As we begin 2022, putting our memories and thoughts of 2021 to rest, and focusing on the New Year perhaps it is time to pause and think about how we are feeling about the year ahead.

Are you excited about what 2022 has in store? Or are you worried or maybe a bit anxious? Have you stopped and made a New Year’s resolution or two and are determined to stay focused all year on improving your health, getting a new professional qualification or even just to win more business.

I’d hazard a guess that your thoughts about work will be guided by the way 2021 was concluded. If you had a successful year, you’ll likely be motivated and ready to win again in 2022. Or perhaps if it’s the opposite and 2021 didn’t quite go as expected, you may be less confident about the prospects for the new year.

It would be remiss of me not to mention however that for all of us life has been more challenging than usual for the last 2 years and from a personal perspective there will be these circumstances affecting how we think about 2022. As I write this article in early December of 2021 knowing you won’t see it until the new year I am choosing purposefully not to dwell on this week’s emergence of the new Omicron strain of Covid. While I only hope that we are past the worst of it I suspect this will still be firmly on your mind and, if you’re anything like me, the constant media attention doesn’t help those negative thoughts about how the year may develop. Thoughts such as ‘are we going to be forced into another lockdown and if so, what does that mean for meeting families or friends’ or, ‘are we ever going to rid ourselves of being jabbed every few months’.

Thoughts such as these, whether they are focused around work, personal lives, or both, can quite often become all consuming, completely filling our attention, sometimes to the point of obsessiveness. Our minds constantly going back to the ‘what if’s’, causing undue negativity and stress in our lives.

The reality however is that the thoughts we have our just that. They our thoughts and nothing more. Now, when we’re potentially obsessing about something it can be easy to believe that these thoughts are true and as such so are the consequences that maybe attached to them.

From your experience does this ring true. Can you think of a situation or event that you thought was going to be frustrating, stressful or turn out badly, but it was actually fun, enjoyable, or even rewarding and positive? Can you remember what you were thinking before the situation or event?

Eckhart Tolle, a German-born spiritual teacher, and self-help author emphasised this by asserting that “the primary cause of unhappiness is never the situation, but your thoughts about it”.

An example of this could be that the project you are working on has started to run behind, and then the client calls to arrange a meeting for the following day, even though they are unaware of the slight delay. Negative thoughts may jump into your mind about what’s going to be said in the meeting or the potential ramifications about future work with the client. You may even go home in the evening and spend the night playing out all the potential negative consequences, possibly waking up in the middle of the night with you mind jumping straight to even more gloomy thoughts. Then at the meeting the following morning rather than all the thoughts over the last day or two coming to reality, the client actual praises you for the work you’ve completed rather than berating you for running slightly behind.

Our thoughts can seem so real. When they feel so real this tends to start a chain reaction especially if the thoughts we’re having are negative. Our thoughts in turn create our feelings and then those feelings create our behaviours and those behaviours then reinforce our thoughts.  And so the cycle begins. Repeatedly getting worse each time.

So going back to our earlier mentioned client meeting. If the story you are telling yourself before the meeting is focusing on ‘who’s told the client we’re running behind’, ‘how have they found out’ or ‘this is going to be a nightmare meeting’ we are creating feelings of worry, fear etc. Those feelings may then affect your behaviour so when you walk into the meeting you may be more confrontational than you ought to be perhaps causing an atmosphere meaning the meeting doesn’t go well. In reality, the client just wanted to say thanks for doing a good job and find out about progress. Now if you are reading this and thinking ‘that would never happen’ perhaps you could instead ask yourself why exactly you are thinking that. Surely not every meeting you have is an unhappy one?

Our thoughts are powerful and when perceived from a negative perspective are known as cognitive or thinking distortions. They are unhelpful thinking patterns where our mind convinces us of something that isn’t true, these inaccurate thoughts can then reinforce negative thinking or emotions.

Many people have these cognitive distortions, although often they may not even be aware of them. By helping to recognise when you are thinking distorted thoughts, you can begin to question such thoughts, and then eventually replace them with more balanced beliefs. This might sound simple, but negative thinking is often a strong habit, so engrained it is unconscious and is often perceived as normal.

An American psychiatrist called Aaron Beck first proposed the theory behind cognitive distortions and it was his student, Dr David Burns, who continued the research on the topic and promoted the common names and examples of cognitive distortions. There are 10 big distortions that can occur.

  1. All or nothing thinking. You see things in black and white instead of in shades of grey. Example: I’m a bad person.
  2. You see a negative event as a never-ending pattern of defeat. Example: I never do anything right.
  3. Negative Mental filter. When you filter out all the good stuff to focus on the negative. Example: You deliver a toolbox talk which is praised by 95% of the team – but you dwell and focus on the 5% of feedback that said you could have done a better job.
  4. Disqualifying the positive. When you believe a good or positive thing ‘doesn’t count’ toward your larger pattern of failure and negativity. Example: A colleague compliments you on your ability as a machine driver, but you decide that ‘they are just saying that to be nice’ or ‘they are trying to get something out of me’
  5. Jumping to conclusions. You make a negative interpretation even though there are no facts to support your conclusion. Example: You are going to take your CCDO Topman assessment and ‘know’ you are going to fail
  6. Magnification or minimization. You exaggerate your own mistakes (or other people’s accomplishments or happiness) while minimizing your own accomplishments and others’ flaws. Example: Everyone saw me mess up that hot cutting, while James did his perfectly.
  7. Emotional reasoning. You assume your negative feelings reflect the truth. Example: I felt embarrassed during the briefing therefore I must have been acting in an embarrassing way.
  8. Should statements. When you beat yourself up for not doing things differently. Example: I should’ve kept my mouth shut.
  9. Labeling and mislabeling. You use a small negative event or feeling to give yourself a huge, general label. Example: I forgot my PPE . I’m a total failure.
  10. You make things personal that aren’t. Example: The job went badly because I was there.

Can you be honest with yourself, how many of the distortions above ring true to you? Have you heard yourself using them or listening and believing in your inner voice in the past?

To change cognitive distortions to balanced thinking can be quite a process of focused work and attention but change is possible. You need to challenge yourself when you hear that little voice by asking yourself ‘what evidence do I have for this?’ or taking the previous example ‘how do I know the client is going to berate me?’

One of the first steps in challenging cognitive distortion is to be aware of them and be aware of how easy it is to let our thoughts become reality.

Why don’t you take this opportunity and make a belated new year’s resolution to challenge the distorted thoughts we can all have.

When you hear your inner voice, and those common cognitive distortions try to remember the quote from William Shakespeare

‘There is nothing good or bad but thinking makes it so’.

Dave Price

Managing Director, Vector Equilibrium Ltd