‘Us humans’ tend to think that we’re 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. In reality, 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. Coaching can help you identify unhealthy associations and take you through the process of separation, allowing 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 others’ 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 might agree 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, causing you to 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; 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 is 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.
Part 2 coming soon…
Words: Daniel Coll / Images: Unsplash