The third in a series on Habits.
When considering our habits, we usually think of overt behaviors like exercise, eating well, or keeping clean. Yet there are tons of covert habits going on inside our minds and bodies that are worthy of our attention. To better understand what goes on beneath the surface, Emotional Detectives must turn their magnifying glasses inward to examine their habits of thought and feeling.
Your thoughts mostly happen without your awareness or control (similar to your emotions). Nevertheless, by paying more attention, you can observe your thought processes and discern patterns. The trick is to separate yourself from your thoughts so you can dispassionately examine them. Approach your thoughts with the attitude of a detective who wants to collect evidence and discover the truth. Sometimes I imagine I am on a mental perch - resting on a solid vantage point from which I can observe my inner domain.
While on your ‘mental perch,’ observe your thoughts and characteristic approaches to the world. Lookout for mental habits that tend to be:
- Hierarchical (who or what is the best?) or cooperative (how can we fit together?)
- Judgmental (is this good or bad?) or open-minded (hmmm, what’s going on?)
- Optimistic (glass half full) or pessimistic (glass half empty)
- Creative (something new) or narrow-minded (something old)
- Confident (what can I do?) or out of control (feeling powerless)
Routine patterns of negative thought can influence behavior in insidious ways. Negative mental habits contribute to anxiety, excessive guilt, pessimism, procrastination, low self-esteem and depression. If you are pessimistic about your success chances at work, you are less likely to make the sacrifices necessary to really stand out. Should you believe that nobody could really like you anyway, you may develop social habits that effectively shut people out.
Which mental habits should you be on the lookout for?
Unhealthy mental habits can foster anxiety, guilt, pessimism, procrastination, low self-esteem and depression. David D. Burns, MD wrote a classic a self-help book on Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (an evidence-based treatment for depression and anxiety). In Feeling Good Burns describes proven techniques that can change negative mental habits (cognitive restructuring). Burns’ highlighted ten common mental habits that trigger negative emotions (cognitive distortions):
Twisted Mental Habits
1) Over Simplifying and Black and White Thinking (all or nothing, splitting)
2) Over Generalization (indiscriminate, projecting too much into future, hysteria)
3) Over Filtering (limits the focus of your awareness, attention and perspective)
4) Disqualifying the Positive (Reason fears disappointment and makes faulty attributions)
5) Jumping to Conclusions (Reason pushes for premature foreclosure to avoid uncertainty)
6) Magnification (Catastrophizing) and Minimization (Denial)
7) Emotional Reasoning (Primitive and Social impulses guiding thought rather than reason)
8) Should Statements (Social over-moralizes and re-triggers shame)
9) Labeling and Mislabeling (Social starts character assassination)
10) Personalization (Primitive thinks everything is about you)
*adapted from Psych Central's summary of Burns' Feeling Good
Although changing cognitive distortions can be hard, your efforts will pay off. I can attest to this from personal experience. When in college I routinely reflected on my feelings with my housemates, as they would reflect on theirs. Over the years, I have continued the practice of discussing my feelings with close friends and it’s become second nature. These days I am quite familiar with many of my cognitive distortions. My previous detective work has informed me about my twisted mental habits, and I can recognize them by the familiar feelings that they prompt - my special brand of pain. These days I can spot my distortions when they recur and "correct" for them - so they don't hurt as much or lead me astray. With practice, you can learn to do the same.