Mindset missteps are common among even the brightest, most well-meaning people. We can all relate to that feeling of sometimes getting in our own way. The good news is that you can learn how to develop the necessary self-awareness to spot and correct toxic thoughts.
With a little discipline, you can retrain your thinking to rise to your full potential and have a positive effect on the people around you.
Here are common, unhelpful thinking styles that keep smart people stuck. It’s typical to fall into these traps every now and then. Recognizing toxic thoughts as illogical and impermanent is an important step for letting go of the stress they bring:
It’s common practice for you to downplay positive experiences by telling yourself they don't count. If you do a good job, you reason that anyone else on your team could have done just as well, so what does it even matter?
You assume your negative emotions are proof of the way things really are: “'I feel terrified about going to networking events,” you might tell yourself. Therefore, “It must be a bad idea to attend them.”
You pick out a single negative detail and dwell on it. You may receive lots of positive comments about your presentation at work, but if one colleague says something mildly critical, you obsess about it for days.
This cognitive distortion causes stress when you hold yourself personally responsible for an event that isn't entirely under your control. For instance, when you’ve hit a bump in the road with a co-worker you think, “This is all my fault,” instead of trying to pinpoint the cause of the problem so you and your coworker can get back on the same page. Meanwhile, it’s also common to blame your circumstances on others and discount the ways you might be contributing to the problem.
Instead of focusing on how best to handle situations for what they are, you demand they turn out as hoped. These “should statements” directed against yourself lead to guilt and frustration, such as “I’m an adult. I should have figured out my passion by now”. When directed against other people, they lead to anger and resentment. “My team should be able to handle this without bothering me,” is a good examples.
This is believing something will always happen simply because it happened once. If a plum assignment goes to someone else once, you can’t help but think, “Just my luck! I lose out on everything.”
Interpreting things negatively without facts to support your conclusion is the hallmark of this mindset. No matter what, you predict things will turn out badly. Before a crucial meeting, for example, you may tell yourself, “I'm really going to blow it.”
Write down your negative thoughts to help you decide which of these thought distortions apply to you. You’re more likely to be able to think through the issue in a way that’s both realistic and positive.
Don’t simply assume your negative thought is true. For example, if you keep thinking your supervisor won’t like your ideas no matter what, recall a time when she or your team rallied behind you, even in the smallest ways. Don’t be afraid to prove yourself wrong.
If you had a friend in the same position as you are now, would you allow them to wallow in distress–or would you point out the ways they’re being illogical and falling victim to a negative cycle? You’d most likely be both realistic and supportive, so show yourself that same compassion.
If you’re convinced a presentation you just gave was a disaster, take deep breath and try to rate it on a scale of zero to 100. Unless it’s a zero or a 100 (both of which are unlikely) it’s not perfect, but it’s not all bad either. That means there’s hope.
Instead of dwelling only on the negative, ask yourself what you can learn from what went well, what surprised you and areas you’d like to improve in the future.
When you feel trapped in a distorted thinking, turn to colleagues and mentors you trust. Proactively seek feedback, instead of hiding from it. They’ll be able to gently let you know about what you might need to work on, but also reassure you that it’s very unlikely things are as bad as you think.
Pay attention to how you speak to yourself, particularly, if your internal dialogue is full of extremist statements or harsh self-talk like calling yourself an idiot, fool, or complete fake. For instance, instead of thinking, “What a jerk I am for correcting my co-worker during her presentation,” you’re more likely to remedy and move past the slip-up if you retool the thought: “It’s important to me that I improve on the way I give other feedback. How can I make this right?”
Try to be realistic about what caused the negative event you’re facing instead of piling all the culpability onto yourself. In most situations, a number of circumstances have to coalesce to make something happen. Take personal responsibility for your contribution, but realize you’re not the sole reason a meeting went south or your team lost that client.
A version of this article originally appeared on Forbes. Melody Wilding helps ambitious women and female entrepreneurs master their inner psychology for success and happiness. She teaches human behavior at The City University of New York and is a nationally recognized Master Coach who distills psychological insights into actionable career advice. Learn more at melodywilding.com.
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