Blind to Our Own Negativity?
If you are a leader, you have had times when the negative mindset of people you lead became a major frustration. It’s not just the negativity that irked you. It’s the fact that you had a stake in their attitudes being synchronized with yours. Similarly, if you are in a relationship, you have a large stake in the attitude of your partner or spouse, whether it’s making a major decision or deciding what to do together this afternoon.
The funny thing is that most of us don’t readily see our own negativity. Our antennae detect it from others (“Will you kids stop fighting!”), but we tend to indulge ourselves in our own negative maneuverings. Oddity of this situation teeters on absurdity when you consider that we are usually the only ones who can correct our own negative thinking. So, I am the one who needs to correct my own negative thoughts–the very person most likely to pass them off as realistic or, “I’m just saying…”
How to Get Rid of Negative Thoughts
One approach getting rid of negative thoughts is to work from a list of common forms of negativity. Negative thoughts are not just in your head. They are a distorted lens that make you say, do, and feel things based on a skewed view of people and situations. If you were on a road trip and the map or GPS gave you distorted views of upcoming intersections, you will likely make wrong turns. And that’s the point. Negative lens distortions give a shove over the cliff of bad decision-making.
So, if you dare, it’s a good idea to learn to recognize your own ‘brand” of negativity. Learn to recognize your own pet lens distortions, i. e., the specific thought patterns you frequently engage in when you make judgements about situations, people, and the world around you. When you know your own propensities to skew the data, you are empowered to take a fresh look and make adjustments.
Common Lens Distortions
Lens distortions are similar to “Cognitive Distortions” made popular by psychologists Aaron Beck and David Burns. I call them Lens Distortions because this ties them into the camera metaphor I am fond of using for how people get stuck in communication. Lens distortions are cognitive distortions as applied to people, interpersonal situations, and conversations.
Lens distortions are dysfunctional thought patterns that rigidly define our perceptions of interpersonal situations and people. They are the subjective maneuvers we engage in to spin people and the things they say in a biased, negative direction. They can be a simple as name-calling, “You’re a jerk!” (#9 below) where we kill people’s ideas by tossing into the dumpster of a disgusting category. They can be as complicated as State-Trait Twisting (#5 below).
- Perfect or Nothing Often referred to as “all-or-nothing thinking” or “black-and-white thinking” where no gray area or middle ground is acknowledged. Business example: “If this company doesn’t meet all my expectations, then I can’t be supportive of what’s going on.” Parenting example: “If you don’t win this game, I’m going to be very disappointed in you.”
- Once = Always or “Twice is a Pattern.” Best known as “overgeneralization.“ This distortion sees one negative instance of something and then makes a generalized complaint. It involves seeing patterns when there are not enough instances to make a pattern. Just because you hit one red light on the way to work doesn’t mean that “This is the way my day is going to be.” Leadership example: “Well, John, you lost the account, if this continues…” One instance does not mean that it’s fair to generalize to all similar or future situations. And two instances does not mean that a pattern has begun. Couples example: “You always do this to me at the last minute..” Often there really are patterns in relationships, but just as often there are one or two solitary frustrating incidents that morph when they pass through this lens distortion and become, “You always…”
- What-if Worrying is frequently known as Catastrophizing. This lens is cut from the brittle glass of anxiety. It chases an illusion that if I can identify all the possible negative outcomes, then I am somehow protected against surprise disappointments. Many couples’ outings have been ruined by this type of thinking and many business ideas have been shot down before they took on enough substance to be discussed.
- Filter Out the Positives This distortion involves seeing only the negative aspects of a situation. The classic example is a student who get’s an A minus on a term paper with the comment “Good Job” written at the top of the page. But the student receiving the graded paper immediately focuses on one minor corrective comment on page 8. In relationships, a repair attempt by one person is often shot down by the other who instantly filters out the positives and highlights the one negative idea. “Honey, I got the job!” Reply: “Mmm. How many candidates were they considering?”
- STATE/TRAIT Twisting Background circumstances to something negative don’t matter. The background circumstances don’t represent temporary states (e.g., fatigue), but rather ongoing traits (I’m/You’re stupid). Example 1: If I messed up it was because I was tired (temporary state); if you messed up it’s because you are lazy (permanent trait). Example 2: If I made a mistake then “I couldn’t help it” (temporary state or circumstances), but if you made a mistake, then “you should have known better” and are therefore inconsiderate (permanent flaw/trait).
- Projector Lens is something like mind-reading. You think you know what someone else is thinking, but you actually taking your own insecurities or disappointments and imagining them being in the mind of your spouse, coworker, etc. Your negative expectations are projected like a movie onto someone else as if they were the movie screen. Relationship example: “Why are you so quiet this evening?” Answer: “I’m really tired.” Projection response: “No, you’re mad at me. I just know it.” Other forms of this distortion are “I feel ashamed, therefore you mush be ashamed of me;” or, “I am angry, therefore you must be angry at me.”
- Disappointment Phobia could also be called “Cynical Prediction.” It’s a form of ASSUMING THE WORST to protect against being let down. The maxim in relationships is “trust nobody and you won’t be disappointed.” At work, it involves the anxiety of always anticipating the other shoe to drop. The operating principle of this lens distortion is “Be ready for the worst outcome and you won’t be let down.”
- Should Bullying “I HAVE to get this turned in on time or I’m sunk;” I’ve GOT to…” This lens distortion changes every task into the drudgery of being forced to do something instead of simply choosing to do it. “I really should pull those weeds,” is the guilt-laden negative thought that could have been as simple as, “I’ve been too busy with other important things to pull those weeds.”
- Categorizing Dumpster I can re-categorize things or people (e.g., name calling) so that I don’t have any responsibility to do something constructive. “You’re a bitch!” or “You’re a jerk!” dumps someone’s behavior or character into a dumpster of contempt, thereby halting the prospect of intelligent conversation about an issue.
- Trick Photo Most commonly referred to as “Minimization.” The positive prospects in my view just can’t be true–it must be a trick. Positive features of a situation or opportunity are minimized as if they had been Photoshopped into the picture. “What I see in the situation that is positive must be a trick, it CAN’T be real. The negative is what is real; evidence of positive doesn’t count.
- It’s All About Me In this lens distortion, everything is personalized to be about, well…, me! The driver in front of me didn’t just make a mistake, he intentionally wanted to provoke me. “They did this to get back at me;” Another example is “he hasn’t called me back because he hates me.”
- Fish-Eye Assuming that you can see everything that needs to be considered with your own perspective. This distortion ignores the fact that even if you did see everything, it would be distorted. This is because you can only see situations from where you are standing. No one can see everything from every perspective at the same time.
- Preparation Obsession The assumption that no action can be taken until one is prepared for ALL POSSIBLE negative outcomes. This lens distortion seems to bear resemblance to OCD. I sometimes call it, Prerequisitism because no task can be attempted until a prior task is completed. Each task has a prerequisite, something that must be in perfect order before the next move can be made. “We can’t book the hotel room until we research all possible vacation packages.”
- Blurred Background In photography, the background can be blurred to place emphasis on the main object in the field of vision. This is also a metaphor for how we minimize the importance of related factors in a situation. You could also call this the “Donald Trump” distortion. Background circumstances to something negative just don’t matter. “The bottom line, Rick, is that you didn’t win, and so, you’re fired!”
- Jumping to Conclusions In some ways, this is the king of all the lens distortions. So much of negative thinking can be avoided if we just put on our scientist hat and collect more evidence by asking questions. Two or three more questions can lengthen a conversation between two lovers by just a few minutes, but it can save them from a fight that starts with one person jumping to negative conclusions.
- Negative Magnifying glass Also called “Negative Zoom.” This lens distortion may or may not filter out the positives, but the obsessive focus is on one negative aspect of an idea, suggestion, or a activity. “I hate hanging out with your family, because your brother always…”
- No Good Angle E.g., “There is no point in trying.” Spinning the interpretation of a situation so that it is portrayed to self or others in the most unflattering light and insisting that a better angle to view it simply doesn’t exist. This lens distortion involves stubbornness.