Think about a time when you’ve been upset at work. Nothing has gone right, your boss is coming down on you, there’s too much going on to handle, the people working for you just don’t seem to get it. You’re having a bad day.
Now, think about how you interact with others when you’re in a bad place emotionally.
- A co-worker asks for your feedback on a project – are you happy they reached out to involve you or are you annoyed that they’ve added another thing to your plate?
- Your boss gives you a big assignment – are you excited by the opportunity or resentful of the extra work it will require?
- A subordinate offers their thoughts on a new proposed process – are you open to hearing their feedback or are you angry that they don’t just do what you ask?
Do you give them the benefit of the doubt or do you instantly assume the worst? If you’re being honest with yourself, it’s likely that you’ll admit the latter – research shows that when we are emotionally upset, we process information in a bias way to maintain our bad mood. That means that when you’re pissed off, you’re likely to distort the things that are happening around you and to you in the worst possible way.
The best way to combat this reaction is to become aware of the distortions you’re making. Here are examples of a few types of thought distortions that can occur:
- All-or-nothing: When you see things in black or white without acknowledging the many shades of grey that exist. Anytime you find yourself saying something like “that guy ALWAYS screws up” or “she NEVER does what I ask”, you might be experiencing all-or-nothing thinking.
- Magnification & Minimization: When you exaggerate the negative while, at the same time, reducing the positive. You might say something like “I stumbled on a sentence in that talk and that was all people noticed” when you could say something like “that stumble wasn’t great but I got great feedback about the talk.”
- Personalization: When you blame yourself for something that you are not responsible for. You might say “I was the reason that project failed” instead of saying “there were things I could have done differently, but the reasons the project failed were X, Y and Z, and the entire team contributed to them.”
- Emotional Reasoning: When you mistake feelings for objective reality. You might feel inadequate when you receive criticism from your boss, which could lead you to say “I feel like I just can’t do anything right. You would be better off saying “I could have done that better but I did A, B, C, D and E pretty well today.”
- Mind Reading: When you assume that you know the thoughts of others without actually talking to them. You might think “that person snapped at me over email…they’re clearly pissed off.” However, if you actually went and talked to the person, you might find that they didn’t mean anything negative by it at all – it was just a misinterpretation. Though many blame the messenger when these types of misinterpretations occur, I would look at the recipient and ask what caused them to have a negative interpretation, and how could we fix the core problem at play.
Distortions don’t just pop up out of nowhere – oftentimes, they are a reflection of a past negative experience that may or may not have any resemblance to the current situation. For instance, if you had a boss that really did a number on your confidence in the past, that likely impacts how you perceive the actions of your current boss. Everything that has happened to you in your life up to the current point has the potential to contribute to distorted thinking.
To move past these distortions and come back down to reality, you have to ask yourself purposeful questions to disrupt your thought process:
- What is the evidence that supports this perception? What is the evidence against it?
- Are there other reasonable explanations for this situation? What might I be overlooking?
- If a co-worker was experiencing this, would they have the same take on it?
- Am I giving equal weight to the positive and negative factors, or just focusing on the negative?
- Even if others do see me in a negative way, do I have to agree with them? What is the evidence?
We are our absolute own worst enemies, but by taking a step back and looking at a situation objectively, we can change a situation that was causing nothing but stress and anxiety into a much more positive experience.
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