In this post for my emotional intelligence series I’m going to focus on selective self-control. Selective self-control refers to our ability to control ourselves in some circumstances, but not in others. In some ways it can be a cognitive distortion because we often have more control than we realize, but we may be subconsciously choosing not to use our control sometimes, and this can become a problem, especially in our relationships with other people.
Selective self-control is something that I have to challenge my clients on sometimes, because while I understand that it can be hard to practice self-control sometimes, it is my job as a therapist to help my clients find their power and learn to utilize it, and self-control is about power. Selective self-control tells you that you can’t control your reactions to certain circumstances, and then you feel helpless about your ability to exert power over your own behavior.
When you feel powerful, you feel in control. However, feeling powerless often results in people acting or thinking in ways that hurt them more. One thing that I try to encourage my clients to do is to evaluate their choices based on how much power they have in a situation. By this I mean you have to constantly be assessing where you can use the power that you have and what you have to let go of when you don’t have power.
What Selective Self-Control Looks Like
A good example of our use of selective self-control can be found in the differences between how we act at work versus how we act in our personal life. Most of us know that we have to maintain our self-control in the workplace even when things get frustrating, or your supervisor has done or said something disrespectful, or you have to complete task that you find boring or pointless. It’s not fun, but it’s necessary.
You know that if you refuse to do your work, or you talk back aggressively to your disrespectful boss that you will end up suffering some consequences that you might not be prepared for. You don’t want to lose your job, so you practice self-control in this environment in order to prevent back-talking or going-off on your supervisor, and you suck it up and do what has to be done because you want to keep your job. If you have ever had to do this at work then congratulations, you have self-control!
However, the same people who can control themselves at work and avoid negative consequences in that situation can find it difficult to maintain self-control in their personal lives. They may get frustrated with their partner or their children and start yelling or getting aggressive. They may slack off doing things that need to get done at home because there’s no one to dole out consequences if they don’t finish something. Or they may tell themselves things that aren’t true, like “I can’t control myself when I feel angry”.
If that happens to you, then you might be using selective self-control. It’s true that in a workplace environment you may not always have power, because you might have a supervisor or someone “above” you in the hierarchy that you have to defer to and listen to their direction. However, as adults we usually have no such person in control of us in our personal life. It’s our choices that control how we handle problems or resolve conflicts.
If the difference between when you can control yourself and when you can’t is based on whether there is someone there to dole out consequences, then you are selectively choosing to only respond to consequences, and then relinquishing your control at other times. This is using selective self-control because your self-control is based on whether you will suffer consequences or not.
The strange thing is, you likely have MORE control in your personal life than you do at work, because if you are an adult, then you mostly answer to yourself. Yet people often claim that they can’t control themselves in their relationships, in their daily habits, or in setting and following through with their own goals.
To further this example, I will expand on something that I saw fairly frequently when I was working with military families as a contractor. I would see sailors that would be excelling at work: getting accolades from their Command and moving into leadership positions, or at a minimum, they would be staying out of trouble at work despite working in very intense, frustrating, and sometimes overwhelming conditions. Yet when they would get home, they would have aggressive confrontations with their family, either losing their temper with their children or taking out their frustrations on their spouse.
When talking about the changes they wanted to make, they often stated that they felt out of control when they lost their temper and yelled at their spouse or their kids. They were able to maintain their self-control at work, pushing through very stressful conditions and duties, dealing with disrespect from their CoC, because they knew the consequences of losing control in that environment would be more than they were willing to pay.
Yet at home, there was no one there to deliver such consequences. The consequences they suffered due to losing control at home were mostly in the form of a loss of emotional connection with their spouse, which wasn’t an immediate and tangible consequence. This wasn’t enough to motivate them to maintain their self-control in the home environment.
There is another part to this problem of selective self-control, and that is the issue of diminishing motivation. We often lose motivation and lose self-control when we have been struggling to maintain control for too long. This happens frequently with dieters. You may start a diet, restrict your food choices, and try to control what you intake. You maintain control for a while, yet eventually, you break down. Why?
It takes energy, concentration, and motivation to maintain self-control. You have to resist your impulses, change your habits and swallow your pride at times. This always is going to require some effort. The more temptations, triggers, or stressors you experience, the more your self-control is diminished. This is why it can be hard when you have been maintaining control all day at work and then one more frustrating thing happens at home and you blow up at your spouse or raid the pantry. Researchers have suggested that self-control is a limited resource and that maintaining control at a high level depletes our self-control.
How to Master Self-Control
So what can we do? If we know that self-control is possible because we make choices to control our own behavior and resist our impulses all the time, but we also know that self-control gets depleted and staying too rigid for too long causes us to lose motivation for self-control, what is the solution?
Emotional intelligence is all about using our knowledge to help us make decisions about how to handle our emotions. So we have to confront the fact that our use of self-control may be selective at times. It’s not correct to say that you have no self-control when in reality you are using your self-control every day in different ways. Self-control keeps you from driving someone off the road when they cut you off, gets you out of bed when you want to sleep in, and stops you from burning the building down when someone steals your stapler. However, armed with the knowledge that we will eventually lose motivation to maintain that control we can take some preventative measures to help us build and practice real self-control.
Here are 10 tips to help you master self-control so you can practice and maintain your own power:
- Stress relief
When you’re stressed, you have less strength to resist your impulsive behaviors, so make sure you’re engaging in stress-relieving practices such as exercise, fun activities you enjoy, and looking at unhealthy habits that might be contributing to stress (such as lack of sleep).
- Practice Assertive Communication
When you are too passive, your feelings and frustrations will build up inside you, causing more stress and reducing your overall sense of self-control. Work on building your assertiveness skills so you feel more powerful in all areas of your life.
- Avoid Avoidance
Avoiding problems doesn’t make them go away, so try to practice addressing issues when they come up instead of avoiding them because you don’t want to face the discomfort of confronting the problem.
- Make room for rewards
If you never feel like your efforts at self-control will pay off, you’ll lose motivation, so reward yourself in positive ways when you’ve accomplished something you’re proud of. If you’re working on a long-term goal, set small goals that bring you closer to your big goal and then reward yourself periodically as you accomplish those smaller goals.
- Remind yourself of your goals
Keep your eye on the prize when it comes to those long-term goals and remind yourself what all this self-control is for. You’re practicing self-discipline so that you can accomplish a goal, whether that’s pushing for a health outcome or improving your relationship with your partner. Keep that goal in mind when you feel frustrated and want to give in to your impulses.
- Remind yourself of intangible consequences
Even if your spouse or partner can’t fire you, you can still lose their respect and affection. They might not leave you today, but if you can’t control yourself and understand the consequences of your actions, then you might lose the people you care about eventually. Remind yourself that just as goals can take a long time to come to fruition, so can consequences. People don’t usually leave their partner after one big argument, but they might leave after years of feeling intimidated or disrespected by the person who says they love them.
- Choose to be in control
Remember who has the power and who is on control. You won’t always be able to have control over everything that happens, particularly in the workplace or in other areas when you’re not the ruling authority. But you always have choices about how to conduct yourself and how to handle conflict that comes up. When you are in control, you will know it because you’ll feel confident about your choices. Often, it’s when people give in to their lowest impulses that they feel “out of control” or ashamed of themselves. Recognize your power over your own choices and discover what real power feels like.
- Build frustration tolerance
Little things are always going to come along that frustrate you. We all have to build frustration tolerance skills, which will help you from succumbing to road rage when someone cuts you off in traffic. Read more about how to build frustration tolerance in this post.
- Don’t try to be perfect
Think progress, not perfection. No one can be perfect all the time. Whether it’s with your diet, your career goals, or your personal development, making mistakes is how we learn and get better. Trying to be perfect will just result in that diminishing motivation phenomenon, so give yourself credit for your accomplishments and practice gratitude for the progress you’ve already made.
- Find your joy
Everyone deserves to enjoy their own life, so think about what brings you joy and try to work that into your life in any way possible, big or small. When you get to experience what brings you joy you will be more motivated to do what it takes to get you there again. This is the part where all your hard work and self-control pays off, so when you find your joy, revel in it and soak it up.
Self-control doesn’t have to be selective. When you give yourself credit for what you already know you can do you will feel more confident about your ability to maintain self-control. I’m willing to bet that you have practiced self-control in some areas of your life already, so you know what it feels like to suppress that urge to tell off your boss. You just have to apply the same skills you used then to other areas of your life. Practice these tips and build that mental muscle so you feel capable of controlling your impulses and building your own sense of power.
Emotional Intelligence has been a buzzword term for a while now, but many people still struggle to understand what it looks like in daily practice. In general, emotional intelligence (EI) refers to your ability to understand and regulate your own emotions. In practice, this means that you allow yourself to feel your emotions, but you don’t allow them to rule over all your decisions or behaviors.
Emotional intelligence also means that you have the ability to understand the emotions of others and respond to people in a way that reflects your understanding of and respect for how they feel. While some people do have a more innate ability to understand the emotions of themselves and others, people also can practice and strengthen these skills.
People who have emotionally intelligent traits tend to communicate better with other people, resolve conflict in a more healthy way, and have better emotional regulation overall. You can practice developing your emotional intelligence by working to understand and regulate your own emotional life in a way that allows you to have control over your emotions, instead of the other way around. This post will be the first in a new series about emotional intelligence where I will expand more on how to cultivate and practice this important skill in your own life.
How to Practice Emotional Intelligence
Here are 10 ways that you can practice strengthening your emotional intelligence so that you can feel confident in your ability to handle your emotions and the emotions of others.
- Understand your own feelings
Learn to identify how you feel by practicing distinguishing your thoughts from your feelings. For example, you may be thinking “he is such a jerk!”, but the feeling associated with this thought is “I feel hurt and disrespected when he speaks to me in that way”. When you focus on understanding how you feel in a given situation, you will be better equipped to approach the situation in a productive way.
- Take ownership of your own feelings
When you know how you feel, the next step is to own that feeling and recognize that you have control over that emotion. Practice doing this by catching yourself the next time you say “You are making me feel…(angry, jealous, insecure)”, and replacing that with “I feel (angry, jealous, insecure) when you do that.” This way of framing your emotions allows you to take control of that emotion instead of feeling powerless over it.
- Use your feelings to help you make decisions
Before you make decisions, ask yourself “how will I feel if I do this? How will I feel if I don’t do this? How are my emotions affecting this decision?” Work on using this insight to help you make decisions that you will be proud of and happy with later on.
- Respect other peoples’ feelings
You don’t have to agree with everyone on everything, but you can have better relationships with all people if you learn how to respect things from their perspective. If you want others to respect your feelings, then you can model how you want them to treat you. Even though other people will not always return the courtesy, you still want to represent yourself well by treating others as you would like to be treated.
- Avoid people who do not respect your feelings
Just because someone disagrees with you does not mean they are disrespecting you, but when someone truly doesn’t respect you or your feelings, you can respect yourself by avoiding them. You won’t always be able to avoid everyone who disrespects you, but you can minimize your contact with them and set boundaries when necessary. For example, if you have a supervisor at work that doesn’t respect you, you can try to make the best of things by minimizing your contact as much as possible and disconnecting emotionally from the situation. Ultimately, though, you are going to need to assess whether you should look for another job if the situation is not going to improve. This includes setting boundaries with people when necessary.
- Manage your reactions to your emotions
You can have an emotion without acting on it in the same way that just because you think something doesn’t mean you have to say it out loud. You are going to feel angry, depressed, frustrated, and distressed at times in your life. These feelings are all okay to have and you don’t have to deny that you feel these things. Yet being angry doesn’t mean you have to be aggressive, being depressed doesn’t mean you have to hurt yourself, being frustrated doesn’t mean you have to lash out, and being distressed doesn’t mean you have to hurt others. Learning to build strong coping skills so that you can face these feelings without reacting in an unhealthy way to them is a key part of emotional intelligence.
- Label your feelings instead of labeling people or situations
This is also part of owning your emotions, because you can talk about your feelings instead of talking about other people. For example, try saying “I feel frustrated and impatient because of how slow things are happening” instead of “This is taking too long! These people are so incompetent!” Even when you are just saying these things in your head and not out loud, it makes a difference. You can be sitting there stewing with frustration thinking nasty things even if you never open your mouth. Recognizing that this helps nothing and you feel terrible in the meantime will help you change your thoughts, which will change your emotions.
- Use your emotions to energize your actions
People who use their emotions to motivate them towards positive action can do amazing things. If you get angry about an issue you care about, it can motivate you to go take action to address that issue. Use the energy you feel from strong emotions to propel you to take action in a positive way. If you think a situation is unfair, speak out about it and let your voice be heard. If you have something bad happen to you, use the power behind your emotions to help prevent the same thing from happening to others if you can.
- Practice taking positivity from negative situations
Negative situations are inevitably going to come up. It’s important to allow yourself the time and space to process how you feel when bad things happen and allow yourself to heal when needed. Negative situations can also be a trigger for growth as well, though. This is a practice that you can start small with. For example, if you have been practicing building patience but you end up next to a road raging driver, use the situation as an opportunity to practice your frustration tolerance skills.
- Learn how to effectively deal with difficult people
Not everyone is going to be in the same place as you are right now in your life. Some people may have their own issues to sort out and you will end up crossing paths with them, resulting in difficult interactions. Part of being an emotionally intelligent person is deciding that you are going to be the kind of person you want to be, regardless of the kind of person someone else is. If you intend to be a kind, considerate, emotionally mature and secure person, then don’t let what other people do have an effect on your own choices and behaviors. It’s hard not to snap back at someone who has been rude to you, or disrespected you in some way. You never have to be a doormat for others or allow others to abuse you. However, when you have the confidence to address situations gracefully you will feel better able to stand up for yourself when needed and let petty things go when it’s not worth your time and energy.
Why Is Emotional Intelligence Important?
Practicing emotional intelligence can help you feel more confident and in control of your life. We all have emotions, and emotional intelligence is not about suppressing those emotions. It is actually about understanding and using your emotions to help you handle situations and people in a way that produces positive results in all your relationships and interactions instead of escalating situations until they feel out of control.
All of these practices will help you understand yourself and feelings more, and help you to focus on what is important instead of getting caught up in a habit of just reacting to your emotions. While some people may find that these practices come more naturally to the, other people may really struggle, and that is okay too. Struggling with these things doesn’t mean something is wrong with you, it just means that you might need to practice more before these habits become comfortable. Even people with strong emotional intelligence traits can struggle with this kind of practice. No one is perfect, and emotionally intelligent people understand and respect that!
This will be the 5th post in my series on Cognitive Distortions. To read more about cognitive distortions and what they are, check out my first post in the series: Coping with Cognitive Distortions.
This post is about Control Fallacies, which are basically a distorted way of looking at how much control you have in a particular situation. The reason that this cognitive distortion is unhealthy is because when we misjudge how much control we have in a situation, we can either blame ourselves excessively for something that has happened, or we can misplace our power by thinking that we have no control over a situation, when you might actually have more power than you think.
Control Fallacies work in two ways: you either think that events in your life are totally beyond your control, or you feel that you are responsible for everything, even things you could not control. Both aspects of this distortion can lead to feelings of guilt, shame, and distress. These feelings can cause you to think negative thoughts about yourself, leading to more distress and negative thought patterns.
“I can’t control ANY of this! I feel so stuck!”
The trouble with the first kind, thinking that things are totally beyond your control, can start to happen when you feel helpless and stuck. Perhaps you feel that you are stuck in a job that you hate, but you feel that you have no choice but to remain there. Or maybe you feel repeatedly taken advantage of by others who have used you, and you feel that this is just something that will continue to happen because you are a nice person.
The fallacy in this kind of thinking is that you are actually able of making changes in these kinds of situations, but you have convinced yourself that everything is out of your control, so why bother changing? This is problematic because by not changing and taking control of the areas of your life where you can, you may just be extending your own misery and missing out on the confidence you will gain from taking power back when you can.
Sure, there are going to be times that you really need to stick with your current job, because you haven’t been able to find a better option and you need the money or the benefits. That’s understandable. Sometimes, though, a person may just not have really put in the work to make a change, and then they tell themselves that they have no options. This is a way of avoiding doing the work by claiming that you cannot change anything. I’m not saying this is always the case, because there will be times when you truly don’t have any control. This may be the case if you have a contract for a certain amount of time, such as for those in military service, or those who do not have many job opportunities in the area they live in. For others, though, they may be avoiding making the changes they need to make because it feels too overwhelming, or they are not sure where to start.
Similarly, if you have noticed that certain things continue to happen to you, such as feeling like people are using you or taking advantage of your kindness, you may also have some control in the situation that you can exercise. This might be a matter of learning to set better boundaries with others, which can be difficult but necessary. Setting boundaries can be hard to do if you are not used to being assertive or telling people NO when necessary. However, when you trick yourself into thinking that you can’t change things because you have no control over other people’s behavior, you may be engaging in a control fallacy.
“This is all my fault! I should have done something more!”
The flip side of this problem is when you feel that you are responsible for things that are actually outside of your control, and thus you feel that you have constantly made mistakes or are always letting other people down. For example, you may feel guilty for not noticing a mistake that a colleague made, and then feel accountable when that mistake turns into a bigger problem. Or, you may feel responsible for your partner’s behavior, because you tell yourself that you weren’t supportive enough or didn’t make sure they took their medicine.
When you notice that you are taking responsibility for things that you actually had no control over, this is a sign that you are not assigning blame in the appropriate ways, or you are not giving others the responsibility that they should have. This can lead you to feel guilty about things you didn’t control, or that you couldn’t have avoided. These feelings of guilt can lead to inappropriate feelings or shame or a sense of overcompensation you try to apologize for things that were not your fault. For more on that, see this post on over-apologizing.
In this case, you need to learn to stop taking responsibility for problems that you didn’t create, and recognize that you are not responsible for everyone else’s behavior. It doesn’t mean that you relinquish all sense of responsibility for things in your life, just that you try to look at a situation and figure out if there was something you could’ve done, whereby you learn something that you can use to make better decisions in the future, or you let go of any sense of shame or guilt involved in situations that you couldn’t control. This might mean that you have to practice not apologizing for things that were not your fault, or it may mean that you have to give yourself permission to let go of the guilt and shame about events that you have associated as being your fault when they really were not.
How can I change these patterns?
When you start to recognize these control fallacy patterns in your thought process, you can work to change them so that you feel more in control of your mentality and more confident about your decisions. If you notice that your thoughts feel self-defeating, if you notice that you constantly think about all the barriers you have instead of all the opportunities you can look for, remind yourself that you have to make small changes before you make big changes. Look for the opportunities to make small changes first, such as setting better boundaries with the people in your life, or making a plan to change your career path. Recognize that while you may not be able to control all of your circumstances, you can still control your personal decisions and where you direct your mental energy.
If you have the opposite problem with this control fallacy and you find yourself blaming yourself for things inappropriately, practice asking yourself some questions to get a better understanding of if there was really anything you could have done differently. Ask yourself: “How could I have known what the outcome would be? Is there really anything I could have done differently? Is this a problem that is out of my personal control? Is there someone else in this situation that needs to take responsibility for their own behavior or choices?” Recognizing your own power in these situations and figuring out what you can do differently in the future will benefit you if you learn to stop this pattern of cognitive distortion and look at the situation more objectively.
For more on cognitive distortions, check out these other posts:
Cognitive Distortions 2.0: Disqualifying the Positive
Cognitive Distortions 3.0: Personalization
Cognitive Distortions 4.0: Emotional Reasoning
As part of my ongoing series about cognitive distortions, I’m going address Emotional Reasoning in this post. Emotional reasoning refers to the mistaken belief that everything you feel must be true. In this way, we can sometimes trick ourselves into believing that our feelings are facts. To the contrary, sometimes our emotions cloud our judgement, and we don’t always read the situation correctly when we allow our emotions to affect our interpretation of the situation we are in. Sometimes we need to step back from our emotional response to a situation and try to see if our emotions are taking us to a conclusion that may not be really true.
Here are some examples of emotional reasoning and thoughts that may occur when you might need to think twice about whether or not what you feel is really true:
- “ I feel rejected and hurt, and therefore you have rejected me”
- In this case, someone may or may not have rejected you. A person may have been trying to set boundaries with you by telling you not to call repeatedly when they are unavailable. Your feelings of rejection may be due to insecurities you have, but you also need to respect the boundaries other people set in their own lives and relationships. Or perhaps you were passed over for a job offer, and you were one qualified candidate in a competitive position, but fell short of the final cut. This doesn’t mean the company didn’t think you would have done a good job or that your skill set wasn’t valuable.
- “I feel like a bad friend, therefore I must be a bad friend.”
- Sometimes you may judge yourself too harshly for making a mistake. Being human, you’re bound to do things you regret from time to time, but this doesn’t make you a terrible person. When you do make mistakes, try to own up to them and repair the damage when you can, but don’t believe that you are defined by every mistake you’ve ever made.
- “I feel lonely, therefore no one cares about me”
- It’s hard to face problems on your own when you don’t have much support from others. However, sometimes we can get to feeling overwhelmed with the prospect of reaching out to others when we feel vulnerable and need support. Oftentimes, it’s easier to sit with our feelings by ourselves than acknowledge that we need help. However it’s important to reach out to your support system when you can. Sometimes, your friends and family may not know that you are struggling, but would want to be there for you if they could. It’s important when you feel this way to step back from your emotions and try to account for the support that you DO have, even if it’s not in the most likely places.
- “I’m angry with you, therefore you must have done something wrong.”
- Anger is difficult to step back from, but it’s very important that you understand where your anger is coming from and how much control you have over it. Sometimes we get angry with others for things that cause us distress, but often times anger is really a reflection of how we’re feelings about ourselves. For example, you may feel angry at your partner for not doing something you expected from them, but you never actually verbalized what you needed. You feel angry that your partner didn’t anticipate your needs, but you may not recognize that it was your responsibility to communicate your needs to your partner.
- “I feel worthless, therefore I am worthless.”
- Self-esteem can be a struggle if you have been suffering from a mental illness or have experienced trauma in your life. It can be hard to separate your feelings of low self-worth from your outlook on life, but this is where it’s important to take stock in what your values are. Sometimes we give other people more courtesy than we give ourselves. Whenever you find yourself struggling with negative thoughts about yourself, ask yourself who gave you those messages about yourself and if you would say those things to someone that you cared about. If you wouldn’t tell someone you care about that they are worthless, than you shouldn’t say those things to yourself. Feeling down or struggling with the situation you are in at this moment doesn’t mean that you have to listen to thoughts that make you feel worse about yourself.
Sometimes we get so caught up in our emotions that we choose to ignore evidence that goes against how we feel. So maybe your friend sent you an invitation to an event on Facebook, but because she didn’t reach out personally to make sure you were coming you still choose to believe she doesn’t really care if you come hang out or not. Or perhaps you become overwhelmed with a presentation you have to give at work, and take this to mean that you must be in over your head and you’re not cut out for the job, despite the fact that your supervisor picked you for the project.
If you think you might be engaging in emotional reasoning and you want to make sure you are not letting your emotions cloud your judgment of the situation, ask yourself a few questions:
- Am I overlooking my strengths?
- Am I discounting evidence that would lead me to reach a different conclusion?
- Am I basing my conclusions on my emotions or facts?
- What would you say to a friend that was in your situation?
- Am I struggling to give myself the same advice that I would give to my friend?
These questions will help you evaluate your situation with more clarity and determine if emotional reasoning is getting in the way of your progress. Emotions are important, and we shouldn’t just ignore them. But keep in mind that relying on our emotions to guide us doesn’t always give us the full picture of what’s happening and what all of our options are. Don’t forget that you are in charge of your mentality, even when it gets overwhelming.
For more on Cognitive Distortions, check out the other posts in this series:
Cognitive Distortions 3.0: Personalization
Cognitive Distortions 2.0: Disqualifying the Positive
Coping with Cognitive Distortions: Catastrophizing
This is the 3rd post in my series about Cognitive Distortions, and I am going to cover Personalization. This is a distortion that can include believing that you are responsible for things outside of your control, or it could also mean interpreting things in a way that always reflects back on you. As with all cognitive distortions, this may be something that we have all done once in a while, but if you find that you get in the habit of taking things personally when you don’t really need to, you may want to reflect on how you’re thinking about events that happen around you.
On the first part, believing that you are responsible for things that are actually out of your control, you might feel a sense of guilt or shame about things that are not your fault or that you couldn’t have controlled. For example, if your partner is struggling with a health condition, but isn’t following their treatment recommendations, and you then feel responsible for not doing enough to help when their health declines. Supporting your partner doesn’t mean that you have to take responsibility for things that are out of your control. It’s always important to understand what you do have control over, because we all need to be able to take responsibility for our own actions and choices when we can. Yet we also need to understand when something is out of our control, and recognize our own limitations.
The second part of Personalization is when you turn things around to reflect on you when an event or situation may not be about you at all. Sometimes this comes from a sense of insecurity or anxiety. For example, if you walk into the break room at work, and everyone stops talking, and you mistakenly start to believe that everyone must be talking about you behind your back. In reality, that could have happened for any number of reasons. Maybe they were discussing something private, or maybe it was just one of those weird moments when the room goes quiet. Regardless, if you don’t know for certain what’s going on, you don’t have to waste your energy worrying about it. Sometimes we think situaitons are about us when they really are not. One thing to consider is that most of the time, other people are worried about themselves and thinking about themselves. This just means that most of the time they’re not thinking or worrying about you. Of course there are people who spend their time focused on other people, and in general you don’t want to spend too much time involved with people who gossip or are just snarky in general. Even when someone is treating you poorly, their behavior is about them, not you. It’s easier to handle difficult people when you realize that the way they treat others is actually a reflection of how they feel about themselves. Most of the time, you won’t be able to do anything to change those kinds of people, so you just need to focus on being the kind of person you want be.
If you find that you are often personalizing situations at times when you don’t need to, reflect on why you think this has become a pattern. You may need to ask yourself why you feel responsible for things that you cannot control, or if you are holding yourself to a high standard that no one could realistically meet. Sometimes you may need to ask yourself “is this really about me?” to get a better understanding of a situation and understand how much control you really have. Try to practice asking yourself some of these questions when you are thinking about a situation and believe that it is about you or something you did. If you think that insecurity or anxiety is playing a role in how you are interpreting a situation, you can practice reminding yourself that you are working on not personalizing situations. This is one of those times when I will often recommend developing a personal mantra. A mantra can be any simple phrase that you use to center your thoughts and help clear your mind of negativity. It could be as simple as something like “Peace,” or it could be something more specific. For more on developing a personal mantra, see this post:
The Power of a Personal Mantra
Changing patterns of thinking can be challenging, but the good news is that with practice it becomes easier. Once you are used to reflecting on your thoughts and taking more control over your own mindset, you will be building your emotional intelligence and you will feel more in control over your mentality and your moods.
For more about cognitive distortions, see my other posts in this series:
Coping with Cognitive Distortions: Catastrophizing
Cognitive Distortions 2.0: Disqualifying the Positive
This is the second post in the series I am doing about Cognitive Distortions. For more about what cognitive distortions are and how they negatively impact out life and world-view, see my first post on Coping with Cognitive Distortions: Catastrophizing.
This week I’m going to talk about another distortion called “Disqualifying the Positive”. Disqualifying the positive means we are recognizing only negative aspects of a situation while ignoring the positive. Perhaps you receive a compliment or a positive statement on an evaluation you receive at work or a paper you have turned in, but you only focus on the single negative feedback you also received on your work. When you are in the habit of disqualifying the positive, it makes it hard to recognize the good things you have done, leaving you feeling inadequate, or sometimes even worthless or incompetent. Therapists sometimes refer to this as having a case of the “Yes, but…”s.
Have you ever had a friend that was feeling down, but when you tried to cheer them up, they just refuted everything positive you had to say? Perhaps you tried to compliment someone on a new opportunity they received at work, and the response was “Yes, but they only gave it to me because they already promoted Becky and she’s not around to do it anymore”. When we constantly disqualify the positive things we have going for us in life, or only look to the negative aspects of the situation, we are really not looking at the given situation with the true lenses of reality. Not only is it inaccurate, you’re missing out on the joy you could be experiencing by allowing yourself to recognize the positive things you have going for you.
In life there are few things that are all good or all bad. Even if you’re going to take a vacation in Hawaii, there’s no way you’re getting around that long plane ride. However, if you focus only on how long and cramped and boring the plane ride will be and how much you’re not looking forward to it, you’ll arrive at your vacation grumpy and tired. Some people have a special knack for disqualifying the positive wherever they go, and in general these people aren’t the most pleasant to be around. Other people always have to spend time pointing out to them the positive aspects of the given situation until they begrudgingly accept that there may be a positive to be found somewhere in there.
The antidote to this cognitive distortion is gratitude. Looking for places to find gratitude wherever you go can be a habit that you cultivate. When we look for the positive in any situation we face, we become happier overall, and we become more resilient to negative situations or feedback when it does happen. Some people can accomplish this with starting a gratitude practice, or you can journal about things you are grateful for. They can be very simple things. Even when negative experiences happen, there is usually a lesson that can be taken from the experience, or a kernel of gratitude that can be found if you look for it. If you lose a loved one, perhaps you choose to include a reflection of the positive memories you had with that person as you journey through your grief process, or perhaps you choose to honor their memory by giving back to a charity your loved one cared about. It doesn’t make the loss go away, but it can help with the grieving process and take something negative and insert a little positivity into the situation. There is a great list of simple things to be grateful for over at Radical Transformation Project here:
50 Things to be Grateful for Right Now
For some people, particularly if you have struggled with depression or low self-esteem in your life, looking for the positive doesn’t come naturally. That’s okay because it is a habit that can be changed if you want to start thinking in a more positive and realistic way about your life and your accomplishments. You do not have to automatically disqualify everything positive that happens to you just because there are also negative things that happen. When we ruminate on the negative and give that negativity more energy than we give positivity, the negativity starts to rule our lives. Sometimes, that negative voice that sneaks up on you when something good happens may really be the voice of someone who abused or neglected you, someone who convinced you that you were not worthy of enjoying your life, or that you didn’t deserve good things and didn’t deserve to be recognized when you did something well. Many of us have to learn to combat those negative voices in our heads by consciously choosing to listen to the positive. Think about it like having that little devil on one shoulder and that little angel on then other shoulder. The little angel is trying to say something positive to you, and that little devil just whispers in your other ear “Yes, but…”
Make a decision that you are going to start recognizing the good aspects of the situations you find yourself in, and stop disqualifying the positive. As with any problem, the first step is recognizing that the problem exists and making a commitment to want to change it. When you start to hear “Yes, but…” creeping into your vocabulary, that’s when you know it’s time to brush the little devil off your shoulder and listen to what your little angel has to say to you. It’s okay to be proud of yourself, it’s okay to be imperfect, and it’s okay to take the good along with the bad in any given situation. This doesn’t mean that we put on rose colored glasses and ignore negative situations that need to be attended to or dealt with. It just means that we don’t disqualify the positive at the same time, thereby robbing ourselves of the ability to see both the good and the bad in a situation.
Battling cognitive distortions is not about disqualifying the negative or never making a plan to deal with a bad situation. It just means that we are looking at the full picture with attention to what the reality of the situation is, so that we don’t over-emphasize negativity when it’s not warranted.