Articles > Be still my self-defeating thoughts

Be still my self-defeating thoughts
Globe & Mail, June 15, 2007

Barbara Moses, Ph.D, is an international speaker, work/life expert, and best-selling author of Dish: Midlife Women Tell the Truth About Work, Relationships, and the Rest of Life.

You make a comment at a meeting that is followed by a wall of dead silence. Quick. Which thought goes through your head:
a) Oh, my God, they hated what I said. I sounded really dumb.
b) Gee, what I said was so brilliant that I've stunned them into silence.
c) Hmmm, some of them are mulling over what I said. And some probably weren't even listening; they were distracted by something that has nothing to do with me.

Chances are that you answered a). Why? Because most of us don't err on the side of being too complimentary to ourselves (b), nor do we think about the most objective and likely response (c).

Rather, we tend to be too hard on ourselves and assume the worst, making negative self-statements about our incompetence. These statements lead to feelings of inadequacy that affect how we feel and how we behave.

Telling yourself that you came across as a complete idiot after making that comment in the meeting, for instance, would probably make you feel embarrassed at best and anxious and depressed at worst. That, in turn, might make you think twice about your ability to speak in public.
Or it might cause you to go to your boss and apologize for your screw-up in the meeting (leaving your superior baffled or thinking you are needy because he or she didn't see any problem with your performance, and has no idea why you are seeking reassurance).

Every day, we encounter situations at work that have the potential to make us feel good, or bad, about ourselves.

Research in clinical psychology has shown that how we interpret and describe these situations to ourselves is very powerful in moderating how we feel. And how we feel determines how we behave.

If you are unhappy, angry or doubting yourself, the emotion may not be a result of the actual situation you encounter, but the story you tell yourself about what it means.

Take, for example, two employees dealing with a similar conundrum: They have both just got new bosses. And they see these bosses as control freaks who don't respect their professional competence.

One tells herself that the boss "hates" her and she "will die" if she has to spend another moment meeting with "the evil one." She also believes there is nothing she can do to make things better.

The other says that she doesn't care for her boss but will do all in her power to try to turn things around. She figures the worst that can happen is that she'll quit and find another job.

Notice the difference in thinking and language, and the employees' respective beliefs about their ability to change the situation. The first woman's negative thoughts and interpretations lead her to a feeling of helplessness and despair. She has difficulty focusing on anything at work or at home. She talks about taking a stress leave. She might even ask for an exit package.

In contrast, the second woman, feeling her situation could potentially be salvaged, made it her mission to win over her boss. She went out of her way to be obliging. She also tried to get into her boss's head and imagine what it would feel like to be in a new job, with a new team, leading a very high-risk project, and adjusted her behaviour accordingly.
In a short time, she converted her boss from an enemy into a fan. They still have their differences but she can work for her boss and feel good about her contributions.

We can all take lessons from the second employee by recognizing and changing how we appraise and react to situations. Clinical research into cognitive behaviorism has shown there are various kinds of self-sabotaging thinking that undermine our effectiveness. Here are 10 types and how they express themselves.

All-or-nothing thinking: You see events in extreme dichotomous terms: great or awful, success or a complete failure, winning or losing. You use highly charged and overly interpretive language that carries a lot of freight. When you are passed over for a promotion, you tell yourself: "I'll never be promoted," instead of: "Maybe next time they'll pick me." When you don't get a top performance rating, your internal monologue is, "I'm a complete failure," instead of, "I got an above-average rating. That's pretty good, even if it could be better."

Over-generalizing: You attach too much meaning to one event, abstracting underlying principles from a case study of one. If a co-worker doesn't like you, you think: "None of my colleagues likes me" instead of, "Jane doesn't like me." If you have a disagreement with your boss, you think, "She hates me and is going to fire me," instead of, "She may be a bit annoyed right now."

Ignoring the positive: You focus only on the negatives in any situation. In a performance review, your boss says: "Here's what you are doing well, and here's what you can continue to work on ...". All you hear: "Your performance is bad."

Jumping to conclusions: Remember when you were in high school and always assumed you had failed the exam? You are still doing that. Your boss says: "I don't yet know whether you got that salary increase." You are sure he knows - and you assume that you didn't get it.

Catastrophizing: After you have jumped to the negative conclusion, you believe it is the end of the world. "They're going to fire me. My family will hate me. I'll never get another job."

Making should statements:You are judgmental about everyone, including yourself. If you are making less money than you would like, you think: "At my age, I should be making more. I'm a failure."

Blaming others: You can't stand to be wrong or fail, attributing your own bad feelings or negative outcomes to what others have done to you. Fail to get a salary increase? Instead of thinking you didn't deserve it or there were no raises this year, you say: "My boss is out to get me."

Inappropriate comparisons: You constantly evaluate yourself against others' achievements, and find yourself wanting. Rather than feeling good about a friend's promotion, you think: "I'm incompetent. I didn't get a promotion."
Personalizing: You interpret, and misinterpret, everything through a personal lens, without hard data to back conclusions, and with negative consequences for yourself. If someone doesn't return a phone call, you assume he or she doesn't want to talk to you, rather than the other party is occupied with something else. If someone is abrupt, you assume he or she doesn't like you rather than the fact that the person may just have been in a hurry.

Attaching personality labels: You interpret behaviour and outcomes of situations as a reflection of unchangeable personal characteristics. You tell yourself: "I didn't get that assignment because I'm dumb," not because someone else was more qualified. You tell yourself that your boss is an insensitive jerk, not that he showed little sensitivity in a particular situation.

Guilty of any of these kinds of self-sabotaging thinking? Next time you are feeling badly about a situation, reframe your perception. You'll find you can turn your neurotic self-chatter into more accurate observations and conclusions that will better serve you.

Strategies to silence self-sabotaging thoughts

Here are some ways to avoid becoming a victim of your self-sabotaging thoughts:

Watch your language. Don't exaggerate or make sweeping generalizations. For example, instead of saying, "none of my co-workers like me," be specific about who doesn't like you.

Value what you have, not what you don't have. Instead of focusing on the negatives, identify what is positive. For example, tell yourself that, despite the fact you didn't get the promotion, there are many challenges to hold your attention in your current job. And there are always possibilities for a promotion in the future.

Check out your perceptions. Get data to support your interpretation of events. If you can't find support for it, then rethink it.

Examine your underlying beliefs. Many of us, as a result of our socialization, have irrational beliefs about what we should be like. You may, for instance, tell yourself that you're a failure if you're not moving up the ladder. Ask yourself whether this is true and how you know it to be true.

Don't think win/lose: Know when to compromise, when to allow yourself to be influenced by another point of view, and when you really need to go to battle.

Avoid perfectionism. Know when to go the limit, and when good enough will suffice. Feel good about you have accomplished, not what you failed to accomplish.

Guard your projections. If a friend gets promoted, don't project onto him or her your feelings of in adequacy. You are not less competent because your friend was promoted. As well, watch projecting onto others the things you fear about yourself. When you say something like, "my boss is obsessed with getting recognition," what you may really be thinking is: "I'm obsessed with getting recognition."

Don't engage in destructive social comparison. It's a mug's game. There will always be someone smarter, richer or better-looking than you. You don't know what their internal conflicts are. And remember also that there just might be other people marvelling at your successes.


If you would like to be added to Dr. Moses' email list to receive more of her articles, please contact aw@bbmcareerdev.com