How to help ourselves from the mental trap of setbacks

We all know people who greet life’s challenges easily with grit and grace. People who are calm, collective and even-keeled under pressure, approaching worries, fears, life’s struggles and even injustice with magnanimity.

I however have never been one of those people EVER. As your classic overachiever, i’v always had a tendency to equate my self-worth with external validation. At times it has come in rather handy, feeding my ambitious streak by pushing me to work harder. But with me constantly living for the next “gold star” has also let me to process each minor set back, like a major disaster, (almost a feeling of “the world just ended”) filling my brain with dramatic thoughts: I couldn’t do anything right. Everybody hated me. I was always doomed to fail, always.

Maybe you can relate to this kind of unwitting overreaction. Maybe not? It happens when you have a fight with a friend that leaves you convinced that the two of you are over for ever, or when your partner does something hurtful to you to make you believe, just temporarily, that you hate them.

We see this behavior in pop culture and politics – where we are always too quick to categorize these people as good/bad, worthy of admiration or disdain without fully understanding the full situation. We pass judgement. We always pass judgement way too quickly.

The tendency to think in extremes is known in psychology as dichotomous. Another way to describe it is seeing everything as black or white . A common mental error that will distort your perception of reality. Something I suffer with but can handle it much better now. When your in the grips of dichotomous, there’s no room for nuance. You start seeing the world as all or nothing, fixating on how things “should be” or “must be” to the point that you render yourself inflexible to change. But of course you can change. I did. I am!

Ask yourself what objective evidence supports this? How would another view this situation?

Everyone I believe suffers from dichotomous thinking at some point in their life. Just my opinion.

Research has shown that this kind of thinking can lead to a pattern of harmful perfectionism and also low self esteem, with this comes bad judgement and leaves you to misunderstand others peoples emotions. Life is ambitious and complex, you have to appreciate its subtleties to stay happy and sane. We need to be a little bit more realistic and a little less extreme in our thoughts. Agree this is not always an easy task.

Pay attention to your thoughts. If you hear yourself talking in absolutes, negative thinking. Sentences like “this always happens to me” or “it never works out” try to counteract them with a realism rating. Instead of giving marks out of 10, rate your performance out of 100. Doesn’t seem so negative now does it?

When your at the height of dichotomous thinking, this is where you can become dangerous to yourself. Your brain automatically will jump into overdrive, this is to protect you from perceived threats. However your not actually in any danger but this is your body’s way of dealing with your thinking. Your body will start to release chemicals like cortisone and adrenaline which pumps up your anxiety, the other functions like decision making, self control and focus, to name a few are shot down and you won’t find them. Something that I do and I find very helpful is the 5-4-3-2-1 technique, Also know as a grounding exercise. Engage your 5 senses one at a time. Identify 5 things you can see, 4 sounds, 3 physical sensations, 2 smells and 1 taste that you are experiencing right at that moment.

Once that’s done , we need to get our brain back thinking clearly again. What I do is I will create a counterargument.

What’s our goal? We need to challenge our thoughts, we need to know if what we’re thinking is correct. These are some of the questions I ask myself….

What objective evidence or facts supports this ?

How would another person view this situation?

Are there other angles to consider?

What actions can I take that will help or influence what happens next?

We need a more balanced way of reacting to a situation. Reframing is when we gather other ways at looking at a situation. Fact is: doing this can reduce the potency of whatever false perception that’s causing you stress. Sounds simple and it actually is. If you suffer with dichotomous, the reality is that you need to do these things or life will become very scary, very negative and very lonely.

Remember we have to be nicer to ourselves. Self compassion will increase your capacity to cope with negative emotions. So when your eternal monologue is full of your thoughts about your inadequacy please ask yourself this – Is there a better generous assumption that I can be making right now?

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