Errors in Thinking That Contribute to Anxiety

Is your self talk making your anxiety better or worse?

Being aware of the errors in thinking that contribute to anxiety and sabotage our ability to problem solve with the people who are important in our lives is key to succeeding at work, school and/or at home. This internal dialogue, which we usually are not even conscious of having, has the power to determine our success and sense of well-being in almost any situation.  As such, we have to be aware of it and the impact that it is having.  Let’s continue to explore the ones you are most likely to encounter.

Anxiety and Comparative Thinking

Read more in the Errors of Thinking Series
Part 1 of Series: “Errors in Thinking That Prevent Good Problem Solving
Part 2 of Series: “How Errors in Thinking Destroy Relationships

A good friend of mine won’t look at Facebook.  When I asked her why, her response was “Compare and despair.” I love that!

Comparing yourself negatively to others is not only harmful to your self-esteem, it is harmful to your spirit. It makes you feel hopeless.  Context is important.  The playing field is rarely level, which is why it is so crucial to stop yourself from making negative comparisons.  Even if Susan lost 55 pounds last year and Ted lost 50 pounds, maybe they both weighed more to begin with?  Maybe they each had more weight to lose?  The most important question is, why does that matter?

It doesn’t.

What matters is the amazing fact that you lost 30 pounds through hard work and determination.  If you’ve ever had 30 pounds to lose, then you know that it is quite an accomplishment.  Comparative thinking diminishes your successes and robs you of your accomplishments.

You are closing the door on opportunity when you think this way.
So, the next time you find yourself comparing and despairing, stop!

Anxiety and Uncritical Acceptance of the Critic

I’m going to let you in on a little secret, just because someone says you are lazy, doesn’t mean that you are, even if it’s your mother!

Shocking isn’t it?

I find that many people suffer from this error of thinking and sadly, it’s often those who are closest to us, and whose criticisms hurt the most, that go unquestioned.  Instead we accept their frame of reference and repeat it back to ourselves as if it were true.

It’s painful when people who are close to us criticize us.  The deeper issue though, is that we base our self-worth on what others think of us.  Stop and think about that for a moment.  If a person praises us, we think we are worthy.  If a person criticizes us, we think we are unworthy.

In psychology we talk about the value of having an internal versus an external locus of control, internal being desirable, external being undesirable.  From my vantage as a psychologist, we have relinquished the control of our self-esteem to an outsider when we use this error in thinking.  And that’s never a good thing.
How do we conquer this error of thinking?
Stop and ask yourself:

  • Is the person criticizing you an authority on the topic? (Usually, they aren’t.)
  • Does this person have all the information? (Usually they don’t.)
  • Is this person’s criticism constructive or destructive? (Constructive criticism is often situation specific and is not a generalized assassination of your character.)

If you are in the moment and experiencing criticism, and can feel your emotions rising, do not respond immediately.  Give yourself permission to think about what the critic is saying when your emotions have cooled off.

Remember, just because someone says something about you, it doesn’t mean it’s true.

Anxiety and Mind Reading

Mind Reading can happen in two forms.  The first form assumes that someone else should know what you are thinking.  The second assumes that you know what another person is thinking.

Let’s take the first one where you assume someone has the power to read your mind.  This can happen naturally in relationships.  After all, the more time we spend with someone, the more likely we are to assume they know what we are thinking.  Usually they don’t.  Where we really get into trouble is when we start expecting the person to act or do something in a certain way without ever communicating to them that that is what we need.

Imagine you are coming home from a really long day.  You still have to cook dinner for everyone, you still have to deal with the dishes and getting kids ready for bed and you have a boatload of paperwork.  After dinner your partner usually watches the news and then helps the kids with homework.  But on this night, you have to work on a project that is due tomorrow.  The only way you see that happening is if you hand off the cleanup duty to your partner.  Okay, all settled, you think to yourself.  So, you rush in, you tell your partner, I really have to work on a project tonight.  He nods his head.  You make dinner, eat dinner, and your spouse disappears to go watch tv as usual after dinner leaving you with dishes.

What the????

So, you storm into the tv room and start a fight about how you have to work on your project and why can’t he just do the dishes!  Your spouse says, “I thought you were going to work on it after you did the dishes and put the kids to bed.  I had no idea you wanted me to do the dishes.  All you had to do was ask.” 

It’s then that you realize you never actually told him how you wanted his help.  You made a plan that involved the two of you but never communicated it.  Sound familiar?  That’s one form of mind reading, when you expect the other person to read your mind.  It almost never has a good outcome.

The second form of mind reading assumes that you know what another person is thinking.  In general, this thought tends to be negative and riddled with anxiety.  Dare I say paranoia?  For example, you raise your hand to answer a question in class, but your answer is wrong.  You are embarrassed.  As you look around the room, you think the guy sitting across from you is thinking you are a big dummy.  Next thing you know, you are so embarrassed, you have resolved to never answer a question in this class again and to sit as far away from that judging schmuck as possible.

In fact, he might have been thinking it was a good answer, or he might have grinned because he would have said the same thing and he’s thinking “better you than me”.

You can see how if you are anxious to begin with, this kind of thinking can catch on like wildfire, and before you know it, you are feeling isolated and depressed.

Engaging in mind reading, in either form, is a recipe for disaster.
So what can we do about it?
Communicate, communicate, communicate.

In the first example, it’s pretty clear how communication could’ve eliminated an unnecessary argument and saved time.  If you are changing normal routines and responsibilities, it’s always good to check in with the people that are affected so that you aren’t leaving the success of the new routine up to whether or not the person is an excellent mind reader.  Chances are, they aren’t.  In the example above, the person communicated the need (working on the project) but not the plan (partner does dishes).  No matter how much you are in sync with another person, it never hurts to get verbal confirmation.

In the second example, there are several questions you can ask yourself.  First, clearly identify what you think the other person is thinking.  “The guy across from me thinks I’m dumb because I answered the question wrong.”  Next, write it down.  Just seeing it on paper may make you question your assumption. 

Next consider the evidence for and against your conclusion.  You may only be considering evidence that supports your conclusion and missing the larger picture.  And what is the quality of your evidence?  If it’s just a look someone gives you, that’s not the same as the person shouting “Duh,” after your professor corrects your answer. 

Then ask yourself, what does it say about the other person that they would think someone is stupid for answering a question, whether or not it was wrong? 

Finally, you can always try acting counter to the thought.  If the thought makes you want to crawl under your desk, then maybe you should try raising your hand again at the next question.  Or perhaps you could look at the other student and smile.

Like I said before, mind reading can happen naturally, and in small doses, it doesn’t cause a problem.  The problem is when it is all negative.  Then it has the potential to cause you a great deal of unnecessary anxiety and to lead to miscommunications, arguments, and a breakdown in relationships.  At this point, it’s time to let it go.

Now, you have a heads up about three more common errors in thinking.  Do any of these sound familiar to you?  Investing in mental and emotional health through therapy does not have to be reserved solely for a crisis!  If you are seeking greater overall mental, emotional and physical health contact the Norton Wellness Institute at 513-205-6543. 

Read more in the Errors of Thinking Series
Part 1 of Series: “Errors in Thinking That Prevent Good Problem Solving
Part 2 of Series: “How Errors in Thinking Destroy Relationships

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Materials contained on this site are made available solely for educational purposes and as part of an effort to raise general awareness of the psychological treatments available to individuals with health issues. These materials are not intended to be, and are not a substitute for, direct professional medical or psychological care based on your individual condition and circumstances.  Dr. J. Renae Norton does not diagnose or treat medical conditions. While this site may contain descriptions of pharmacological, psychiatric and psychological treatments, such descriptions and any related materials should not be used to diagnose or treat a mental health problem without consulting a qualified mental health care provider.  You are advised to consult your medical health provider about your personal questions or concerns.