Second Guessing Yourself After an Interaction? Tame Your Thoughts with 6 Steps.

Category: Blog

You hop in your car after having lunch with a friend and start replaying the conversation in your head. You wonder if that joke you said landed wrong. You notice that she didn’t really laugh when you said it. 

You start to worry.

You text your friend (at a stoplight, of course—not while driving). “It was great to hang out with you!” and she doesn’t immediately reply.

She usually replies right away. “I knew it. She’s ticked at me.”

You send another text an hour later and include a funny cat video. She loves those. Nothing.

You start to believe that you offended her and now she’s not talking to you. You immediately feel bad.

Shame comes up and you convince yourself you’re a terrible person and a terrible friend, and you wonder if she’ll ever talk to you again.

You start to figure out how you’re going to apologize and beg for forgiveness.

It happens so fast. These distorted, negative ways of thinking about ourselves and the world around us can happen automatically and come seemingly out of nowhere. Left unattended, they increase our stress levels and affect our mood, behavior, and ability to make decisions, as well as the effectiveness of our work or our leadership.

Turns out your friend has a longer drive and, unlike you, doesn’t text at all while driving. When she got home, her kids needed her attention immediately and for the rest of the day and evening. She didn’t think twice about the joke. It was Saturday, and she was trying to build a new habit of not looking at her phone much on the weekends.

Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) is an effective way of dealing with these distortions on the spot. It involves five steps, but the most important is recognizing when they happen, as soon as they happen, and as early as possible before a negative narrative starts to get written that affects your mood and behavior.

For a list of the most common distortions, like all-or-nothing thinking, catastrophizing, and personalization, see this reference guide here. In the meantime, here are five steps to handling these common distortions. I’ve added number two, which is a great exercise called box breathing. See a video here.

  1. Identify the distortion: The first step is to identify the cognitive distortion in your thinking. Once you’re aware of the distortion, you can start to challenge it.
  2. Breathe: Do five rounds of box breathing. Here’s an explanation I recently posted. This is a technique that’s used by Navy Seals to stay calm in high-stress situations. If it works for the Navy, why not try it?
  3. Gather evidence: Ask yourself if there is any evidence to support your negative thought. Is there another way to look at the situation?
  4. Consider alternative explanations: Are there other possible explanations for what happened?
  5. Test your negative thought: Is there a way to test your negative thought? For example, if you’re thinking “My boss is angry with me,” you could ask them directly how they’re feeling.
  6. Replace your negative thought with a more realistic one: Once you’ve challenged your negative thought, replace it with a more realistic one. For example, instead of thinking, “I’m going to fail this presentation,” you could think, “I’m prepared and I’m going to do my best.”

Here’s an example of how to work through the steps:

Anthony has been working on a long-term project at work …

After presenting part of his project in a meeting, he received some constructive criticism from a colleague. Anthony immediately thought, “I’m a total failure. If my project isn’t perfect, then it’s completely worthless.”

  1. Identify the Distortion: Anthony’s thinking is a classic example of all-or-nothing thinking. He views the situation in extremes: His project is either perfect or a total failure. Recognizing this pattern is the first step in challenging it.
  2. Breathe….Breathe….Breathe….Breathe…
  3. Gather Evidence: Anthony reflects on past feedback: Has all the feedback been negative? He likely has received positive comments as well. He considers the current feedback: Was the criticism about the entire project or just aspects of it? It’s important for him to note that the feedback was targeted and not an overall condemnation of his work.
  4. Consider Alternative Explanations: Instead of seeing the criticism as a sign of complete failure, Anthony could view it as an opportunity to improve specific parts of his project. Maybe his colleague was trying to help him refine the project, not dismiss it entirely. The feedback could be a sign that his work is taken seriously enough to warrant detailed attention and improvement suggestions.
  5. Test Your Negative Thought: Anthony could discuss the feedback more thoroughly with his colleague to understand better what improvements are suggested. This could help him see that the feedback is constructive and not a binary judgment of his worth or abilities.
  6. Replace Your Negative Thought with a More Realistic One: Instead of thinking “I’m a total failure,” Anthony could adjust his thought to “This feedback can help me make my project even better. Not everything has to be perfect on the first attempt, and receiving suggestions for improvement is a normal part of the creative process.”

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