Has this ever happened to you? Anticipatory anxiety. There’s nothing to worry about yet, nothing bad has happened but you work yourself into a tizzy anyway based on your thought distortions: the messages you’re telling yourself.
Here’s my latest. It involves some overseas travel for a series of workshops. My anxieties started kicking in about 5 days before the trip. I wasn’t sleeping well. Was distracted, not able to stay present—even when I was having a meal with friends. I had lots of extra-curricular worries around the travel arrangements and the workshop plans. So I wasn’t as productive and this made me feel less prepared and more stressed.
Any of this sound familiar? Ever experience snow-balling anxieties?
It didn’t seem to matter that I’ve been through this many times before. And that once I get on the plane I’m fine. I like exploring new places and love doing the workshops. But none of that makes a dent in the pre-trip anxiety. It’s the anticipation that gets to me — thanks to my distorted thinking.
Welcome to the thought distortion roundup.
Thought distortions are common—they’re the negative messages playing in a loop in our heads. Aaron Beck originated the theory behind cognitive distortions and David Burns gave us the common names and examples for the distortions.
Below are 7 samples but there many other flavors. (I find I’m good at mixing these to make my own hybrid versions.)
These awful things we tell ourselves and that we, on some level, believe—are things we would never think to say to anyone else. We save most of cruelty for ourselves.
Recognize any of these favorites?
What’s going on inside your head?
Catastrophizing: AKA: “magnifying or minimizing.” As in “OMG, what if I miss my flight connection?” or “What if I miss the next entrance?” or “What if I lose my place or have another memory slip?”
Mind reading: “The audience seems really cold. That person in front is scowling. They all hate me!” or “I can tell the audition committee is against me. I don’t stand a chance!”
All or nothing thinking / perfectionism: “The workshop is off to a rocky start: there’s no salvaging this” or “I missed that one note. The audition is ruined.”
Fortune telling / Predicting the future: As in “The last time I did this I had that migraine from hell. I just know one is coming on” or “Oh my God, here comes that passage I always screw up.”
Sweeping generalization / labeling: As in “I’m a terrible sight-reader,” “I never make it past the first round,” “I suck at networking,” or “I’m a failure.”
Comparisons: As in “She’s amazing. I’m such a loser” or “Everyone else has his act together. Everyone but me.”
“Shoulding” on yourself: We have a crazy idea that life should conform to rigid set of impossible standards that we hold ourselves and others up against. This produces guilt and a downward spiral of blame. As in, “I should be much further along in my career by now” or “I should be much better at managing stress at this point.”
These thoughts are often lurking just below our consciousness and may be long-standing habits that undermine our self-esteem and our performances. Our negative messages ignite worry, fear, a sense of inadequacy or incompetence and these in turn incite the physical symptoms of performance anxiety.
We may not be aware of these negative messages at all but they have a profound impact on every aspect of our lives. They limit us from achieving what we’re capable of.
So why do we torture ourselves?
Why do we tell ourselves—and worse yet, why do we believe these lies? What’s the purpose in undermining our own work—and ultimately, our futures?
Cognitive distortions act as a force to counter-act our best intentions. This negative force is what the shrinks who wrote The Tools, Barry Michels and Phil Stutz label as ‘Part X.’ It’s what Steven Pressfield refers to as Resistance and what Brené Brown calls your Gremlins.
No matter what name you use, this self-limiting force is designed to prevent us from taking risks, from reaching our true potential. It’s our lizard brain working over time to keep us playing small and avoiding doing our best, most daring work. Playing it safe means missing out on being fully alive.
The good news is that we don’t have to let Part X, our resistance, or our gremlins win.
How do we heal?
The first step is to recognize our own distorted thinking. We can’t change what we can’t identify.
This can be tricky. I’m often oblivious to the thought or belief that triggers the stress. I may only be vaguely aware of the feeling or I may just notice that I’m not sleeping well or that I’m not as focused (and blame it on my lack of sleep).
The trick is to stop and notice what’s going on—to catch yourself and work backwards to identify the distorted thinking behind the symptom. For me it was actually hearing the message in my head “You don’t know what you’re doing” and “This new workshop plan has no spine—stick with the old and boring —but safe model.”
Get to know your adversary.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) focuses on this tracing back from your behavior, or the feeling, or the distorted thought so you can challenge the assertion with a more accurate assessment of the situation and make a conscious choice about how to move ahead.
Ask yourself, What am I really afraid of? Is that a likely outcome? If it did happen, would it really be the end of the world? Have I distorted reality here?
CBT is great but it only gets you so far. To get past the fear you need to confront it head on by doing what you’re afraid of. To step into the arena and dare to do the deed. The good news is that Phil and Barry’s Tools can help you take the needed actions.
The fear doesn’t go away but you can learn how to move forward through it. Barry says, “The greatest mistake people make when dealing with fear is to try to think their way through it. They analyze what triggered it, or start ‘playing chess,’ projecting out what might happen next, and how they’ll deal with it. This doesn’t diminish fear; it actually increases it because there’s no way to outsmart the universe. Instead of trying, do the counterintuitive thing with fear: let yourself feel it.”
Feeling the fear prepares you to confront it head on and take the action. By facing our fears we have the opportunity to prove our negative thoughts wrong and re-write our beliefs.
Phil Stutz says, “Try to think about confronting fear as a skill—something you can practice and get good at, like ping-pong, or knitting, or anything else. This will make your fear seem less dramatic, and you’ll feel more in control of it. You can also gain a lot of satisfaction in the process.”
Practice the skill of courage
Make a habit of getting outside your comfort zone every day. Take one action every day that makes you even a little nervous. Whether it’s making eye contact and saying good morning to people you pass on the street, or trying a new recipe, making the phone call you’ve been avoiding, or planning your program for the recital you want to give in the spring. Bring it on!
Let’s build our courage skills. I’m fed up with making myself sick before these “away gigs” so I’ll be working on this, too! And yes, I’m daring to use the new material in these workshops. It’s a risk, but that’s the only way to grow beyond my current skills. I’m working to be more curious than terrified.
This week: What negative messages or stories are you telling yourself? What thought distortions do you want to correct?
PS: Thanks very much to all who wrote in last week with suggestions on my marketing case study. The range of perspectives and advice was fascinating and very helpful. I feel grateful and so fortunate to be connected with you all!
Looking forward to hearing from you as always,
Dream Big, Plan Smart, Live Well!