When Your Brain Leads You in the Wrong Direction

It’s real.

Let’s explore our bias for negativity.

A senior colleague of yours is unpredictable and antagonistic, Fred.  Yesterday you were in a budget meeting discussing needs for next year.  It was ugly.  He yelled at you. You left the meeting feeling embarrassed, frustrated and angry.

Let’s consider the potential scripts running through your mind.  See which one resonates the most closely with your possible point of view in this scenario with Fred.

You think about the interaction and…

  1. You can’t stop thinking about Fred’s actions.  The raised voice, his bad behavior.  You keep thinking, how could he have treated me so unprofessionally?  It’s just so rude.  It’s bullying in the workplace.
  2. You think, Fred is out to get me.  You’ve noticed how poorly he’s treated you since the day you arrived.  He clearly has an issue with you.
  3. You knew the meeting would be a train wreck.  Every budget meeting is. Plus, Fred was there.  When he’s in the meeting, it’s going to be a catastrophe.
  4. You leave the meeting knowing you will be fired.  It’s inevitable.  You weren’t prepared for this meeting, couldn’t even advocate for your own budgetary needs and now your team won’t get what they need.  And of course your boss was there.  This is a nightmare.  You’re doomed.
  5. He shouldn’t be acting this way.  And I shouldn’t have to be treated this way.  This is just not right.  I don’t think people should be allowed to behave like this.

This process of considering the situation, how you perceive it, is vital to your professionalism, credibility, and wellbeing.  Let’s talk about cognitive distortions.

Wikipedia:  A cognitive distortion is an exaggerated or irrational thought pattern.  It’s a negativity bias.  These distortions are thoughts that cause us to perceive reality inaccurately.

They lead to stress, anxiety, poorer well being and even depression.  And the good news, is we can change these patterns.  But first we have to know what they are.

#1 FILTERING:  A person engaging in filtering takes the negative details and magnifies those details while filtering out all positive aspects of a situation. When a cognitive filter is applied, the person sees only the negative and ignores anything positive.

#2 PERSONALIZATION is a distortion where a person believes that everything others do or say is some kind of direct, personal reaction to them. They literally take virtually everything personally, even when something is not meant in that way.

#3 OVERGENERALIZATION: A person comes to a general conclusion based on a single incident. If something bad happens just once, they expect it to happen over and over again, an unpleasant event is a part of a never-ending pattern of defeat.

#4 CATASTOPHIZING:  When a person engages in catastrophizing, they expect disaster to strike, no matter what.

#5 SHOULDS:  Is a list of ironclad rules about how every person should behave. People who break the rules make them angry. They also feel guilty when they violate their own rules.  (See Podcast:  The Manual.)

These are only a few of the most common cognitive distortions.  (Spoiler alert:  Next episode we’ll explore a few others.)

This week, be aware.  Both self-aware and aware of others.  Notice the line of thinking.  Catch yourself or catch others.  No judgement, just observing. How much does it happen?  To you and to those around you.  And also, what is the impact of this line of thinking.

 Distortion explanations by John M. Grohol, Psy.D.