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How to limit those negative thoughts

Do you sometimes feel that it’s actually you holding yourself back from achieving your goals and performing to your potential?

I know I do and certainly some amazingly accomplished and otherwise confident people I coach often feel hamstrung by their own inner voice and emotional resistance.

I really identified with this excellent post from Melody Wilding, performance coach for high achievers, published in a recent edition of The Ascent.

Ms Wilding identified “smart, capable people she knew who question their competency and internalise their failures”. She asks the question, “Why do some of the most intelligent people sabotage their own success?” and answers this question below.

It all goes back to unconscious everyday thoughts, also called cognitive distortions, first identified by psychologist Aaron Beck and Dr David Burns. It’s typical to fall into these irrational thoughts every now and then. Mindset missteps are common among even the brightest, most well-meaning people. We can all relate to that feeling of sometimes getting in our own way. It’s simply part of being human, an evolutionary response designed to keep you safe and protected.

Nevertheless, irrational thoughts can get in your way of success and taking necessary, healthy risks. For example, your inner critic may tell you you’re not good enough and that you’ll most definitely fail. Cognitive distortions also complicate our relationships. You project that your boss is upset when you make a mistake or worry about how your friends and family perceive you.

The good news is that you can develop the necessary self-awareness to spot and change irrational thoughts. With a little discipline, you can retrain your thinking.

You can gradually modify your self-talk to be more balanced, resilient and supportive to help you reach your goals and tackle the toughest situations. Recognizing unhelpful thoughts as illogical and impermanent is an important first step to letting go of the stress they bring.

Here’s a look at the most common cognitive distortions defined by Dr Burns, along with examples of ways it may pop up in your life and work.

Mental filter

You pick out a single negative detail and dwell on it. You may receive lots of positive comments about your presentation at work, but if one colleague says something mildly critical, you obsess about it for days.

All-or-nothing labeling

You see things in black and white. If your boss says you did not meet expectations in a single category on your performance review, you label yourself as a “complete failure” at your job. With this way of thinking, there’s no room for nuance – there can’t be parts of your job you’re great at, while also aspects of your position you need to work on.


This is believing something will always happen simply because it happened once. If a plum assignment goes to someone else once, you can’t help but think, “Just my luck! I lose out on everything.”

Discounting the positive

It’s common practice for you to downplay positive experiences by telling yourself they don’t count. If you do a good job, you reason that anyone else on your team could have done just as well, so what does it even matter?

Jumping to conclusions

Interpreting things negatively without facts to support your conclusion is the hallmark of this mindset. No matter what, you predict things will turn out badly. Before a crucial meeting, for example, you may tell yourself, “I’m really going to blow it.”

Emotional reasoning

You assume your negative emotions are proof of the way things really are: “I feel terrified about going to networking events,” you might tell yourself. Therefore, “It must be a bad idea to attend them.”

“Should” statements

Instead of focusing on how best to handle situations for what they are, you demand they turn out as hoped. These “should statements” directed against yourself lead to guilt and frustration, such as, “I’m an adult. I should have figured out my passion by now”. When directed against other people, they lead to anger and resentment. “My team should be able to handle this without bothering me,” is a good example.

Personalisation and blame

This cognitive distortion causes stress when you hold yourself personally responsible for an event that isn’t entirely under your control. For instance, when you’ve hit a bump in the road with a co-worker, you think, “This is all my fault,” instead of trying to pinpoint the cause of the problem so you and your co-worker can get back on the same page. Meanwhile, it’s also common to blame your circumstances on others and discount the ways you might be contributing to the problem.

Did any of those thought patterns ring true for you? If so, it’s time to retrain your mindset so that you can beat these irrational thoughts. The next time you find yourself falling into these unhelpful thought patterns, you can use the methods below to help change negative thoughts that are holding you back from reaching your full potential.

How to change negative thoughts getting in the way of your success

Identify which distortions are trapping you

Write down your negative thoughts to help you decide which of these thought distortions apply to you. You’re more likely to be able to think through the issue in a way that’s both realistic and positive.

Take a look at the evidence

Don’t simply assume your negative thought is true. For example, if you keep thinking your supervisor won’t like your ideas no matter what, recall a time when she or your team rallied behind you, even in the smallest ways. Don’t be afraid to prove yourself wrong.

Drop the double-standard

If you had a friend in the same position as you are now, would you allow them to wallow in distress or would you point out the ways they’re being illogical and falling victim to a negative cycle? You’d most likely be both realistic and supportive, so show yourself that same compassion.

Give your experience a realistic rating

If you’re convinced a presentation you just gave was a disaster, take a deep breath and try to rate it on a scale of zero to 100. Unless it’s a zero or a 100 (both of which are unlikely), it’s not perfect, but it’s not all bad either. That means there’s hope.

Instead of dwelling only on the negative, ask yourself what you can learn from what went well, what surprised you and areas you’d like to improve in the future.

Ask for feedback

When you feel trapped in a distorted thinking, turn to colleagues and mentors you trust. Proactively seek feedback, instead of hiding from it. They’ll be able to gently let you know about what you might need to work on, but also reassure you that it’s very unlikely things are as bad as you think.

Watch your language

Pay attention to how you speak to yourself, particularly, if your internal dialogue is full of extremist statements or harsh self-talk like calling yourself an idiot, fool or complete fake. For instance, instead of thinking, “What a jerk I am for correcting my co-worker during her presentation,” you’re more likely to remedy and move past the slip-up if you retool the thought: “It’s important to me that I improve on the way I give other feedback. How can I make this right?”

Share the blame

Try to be realistic about what caused the negative event you’re facing instead of piling all the culpability onto yourself. In most situations, a number of circumstances have to coalesce to make something happen. Take personal responsibility for your contribution, but realize you’re not the sole reason a meeting went south or your team lost that client.

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“Kindness is the language that the deaf can hear and the blind can see.” – Mark Twain