Jumping to Conclusions Part ll: Fortune Telling

I jumped to the conclusion that I would never be a lifeguard, simply because it was a long process and I couldn’t imagine being good enough. (see Slow and Steady Wins the Race.) In gymnastics I told myself I couldn’t do new skills–before I even tried them.

“I don’t run well in the rain. I’m gonna do badly in this race.” “My novel is never going to get published.” I don’t think all the usual questions work in this instance, but let’s give it a whirl.
1) What is the evidence? None. Because the future hasn’t happened yet. There, that was easy. Ok, I’ll flesh it out a little more.

Even if you’ve had bad times in the rain perhaps you have worked on this element (pun intended); or maybe today will go better because you’re going to allow yourself to think that it might. Yes, it’s a huge challenge to get a novel published. You can remind yourself that many famous authors had many rejections before their novel got published. And many publishing houses regret they turned them down. You can fantasize about that if it makes you feel better.

2) What are alternative explanations: None necessary. You can’t predict the future.

3) What are the implications? None. You can’t predict the future. Case closed.

Another antidote: Remind yourself to know what you don’t know. Unless you have a unique spiritual gift you cannot predict the future. You don’t know how you ran your race until you’ve run it. You don’t know how many publishers you may have to approach before you find one that bites.

Shoulda-Coulda Thinking

Here’s another championship I could have won in my prime. Happily, I’m less of a contender these days. If I were stuck in traffic: “I should have gone another way. I should have left earlier. I should have left later.” After a less-than stellar performance: “I should have practiced more. I should have never attempted that. I should have known I’d be too nervous to execute that properly.”

The questions we’ve been using don’t seem to work completely with this one, but let’s see what happens when we try.

1) What’s the evidence? You might have had a bad creative session or a not-great athletic performance and you think it’s obvious that you SHOULD have: practiced harder, held on to the ball, blocked the puck, hit the right notes, remembered the dialogue, written every morning, etc., etc.)

OK, so maybe there IS evidence that you need to improve something.
But what is the evidence that telling yourself you “should” do something actually helps you improve that thing?
If you are like most humans, “shoulding all over yourself” (as the Saturday Night Live character Stuart Smiley put it) engenders regret and discouragement, not motivation. It also can also foment rebellion. “I should eat well before competition” could lead to, “The heck with that–I’m gonna do what I WANT to do, not what I SHOULD do.”
2) Is this thought useful? I think we’ve established that it’s not useful. What do you think?

So, instead of “shoulding,” try asking yourself, “What can I learn from this?” It may seem like semantics, but simply changing the words you say to yourself can lead you to positive change for the future instead of being mired in the past. “If I practice more my form will improve and I’ll do better next time,” sets the stage for progress, whereas, “I should have made that shot,” keeps you stuck in the disappointing past.

Jumping to Conclusions: Mind Reading

In jumping to conclusions we assume the worst. Today we’ll focus on the aspect of mind reading. Next time I’ll talk about fortune telling.

Oh, my. I certainly didn’t limit myself to art or sport for this one. In high school (remember high school? how most of us were insanely insecure?) I was mind reading when I assumed that a girl in my class didn’t like me, simply because she was quiet. I was mind reading when I decided that the whole audience thought I totally messed up when I dropped out for 8 bars while accompanying the chorus. (Click on the following to go to read that blog:
All-or-Nothing Thinking: My Story)

Here are some other examples: “My peers think I have no talent.” “The rest of the team believes I let them down.” “Coach is angry at me.” “The audience thinks I suck.” “No one likes my poetry.”
Let’s apply the familiar questions.

1) What is the evidence? Did your peers actually come out and say, “You have no talent?” Did everyone on the team say, “You let us down”? Or was there a look that you interpreted negatively? What superpowers do you possess that enable you to read the collective mind of an audience? Performers tend to focus on the imperfections (in spite of all we know now about mental filter) and many in the audience don’t even have the technical knowledge to critique you in the way you fear they are critiquing you.

2) What are alternative explanations? If your peers actually did say something, why else might they have done that? Could they be joking? Maybe your team members are doing burdening themselves with their own thinking errors. Maybe what you’re seeing is simply their disappointment that the team didn’t do better. Is coach angry at you? Is coach angry at all? Or just intense? Maybe people loved your poetry but the folks at this reading are too shy to say so.

3) What are the implications? You’re not necessarily a pariah, even if some of your assumptions are accurate. One performance or competition or critique does not a career make. If coach is angry she’ll get over it. The implications may be that you pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and start all over again.

4) Is this thought useful? Rarely, for sure. Never, probably.

All-Or-Nothing Thinking Remedies

As promised, here are things you ask yourself when you notice you’re in in all-or-nothing thinking.
1) What is the evidence that the whole thing was a failure? Acknowledge the things you did do, the things that did work. All the “correct” notes you hit. The rest of the painting. The aspects of your race that were positive and that you can build on. It can be helpful to write these things down. This is not bragging or inflating. You are simply doing a thorough assessment.

At the end of this assessment, you’ll probably find lots of shades of gray and will have more energy to apply yourself to what you need to do. Education research shows that people learn from encouragement, not from being beaten down. By finding reasons to be encouraged you will improve your learning and results.

2) What are the alternative explanations? This question doesn’t give permission to make excuses. It gives permission to look at extenuating circumstances. Dan Jansen was favored to win a gold medal in speed skating in the 1988 Olympics. Try as he might to race at his peak he could not overcome the effect of the death of his sister only hours before his race. He finally got the elusive gold medal (and a world record) in the 1994 Olympics.

3) What are the implications? Really, when you think about it, so what if the note was wrong? If the shading was off? If you didn’t hit your PR today? All is not lost. The true implications are that you will need practice that part of the song or solo more; you will experiment before applying shading; you will continue to work to improve your time. In the great scheme of things whatever happened is not an insurmountable setback.

4) Is the thought useful? Hard to see how a thought that dismisses anything positive and erases all hope for enjoyment and improvement can be useful.

All-Or-Nothing Thinking: My Story

Portrait of a girl bending backwards

Portrait of a girl bending backwards

Also called black-and-white thinking: If something isn’t perfect you call it a total failure.
You honk on one wrong note in a piece and you say the whole thing sucked.
You create a lighting effect on your painting that you don’t love and throw the whole thing in the trash.
You don’t achieve a personal record and you say the whole race was a waste of time. (Pun intended.)

My first vivid experience of all-or-nothing thinking occurred when I was a high school freshman and accompanying the chorus on the piano. I briefly lost my place and dropped out for a few bars. I then found my place and completed the piece. When the concert ended I sobbed uncontrollably, believing that I had humiliated myself in front of an auditorium full of students and families. No one could convince me that my lapse wasn’t noticeable or significant. (This also has elements of mind reading, mental filter, discounting the positive, and magnifying.) I refused to play piano in public (though, happily, I still sang in the chorus) for many years.

My all-or-nothing thinking about my sport manifested differently. You might say it was “all-around -or- nothing thinking.” Although I hated vault and balance beam I forced myself to do them because I thought I should compete all-around. (Shoulda-coulda thinking here too. More on that in another post.) Nothing less than all was acceptable. (For those who aren’t into gymnastics: women have 4 events: floor exercise, vault, balance beam, and uneven parallel bars. To compete in all 4 is to compete “all around.”) If I had let myself do the 2 events I really liked—floor and bars—I would have had a lot more fun and been a better gymnast.

In my next post I’ll talk about how to counter all-or-nothing thinking.

Common thinking errors

Common thinking errors (David Burns, MD)
• all-or-nothing thinking
• overgeneralization
• mental filter
• discounting the positive
• fortune telling
• magnifying or minimizing
• emotional reasoning
• shoulda-coulda thinking
• labeling
• self blame or blame of others

A simple (though not always easy) way to defuse these thoughts is to notice, label, and replace them with rational, realistic thoughts. Albert Ellis, Ph.D. is a trailblazer in this approach.

Dr. Martin Seligman, a pioneer of Positive Psychology, suggests these steps:

1) Look at the evidence
2) Look for possible alternative explanations
3) Realistically evaluate the implications.

In future posts I’ll go into detail on each of the thinking errors and provide examples of using various approaches to defuse them. For now, see which ones you think may apply to you. You may even try some of the approaches above and see if you can begin to neutralize some of your self-defeating thoughts some of the time.

Mind Matters: Thinking Errors

“I think, therefore I am.” (Rene Descartes, philosopher.) “I think, therefore I drive myself crazy.” (Many of us in the modern world.) Humans are the only species that has the ability, with thoughts, to make benign situations seem bad, and bad situations seem catastrophic.

This tendency has all sorts of names: stinkin’ thinkin’, thinking errors, twisted thinking, cognitive distortions, automatic thoughts. I’ll use the term “thinking errors” in this blog. You’ve probably figured out that if you do this sort of thing you are not alone. Heck, there’s even a whole method of psychotherapy based on it, called Cognitive Behavioral Therapy.

I probably don’t have to tell you that negative thoughts affect your creative process, your artistic or athletic performance, and even your practicing and training. Thinking errors affect all the other areas of our lives, too.

Sometimes these thoughts are like the air we breathe: we don’t even notice them.

The good news is that you can learn to identify and defuse them so that realistic, useful thoughts prevail. I hope this blog will help arrive at a client’s realization that “the constant ticker tape of (negative, worried) thoughts going through my head isn’t necessarily real.”

More on naming and identifying common thinking errors in my next post.