By Eva Szekeres, MA, PCC

Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t, you are right.” (Henry Ford)

‘We do not see things as they are. We see things as we are.” (Anais Nin)

One of the most fascinating experiences of working with people as an executive coach is realizing how differently we can perceive data, relationships and our environment. It’s as if we all had different filters on when processing information and drawing our conclusions. We all believe what we see is accurate and rational – even though some of our filters are very distorted. As they determine how we feel, behave and act, they can create serious problems when they are not accurate. We call them: cognitive distortions, thinking biases, irrational thinking, unhelpful thinking styles or non-productive ways of thinking.

I invite you to have a look at some of the most common – and detrimental – biases I came across among my executive clients:

  1. Filtering out the Positives, a.k.a. Negative Thinking:

When we are noticing only the negative events, failures and not seeing what is good and working well, this is the “Glass is half empty” thinking.  But we need to be careful, as what we focus on, we usually tend to find more of. This can be a typical mistake when giving feedback, which can have devastating consequences on the receiver.

Do you tend to dwell on a single negative detail even if there were other positive aspects present in a situation?

  1. Diminishing the Positives:

A slight variation of the above is when we are discounting our own achievements, the good things that happened, or taking our contributions for granted and focusing only on what we did not do well. (This can be a very common mistake among women who lack self-confidence.)

Do you tend to say that it doesn’t count, it was just luck, or that everybody can do that?

  1. Black and White / All or Nothing / Polarized Thinking:

In this case we tend to see things only in extremes: there is no grey area, no middle ground, something is either perfect or a failure. This is a way we deny the complexity of most people and situations, which seems to simplify our decisions, but based on the wrong foundations.

Do you tend to think that either you “nail it” or you are a complete “failure”?

  1. Overgeneralization:

We can also live in the “Always/Never/Every” box sometimes – when we say a sweeping statement, independent of the data, or what has actually happened. We tend to see a pattern of a never-ending defeat, when maybe there was only a single incident.

Do you tend to come to a conclusion on the basis of a single piece of evidence – sometimes, always or never?

  1. Catastrophizing / Magnification / Minimization:

When we are blowing things out of proportion, or making something less important than it is, we have a tendency to exaggerate and make an issue much larger or much smaller than it is really. We always imagine the worst-case scenario.

Do you tend to constantly expect a disaster to strike?

  1. Jumping to Conclusions / Mind Reading / Fortune Telling:

Either we imagine that we know exactly what others are thinking and feeling, or we  believe that we can predict what is going to happen in the future. We assume something about others, but do not try to find out whether we are correct or not. We are making interpretations without actual evidence in fact.

Do you tend to think that if your relationship with your boss is difficult, you will never get promoted, so why bother to try anything to change that?

  1. Global or Mis/Labeling:

We are using unhelpful labels to others or ourselves, like a “loser, idiot, complete failure”, etc. This is an extreme form of overgeneralizing based on mistakes or shortcomings. Instead of describing a specific situation or problem, or understanding the context, we tend to create a universal negative label to ourselves or others.

Do you tend to think that if you made a mistake once, you are a loser at that sort of task?  Do you tend to think, that if a co-worker behaved badly once “he is a real ‘jerk’”?

  1. All about Me / Emotional Reasoning:

We think that most things are a direct result of what we have done or said and assume that because we feel in a certain way, what we think is the truth. We do not check the validity of these thoughts but accept them automatically and unconditionally. Emotions are very powerful and can easily overrule our rational thoughts and logic.

Do you tend to think that if you feel like an impostor, it must be true that you are one?

  1. Powerless / Victimhood / Control Fallacies:

Some of us tend to accept the victim position more easily than others. We can have a “poor me” mentality, when we feel that we have no control over our circumstances. This can also prevent us from taking responsibility and standing up for ourselves, while perhaps we can more easily blame others as a hidden self-defense mechanism.

Do you tend to think often that you cannot help certain things, it is the “culture” of the company for instance?

  1. Personalization / Blaming:

We take responsibility for something as if it has been our fault or blaming other people for something that was our fault. We imagine that everything that others say or do is in direct reaction to us.

Do you tend to take everything personally, or think that it is “your fault”? 

  1. Should / Must / Ought:

We are often using very critical words as if we have already failed if it applied to ourselves. If it is directed to others it expresses frustration, anger, resentment. Some of us think that it is a helpful way to motivate ourselves with shoulds”. However we rather make ourselves feel guilty, as if we needed to be punished, before to be able to do something rather than encouraging ourselves in a constructive way.

Do you tend to think that you should be already much further ahead in your career?

Do you tend to think that you should be already much further ahead in your career?

  1. Always Being Right:

When our main purpose to prove that we are right – independently of the cost. We see the situation as right and wrong, which prevents us to find a third way, a compromise.

Being right is even more important than the feelings of others, even loved ones.

Do you tend to think that no matter what, you will prove that you are right?

  1. Perfectionism:

When we strive for perfection and we cannot recognize when good is good enough. We constantly compare ourselves to others, to standards, or to ideals, making ourselves and others feel miserable. It can lead to workaholism, burn out and loss of enjoyment.

Do you tend to think, that you cannot afford to do “less than perfect” otherwise you have failed?

It was Aron Beck, the psychologist who first described a theory of cognitive distortions in 1976. Then David Burns who popularized it with common names and examples in the 1980s.

A few possible strategies to challenge your inaccurate thoughts:

  1. Identify your distortions, get familiar with your own biases and how extensive they are in your life.
  1. Examine the evidence objectively whether they are really true facts or just opinions.
  1. Refute, challenge your negative thinking over and over again. Replace them by more rational, accurate and balanced thinking.

What are your “favorite distortions” and what do they cost you?

 

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Consult with Eva to help you identify your own thought patterns that may not be serving your ultimate goals.