By Amy Morin LCSW
Mental strength requires a three-pronged approach—managing our thoughts, regulating our emotions, and behaving productively despite our circumstances.
While all three areas can be a struggle, it’s often our thoughts that make it most difficult to be mentally strong.
As we go about our daily routines, our internal monologue narrates our experience. Our self-talk guides our behavior and influences the way we interact with others. It also plays a major role in how you feel about yourself, other people, and the world in general.
Quite often, however, our conscious thoughts aren’t realistic; they’re irrational and inaccurate. Believing our irrational thoughts can lead to problems including communication issues, relationship problems, and unhealthy decisions.
Whether you’re striving to reach personal or professional goals, the key to success often starts with recognizing and replacing inaccurate thoughts. The most common thinking errors can be divided into these 10 categories, which are adapted from David Burns’s book, Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy(link is external).
1. All-or-Nothing Thinking
Sometimes we see things as being black or white: Perhaps you have two categories of coworkers in your mind—the good ones and the bad ones. Or maybe you look at each project as either a success or a failure. Recognize the shades of gray, rather than putting things in terms of all good or all bad.
It’s easy to take one particular event and generalize it to the rest of our life. If you failed to close one deal, you may decide, “I’m bad at closing deals.” Or if you are treated poorly by one family member, you might think, “Everyone in my family is rude.” Take notice of times when an incident may apply to only one specific situation, instead of all other areas of life.
3. Filtering Out the Positive
If nine good things happen, and one bad thing, sometimes we filter out the good and hone in on the bad. Maybe we declare we had a bad day, despite the positive events that occurred. Or maybe we look back at our performance and declare it was terrible because we made a single mistake. Filtering out the positive can prevent you from establishing a realistic outlook on a situation. Develop a balanced outlook by noticing both the positive and the negative.
We can never be sure what someone else is thinking. Yet, everyone occasionally assumes they know what’s going on in someone else’s mind. Thinking things like, “He must have thought I was stupid at the meeting,” makes inferences that aren’t necessarily based on reality. Remind yourself that you may not be making accurate guesses about other people’s perceptions.
Sometimes we think things are much worse than they actually are. If you fall short on meeting your financial goals one month you may think, “I’m going to end up bankrupt,” or “I’ll never have enough money to retire,” even though there’s no evidence that the situation is nearly that dire. It can be easy to get swept up into catastrophizing a situation once your thoughts become negative. When you begin predicting doom and gloom, remind yourself that there are many other potential outcomes.
6. Emotional Reasoning
Our emotions aren’t always based on reality but we often assume those feelings are rational. If you’re worried about making a career change, you might assume, “If I’m this scared about it, I just shouldn’t change jobs.” Or, you may be tempted to assume, “If I feel like a loser, I must be a loser.” It’s essential to recognize that emotions, just like our thoughts, aren’t always based on the facts.
Labeling involves putting a name to something. Instead of thinking, “He made a mistake,” you might label your neighbor as “an idiot.” Labeling people and experiences places them into categories that are often based on isolated incidents. Notice when you try to categorize things and work to avoid placing mental labels on everything.
Although none of us knows what will happen in the future, we sometimes like to try our hand at fortune-telling. We think things like, “I’m going to embarrass myself tomorrow,” or “If I go on a diet, I’ll probably just gain weight.” These types of thoughts can become self-fulfilling prophecies if you’re not careful. When you’re predicting doom and gloom, remind yourself of all the other possible outcomes.
As much as we’d like to say we don’t think the world revolves around us, it’s easy to personalize everything. If a friend doesn’t call back, you may assume, “She must be mad at me,” or if a co-worker is grumpy, you might conclude, “He doesn’t like me.” When you catch yourself personalizing situations, take time to point out other possible factors that may be influencing the circumstances.
10. Unreal Ideal
Making unfair comparisons about ourselves and other people can ruin our motivation. Looking at someone who has achieved much success and thinking, “I should have been able to do that,” isn’t helpful, especially if that person had some lucky breaks or competitive advantages along the way. Rather than measuring your life against someone else’s, commit to focusing on your own path to success.
Fixing Thinking Errors
Once you recognize your thinking errors, you can begin trying to challenge those thoughts. Look for exceptions to the rule and gather evidence that your thoughts aren’t 100% true. Then, you can begin replacing them with more realistic thoughts.
The goal doesn’t need to be to replace negative thoughts with overly idealistic or positive ones. Instead, replace them with realistic thoughts. Changing the way you think takes a lot of effort initially, but with practice, you’ll notice big changes—not just in the way you think, but also in the way you feel and behave. You can make peace with the past, look at the present differently, and think about the future in a way that will support your chances of reaching your goals.
Amy Morin is a licensed clinical social worker and an internationally recognized expert on mental strength.
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