The hardest part about self-talk is that you can’t switch it off. When life is bumping along in a largely positive fashion, that’s not an issue. But if you’ve suddenly woken up to the realisation that your thought patterns are routinely becoming more ‘glass half empty’, then it may be time to take a step back, clear your head and try to challenge your thought patterns, turning your mindset around to differentiate between what is real and what is perceived.
The Persuasive Power Of The Inner Voice
‘She believed she could, so she did’ (R.S Grey). Self-talk is a powerful thing and a huge factor in determining our mood and outlook on life, love and the universe. Our inner voice is effectively our internal running commentary on our daily existence. In its own silent capacity, it delivers completely un-censored opinions and advice on everything we do and experience. Rather like we do with the opinions and advice that come from those around us, we must be adept and skilled at filtering out the accurate, rational and constructive from the negative and self-destructive. Only then can we arm ourselves with the confidence and courage to embrace change, try new challenges, and handle setbacks.
Negative thoughts are experienced by all of us at some time, but they are more prevalent and extreme whenever we feel stressed, anxious, irritable or depressed. This can, of course, be directly attributed to specific and challenging life events or circumstances – perhaps a relationship ending, a health scare or financial worries. But for some people, it just isn’t that easily pinpointed. For some people, life just feels a bit – for want of a proper word – ‘meh’. Anxiety, depression, low mood and stress aren’t always associated with acute situations. They can creep up on us slowly and imperceptibly and take hold of our thought patterns, and leave us feeling stuck in a rut without an obvious way out. Where rational thought, drive and ambition once lived, negative thought traps take up residence like unwelcome squatters who are almost impossible to move on.
Almost impossible. Not impossible. And, if you’re reading this, you’ve probably conquered the first and toughest hurdle of all; recognising the problem. The thing about feeling stuck in a rut – be it in your professional or personal life – is that it isn’t an ‘event’. It doesn’t ‘happen’ to you, so much as seep into your life over time. Your mood and mindset don’t swing from one extreme to the other overnight, and you may not even have recognised the shift in your mentality. When they take a grip on us, negative thoughts dictate our behaviours; how we respond to situations, how we interact with others, the language and tone we use in conversation, and the energy we apply to living our life. If someone close to you has picked up on this, don’t take offence. It’s a sign that the ‘old’ you – ambitious, fulfilled, energetic, positive – needs unearthing. And, although, from the depths of your current rut, this will seem hard, it is very possible.
10 Common Thought Traps
First, let’s identify some common cognitive distortions (Leahy 1996). These are essentially thinking traps, which can serve to reinforce negativity, and fuel inertia at the expense of positive action:
1. Jumping to conclusions – you may find yourself ‘fortune telling’ the outcome of particular events (‘it will be a disaster’), or possibly ‘mind reading’ the thoughts or opinions of others (‘she thinks I don’t know what I am talking about’). Either way, the common theme here is that there is little or no supporting evidence for your conclusions.
2. Labelling – ‘I’m stupid / a failure / too old / too young’.
3. Catastrophising – assuming the worst-case scenario, even to the extreme. For example, train delays make you late for work. Your mind runs away with itself, and before you know it you are envisaging being fired from your job, which of course leads to you defaulting on mortgage payments, losing the house and so on and so on. You get the (very unlikely) picture.
4. Over-generalising – occasionally in life things don’t go exactly as planned or expected. When we over-generalise we reflect on an outcome that occurs once, and irrationally assume that it will therefore ‘always happen’.
5. Polarized thinking – this kind of ‘all or nothing’ thinking leaves no room for middle ground, or for weighing up positives against negatives in a balanced fashion. In polarized thinking there is either good or bad, resounding success or abject failure, perfection or disaster. But life doesn’t operate at one extreme or another all the time.
6. Magnifying & minimising – small problems become insurmountable barriers, you interpret constructive feedback or suggestions as devastating criticism, and minor slip-ups become overblown. All this at the exclusion of recalling, much less celebrating, even the smallest of wins and successes. Magnifying problems and trivialising the positives simply fuels pessimism.
7. Emotional reasoning – applying your mood, feelings or emotions in an over-generalised way. So that, ‘I’m tired today’ becomes ‘my life is totally exhausting’.
8. ‘What if’ – this is a form of ‘over-thinking’ in which you consider every possible barrier or unsatisfactory outcome. The likely result is that you lose the courage or impetus to even try, for fear of what ‘might’ go wrong.
9. Personalising – attributing outcomes or events to yourself in a disproportionate manner. A boss or colleague is a little irritable, and you immediately assume you have done something to upset or annoy them. A team project goes a little off track, and you assume yourself to be the weak link despite a number of complex contributing factors outside your control.
10. ‘Harsh critic’ – we live in a world full of norms and expectations, but when you start to exist by these to the exclusion of your happiness, things might have drifted a little out of kilter. At times we have no choice (in order to be law abiding and upstanding members of the community!), but not every expectation is realistic or reasonable, including the self-imposed ones.
Challenging Your Mindset
At one time or another, we will all experience these thought traps. They’re natural and normal, and for the most part, harmlessly fleeting. But when they take hold on a more constant basis, they can suffocate our energy, dampen our spirits and lay waste to our self-confidence. Breaking that self-perpetuating cycle is key to burrowing in the correct direction – upwards – out of life’s ruts. The key lies in challenging your inner voice to back itself up with hard and fast facts. Ask yourself the following questions, and then ask yourself whether the evidence still supports your assumptions.
- Has this happened before, and if so, what was the outcome?
- What is the evidence behind my mindset? Am I basing my conclusions on assumptions or fact? And what are the realistic chances of my anxieties becoming my reality?
- If a friend came to me with this, what would I say?
- What is the realistic worst-case scenario, and how will I plan for it and manage it if it happens?
- How important is it really? How much does it matter to me, relative to other things in my life?
- Will it still matter in a week? A month? A year? 5 years?
When we are surrounded by clutter, it can be hard to feel organised and focussed. Mental clutter is no different. Occasionally, we need a good old spring clean of the mind – a chance to dust off some old ambitions and goals, re-purpose some assumptions, and, where necessary throw out some emotional or mental baggage that is weighing us down or holding us back. You’ve set the process in motion just by recognising that you’re a bit ‘stuck’, and by asking yourself some of the above questions. For further support, turn to FindMyWhy, the totally free resource dedicated to helping you to find your purpose in life and make it happen.
Find Your Purpose
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