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  • Writer's pictureRachel Ogilby

Challenge Negative Self-Talk

How do you explain the good and the bad things that happen to you? Your explanations likely started a long time ago, turned into habits, and eventually became so reflexive that you didn’t even notice them happening. Sadly, many of us create negative belief systems that are counterproductive to our resilience. The good news – we can change this!

Psychiatrists Dr. Beck and Dr. Burns describe the ways that we make errors in logic when we become overly rigid in our thoughts. When we are too fixed in our way of thinking, we typically hold beliefs that are inaccurate and counterproductive to our resilience. These thought processes can make it hard to see a situation clearly, get in the way of problem solving, and obstruct productive emotion. Our thoughts drive how we feel and think. How can we change something that has become so engrained?

Mental agility is the skill of looking at situations from different perspectives. Learning this skill enhances self-regulation and self-awareness, giving us greater resilience. There are five “thinking traps” that are highly common. These are different belief systems that block our ability to see things from different perspectives. They are titled “mind-reading”, “me”, “them”, “catastrophizing”, and “helplessness”. Take a look at the descriptions below and see which of these “thinking traps” you fall into!

1. Mind-reading: You assume you know what the other person is thinking or you expect someone to know what you’re thinking. In this thinking trap, effective communication is blocked. Since you already believe you know what the other person is thinking, you tend not to ask.

2. Me: You believe you are the only cause of every set back and problem. You may believe you cause harm to others. People with this thinking trap tend to feel guilty or sad and isolate themselves.

3. Them: You believe that other people or circumstances are the cause of your problems. You may blame others, and you get angry frequently.

4. Catastrophizing: Your mind is a “runaway train” of all the worse things that could happen in a situation. You waste energy ruminating on irrational worse-case scenarios. This blocks you from taking any action.

5. Helplessness: You believe that a negative event is going to impact all areas of your life and that you have no control over the problem. You may feel depressed, lack motivation, and become passive.

Do any of these thinking traps sound familiar? Personally, different traps speak to different areas of my life. For example, when it comes to my relationships I tend to fall into the “them” thinking trap (“It’s always my husband’s fault!”). On the other hand, in my work scenarios I tend to fall into the “helplessness” thinking trap (“This conflict with my coworker is going to make all of my work projects suffer. What’s the point?”).

Think of a scenario that involves conflict (ex: you have a fight with a spouse, you are not doing well in a class, you have a conflict with a coworker, etc.). Generate five thoughts that illustrate each thinking trap. This will help you start to hear the thinking traps in not only yourself, but other people! You may also find that you generate empathy as you learn which thinking traps other people fall into.

The next step in this self-awareness activity is challenging these traps. How? Real-time resilience! Next time you hear negative “mental chatter” like the ones listed above, use one (or more) of the following three strategies to challenge yourself to think more productively.

1. Evidence. Say to yourself, “That’s not true because ___”. Add evidence to your response.

2. Reframe. Say to yourself, “A more helpful way to see this is ___”. Add a more optimistic response.

3. Plan. Say to yourself, “If x happens, I will y.” This gives yourself a contingency plan, lowering anxiety. You are more prepared.

Try this skill! Did you think of a situation where you got into “trap thinking” earlier? Hold onto that thought, then list three to five sentences with the counter productive thoughts that come with it. For example, you might think, “I must be a terrible employee. I don’t even realize when I’m making mistakes. I should just find another job where I don’t need to be skilled. I’ll never succeed at this.”

Then, practice using the real-time resilience.

  1. Evidence: "That's not true because my annual evaluation reflected that I was meeting my goals and the feedback I receive from my peers is very positive."

  2. Reframe: "A more helpful way to see this is that while I have succeeded at many skills at my job, I still have opportunities to grow and learn."

  3. Plan: "If I make a mistake at work, I will talk to my mentors about different ways I could have approached the situation, then work through those options next time."

When you first start using “real-time resilience”, you might find it feeling like a game of whack-a- mole. Counterproductive thought comes up? WHACK it with some real-time resilience. However, as you continue to get more practiced and skilled in these responses, your thinking will start to shift. You might find it easier to communicate with others and certainly will gain more self-awareness. Your underlying beliefs will start to change and morph into healthier, more productive, kinder thoughts.

You can also use these resilience skills preventively. Know that you’re about to see a difficult family member? Going to a job interview? Giving a high-stakes performance? Consider what thinking traps might surface, then arm yourself with real-time resilience responses so you are prepared. Having your responses ready for when a stressful situation occurs can decrease your anxiety in the moment and help make you better equipped.

Practice these resilient responses over the next week. Did you notice any changes in your relationships or situations? I would love to hear what you think!

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