We all face challenges sometimes. We’re assigned to a project that we don’t feel competent to handle. Something happens at home that we were not expecting. We’re caught off-guard.
Luckily, the brain is well-equipped to deal with such challenges. We have amazing mental capacities for reasoning and emotion. When we engage both these parts of our brain, we’re driven to take action toward the best decision.
Sadly, though, this isn’t what always happens. Instead of getting past the challenges, we get stuck. Everything begins to take on an air of negativity and hopelessness. Our jobs feel draining and our bosses appear unfair. Our partners seem unreasonable, and we wish we could swap our kids for our friend’s perfect children.
This is because our brain’s emotional circuits take over the cognitive circuitry. They’re quicker, hang on to negativity and feed into it, and hijack our reasoning capabilities to justify their impulses and motivations.
In my coaching practice, I’ve found that there are four common thinking patterns associated with this emotional hijack. Having these thinking patterns is neither good nor bad; it’s just the way our brain works, especially for the third of us more prone to negativity.
The secret to rising to our challenges and using them to learn and grow lies in recognizing the thinking patterns we commonly engage in and getting unstuck from them when they arise.
Do You Focus on the Negative?
What if you were assigned a permanent seat next to someone who always voiced: “This is so miserable,” “I just don’t want to do it,” or, “There’s nothing exciting about this project.” Imagine how draining that would be!
When we focus on negativity, even if it’s to ourselves, we torment ourselves the same way, sucking out all our energy and leaving precious little to open up to possibilities. What helps is being grateful – and this is not grandma’s words of wisdom. MRI studies have shown that gratitude calms the neural pathways that are always on the lookout for more and better (a dangerous thing in a world of endless choices) by reminding us of what we currently have, allowing us to shift our focus and engage from a place of excitement.
Do You Act On Fight-or-Flight?
We all do! It’s the brain’s built-in system that has ensured our survival through dangerous phases in our common history. In today’s world, though, this system is a tad misplaced and overused. No tiger is lurking around the corner, even though a boss can sometimes seem like one! We’ve developed an active psychological self that takes ourselves too seriously and places us at the center of the world.
If you find yourself getting too scared to face a challenge, it helps to think through to the worst possible outcome in a step-by-step manner. More often than not, you’ll see the folly in your emotional brain’s thinking.
Do You Criticize?
Do you blame others for being unfair, not giving you credit, or not having your best interests at heart? Do you shame yourself for being incompetent, unlikeable, too fat, too thin, or not “enough” in some other way? Criticism and self-criticism are two sides of the same coin. The way out is to give yourself the kind of unconditional and non-judgmental love that gives rise to feelings of self-worth.
You may not have figured out how to face the challenge yet, but you can do so. You may have made a mistake, but you’re human and fallible, and will be able to learn from it and move on. When you relate to yourself this way, you can be more forgiving of others and not get hung up on or pulled back by their words and actions.
Do You Compare?
As women, our relational nature is a beautiful feminine power that helps us raise children, build homes and families, have an ethical conscience, and work hard while doing good. And yet, we can sometimes let this strength turn into a weakness, as we begin to measure our worth in terms of our successes and failures. We feel good about ourselves only when we do better than others, and fall apart when we don’t, because it reveals deep-seated beliefs of unworthiness. Learning to see ourselves as unique individuals on our own journey toward a heartfelt purpose helps us stay away from comparison, even when we’re facing a challenge.
These thinking patterns may have served a purpose when the world was new and uncomplicated. But in the complex and ambiguous world we now live in, they are dangerous because they cause us to get hung up on a single story. And a single story, as novelist Chimamanda Adichie has pointed out, leads to a critical misunderstanding of the truth.
Your boss may indeed be unfair and narcissistic. Your job may indeed be boring and meaningless. Your partner may indeed be selfish and doing little around the house. But when you let go of the limited perspective of negative thinking patterns, you open up to the fuller picture. And that’s where you find the possibility for change.