute statement as I could ever make aside from Socrates statement of, “the only thing I know is that I know nothing.” Yet, many people that aim to achieve great things in life put unrealistic demands on themselves and others that everyone will struggle to live up to. What’s worse is what transpires when the standards eventually aren’t met and the individual proceeds to beat themselves up for not performing perfectly or chastises others for not having met their expectations of them.
Think about it: How often do your standards of yourself and other people get in the way of you making progress? How often have you quit a diet or exercise program because you aren’t seeing the results you expect? How quick are you to move on from a relationship because your partner didn’t consistently meet the expectations YOU had for them? Expectations that they never agreed to and worse, weren’t even aware of.
Even in situations where permission is granted for expectations to be set for others, it’s important not to let it get too far out of grasp. As a business operator, I set certain expectations for what standards we as an organization will ultimately uphold. Despite the fact these standards are communicated upon the hiring of an employee, if consistent conversations are not held every time something or someone falls below standard, the process of alienation ensues. With employee turnover being one of the most costly financial implications in business, rigid expectation setting and rigid expectations for understanding and meeting these expectations will not serve anyone.
“All management is the management of promises.” — Anthony Robbins
I found this out the hard way by refusing to “waste my breath” whenever employees fell short of expectations. Instead of having a difficult or seemingly tedious conversation in reference to our standards, I would begin the process of alienating that employee and allow them to find their way towards the company door. Who knows what could have been accomplished had I not been so prideful in my expectations for my team members?
I now know one thing: I’ll never allow that to get in the way of making progress with even ONE employee ever again.
Counteraction Plan: In reference to your current personal goals, what expectations do you have set for yourself? Are these healthy? What happens when you fall short? When it comes to others, how often are you holding them accountable to your personal set of rules that you established is the way people “should” behave?
If you feel like you have to explain yourself when answering any one of these questions above, enough with the justification already.
Just let go of the vine.
How often have you assigned a label onto something you didn’t fully understand in an effort to better familiarize yourself with it? I’m sure we all have. This can be a good thing in the appropriate context. However, this can be dangerous when we label something (or someone) despite the information we have in front of us going against that particular label. The labels stretch far too broad to be applied in such specific of situations.
The easiest reference to make on this way of thinking points directly to social labels. Historically, society loves to label groups of people as soon as it gets its hands on them. While there’s seemingly nothing inherently wrong with organizing and distinguishing groups of people, labeling can create incredibly distorted views of specific groups of people. Racism has and still does run rampant throughout our country thanks to labeling. Women’s rights has been an ongoing struggle throughout time as a result, as well. Even people’s sexual orientation comes with a colossal set of labels that tend to offer up far more assumptions and conclusions than what’s actually happening.
Labeling, as a construct, shapes our belief systems. If we buy into a particular label, our thinking is effected by it and will in many cases, lead us astray. In this pattern of thought, we define people by one specific behavior (usually one we consider to be negative) and ignore all the positives. For example, if I label people based on them not having the same spiritual or religious views as me, I can pretty much guarantee I won’t be making much headway to creating meaningful relationships with these particular folks.
“Stop labeling people just because they’re not like you.” — Joyce Meyer
This can also be as simple as something we do to ourselves, such as waking up late and missing a meeting. Our first thought instinct is to label ourselves as “stupid” or “irresponsible” for not getting up on time. While there’s nothing wrong with holding ourselves accountable for our actions, assigning negative labels has much harsher consequences. We’re then feeding our unconscious mind information about our self-worth, which has a causal relationship with our self-esteem. By continuing to produce these type of labels, we continue to do damage to our intrapersonal communication (the way we talk to ourselves).
I damn-near drove myself crazy by way of labeling. Due to certain feelings that produced uncertainty towards my sexuality, I was quick to label myself as one thing or another. The labels, in my mind, represented things I needed to be consistent with in order to embody the label. Attempting to navigate this was both exhausting and self-deprecating. Instead of simply experiencing life and letting the process play out organically, the label I would adopt reigned supreme and inhibited all the reasons for that type of expression in the first place: love, affinity, vitality and fulfillment.
Like generalization, labels also tend to make things very black and white, eliminating any possibility of a middle-ground. Taking that away from someone via labeling is a quick way to disempower them and ultimately, dismiss any possibility of better understanding the person for who they are.
Counteraction Plan: Ask yourself how often you put labels on things (or people) due to a lack of understanding. Get in front of your internal “label-maker” and commit to understanding, either the person or situation, in its entirety.
How often are you falling victim to these unproductive patterns of thought?
How well have these patterns really served you?
Are you willing to give up your stance for an opportunity at dealing powerfully with the events that take place in your life?
Are you ready to stop letting your past, beliefs, expectations and lack of understanding run your life?
Put your plan in action when these patterns show up and take charge TODAY.
Originally published at medium.com