How to Manage “Stinking Thinking”
Imagine you are driving to work and someone cuts you off then quickly drives away. How would you feel? Would you feel angry, anxious, sad, or unbothered? What creates these differences in feelings? The answer is, your thoughts. The person who is angry might think to themselves, “no one should cut me off” or “people should follow the rules of the road.” The person who is anxious may be thinking, “what if they’d hit me?” or “I could have been killed.” The person who is sad may be thinking, “what is it about me that this person would want to cut me off?” The person who is unbothered may believe that the person who chose to drive recklessly must either have an emergency situation or is running late for an appointment. The way you think can influence your feelings. Feelings such as anger, anxiety, and sadness can be healthy and important to feel. The goal is not to worsen the situation by accepting thoughts that are not based in truth, for thoughts sometimes lie. These lies are better known as “Stinking Thinking.” “Stinking Thinking” takes the joy out of your life, by maintaining your focus on the negative aspects of a situation. It is important to not accept every thought that comes into your mind as truth, but to check them out first. Here you will find a list of negative thinking patterns as well as tips on how to manage them:
1. Always/Never Thinking: “Always Thinking” entails the belief that something that happened will always happen. “Never Thinking” is thinking that you will never get what you want. Some examples of “Always Thinking “and “Never Thinking” are: “You are always late,” “You are always taking her side,” “You never listen,” and “I will never get the relationship I am looking for.” Things are rarely “always” or “never” going to happen. If you find yourself thinking in these terms, most likely you are engaging in “Stinking Thinking.” A strategy to avoid this way of thinking is to consider a time when you thought something would “always” happen and it did not, or a time you thought something would “never” happen and it did. Another way to combat this way of thinking is to change thoughts from always, never, and every time to sometimes or most of the time. This can help keep things in perspective without worsening your viewpoint of the situation.
2. Filtering: is focusing on the negative by dwelling on it entirely and eliminating any positives from your perspective. The goal is not to view life through rose colored glasses, but to keep a balanced viewpoint. An example of this is when your boss gives you an evaluation and shares your positive qualities as well as areas of growth with you. If you find yourself focusing on the negative areas of your evaluation without looking at the areas you succeeded in, you are engaging in filtering. The goal is to look at the whole picture, the areas of strength and those in need of development. Avoiding perfectionistic tendencies can help to keep a balanced view of yourself or the situation at hand.
3. Jumping to Conclusions: involves making negative conclusions when there are no facts to support them. This often occurs through either “mind reading” or “fortune telling.”
A. Mind Reading is when you believe you know what other people are thinking even though they have not shared their thoughts with you. Examples of this style of thinking are, “She’s mad at me,” “He’s talking about me,” or “They don’t like me.” Let’s be honest, whether it’s an intimate relationship, family member, friend, or stranger you cannot read someone else’s mind, these thoughts are assumptions. There may be times your assumptions are correct, but there are also instances where you have been wrong. If someone has an issue with you, it is their responsibility to let you know. If they choose not to share their feelings with you then it could be something they can work out on their own or not serious enough to resolve. There are some situations where an issue needs to be dealt with and the person is not sharing their feelings with you. Asking someone if there is an issue between the two of you can be helpful when done sparingly, but take caution to avoid “walking on eggshells“ and worrying what that person is thinking. If you find yourself checking in with someone and they share with you that there is an issue, it may be appropriate to request that in the future they share their issues with you. If they have agreed, then you can remind yourself of the agreement when you question whether they have an issue with you. This can eliminate the need for continuous check ins. In situations where you are concerned that someone is talking negatively about you behind your back it is important to remember that spending time worrying about who may be talking about you is a waste of time. You can’t control it. Keep in mind that the person who is sharing the gossip as well as the person listening to it, without directing him/her to resolve the issue with you (or provide helpful feedback to resolve the issue), may not be safe people for you.
B. Fortune Telling entails predicting worst case scenarios. For example, you may have a flat tire before a trip, and immediately believe this is a sign of how the rest of the trip will be. Fortune telling can also entail playing the “what if” game. This game creates worries based on possibilities rather than probabilities. An example of the “what if” game is before a test you think, “what if I fail?” The anxiety surrounding the worry of failing has the ability to keep you from focusing and instead makes the concern of failing a reality. In the event you pass, you would have spent a lot of time worrying about something that did not happen. Other “what if” thoughts may include: “What if I die and no one will find me?,” “What if I get fired?,” “What if I look stupid speaking at an event?” Oftentimes “what if” thinking is engaged in an attempt to control things or “be prepared.” Almost anything is possible, but how likely is it? If the thought is not likely to happen, you can tell yourself why it is unlikely and let it go. If it is likely, then create a then create a plan for the concern and let the thought go.
4. Magnification: involves minimizing your positive qualities while magnifying your areas for improvement. An example of this would be someone who receives an award for an achievement but believes that he or she is second-rate or doesn’t deserve it (also known as the Imposter Syndrome). Another example of magnification is when one makes a mistake at work and then believes that he or she is a terrible employee as a result. The goal is to remember that you have areas of strength and areas of growth. It is important to embrace both your strengths and growth areas without dwelling on one or the other.
5. Thinking with your feelings: entails believing that your emotions suggest how things really are without challenging them. Examples of thinking with your feelings include: feeling like a failure, then believing you have failed or feeling afraid about traveling then believing something bad will happen. It can also lead to thinking with your feelings such as “I feel that you don’t love me.” One thing to remember is that feelings are feelings and facts are facts. A feeling may be experienced, but it doesn’t mean that it is true. It is important to ask yourself, “Do I have a reason to “feel-think” this way or is it based on negative memories of the past? Remember, feelings are often difficult and are not always based in truth. Accept your feelings, then ask yourself, “Is this the reality of the situation?”
6. Should Thinking: involves thinking in terms like, “should,” “have to,” “ought,” or “must.” These words often induce guilt. “Should Thinking” involves telling yourself that things have to go the way you expect or hope. It is also believing that there is an ironclad set of rules guiding how you or others need to think, feel, or behave. In addition, “Should Thinking” applies pressure on yourself and others by suggesting there is only one way to do things. When you make “should” statements against yourself it can end with shame, guilt, or frustration. When “should” statements are against others it may lead to anger, resentment, and frustration. Examples of this style of thinking is, “I should not have eaten all those donuts,” “I ought to see my family when I am in their town,” “I must pass this test,” “You should want to buy me flowers,” “You should not do that,” or “You should wash the dishes if I cook.” “Should” thoughts often have you living your life out of the expectations of someone else, or placing your expectations on others. One way to resolve “Should Thinking” is to change “should” to “could” then state a want or a goal. Rather than shame yourself over eating donuts you could say, “It would be helpful to avoid eating donuts to stay on track with my goals.” Instead of “I must pass this test,” you could say, “It is my goal to pass this test so I will study and use the test score result as feedback on how to proceed in the future.” Instead of telling someone they should wash the dishes, you could say “It would mean a lot to me if you could wash the dishes after I cook.”
7. Labeling: is attaching a negative label to yourself or others. “I’m a fool” or “He’s a jerk” are examples of labels. When labels are attached, you are grouping yourself or others with anyone else you have placed under that label in the past. Labeling makes it difficult to objectively view yourself or someone else as a unique individual. All the feelings associated with the people in your past, under that label, are projected onto the person you are currently labeling. Labeling can lead to depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, anger, and frustration. Labels leave little space for effective communication; it is important to keep your focus on attacking the issues, not yourself or someone else.
8. Personalization: entails viewing other people’s actions as a result of something you did or did not do. An example of this is when a coworker, whom you have a good relationship with, walked by without saying “hi.” You might think that they are mad at you. Personalization can be a form of distorted self-blame. This is when someone takes responsibility for an event or situation that was not completely within their control. For example, “I let my son borrow my car and now he’s been hit by a drunk driver. It’s my fault.” You are only responsible for your own actions and words. To avoid blaming yourself whenever things go wrong, ask yourself if you are truly responsible for what took place. As in the car accident example, sometimes bad things happen; it doesn’t always mean it’s your fault. In the example of the coworker who walked past you without speaking, he/she may have been in a hurry or preoccupied. You don’t need to overthink the actions of others. You may never entirely know why people do what they do, so it is best to avoid personalizing their actions.
9. Blaming: involves “pointing the finger” at someone else whenever things go wrong. It’s basically the blame game. When you blame something or someone else for the problems in your life you become a victim, incapable of changing your situation. Some of the blame game phrases may include: “That wouldn’t have happened if you…,” “It’s your fault,” or “How am I supposed to know….” For example, your partner comes home two hours late without phoning, as they open the door you begin to yell at them or give them the silent treatment. Your partner begins to explain that not only did they have a flat tire, but their phone died as well, and they left their charger at home. Instead of apologizing you respond with the statement, “How was I supposed to know?” Taking responsibility by owning your part in a situation can help you regain personal power to change your situation or seek tools for personal development. Yelling or giving the silent treatment followed by the question, “How was I supposed to know,” may lead to further conflict. In offering an apology, you are taking responsibility for your actions and potentially reducing conflict. When taking responsibility avoid shaming yourself. You are not always at fault and when you are, use the opportunity for growth.
As you work on changing negative thought patterns, be patient with yourself. Changing any habit takes a lot of work. Be aware of negative thoughts, whether it is at the start, in the middle, or at the end of the thought. The more you are aware, the earlier you may be able to stop “Stinking Thinking.” When you notice these negative thought patterns, stop yourself and, if you’re able, change them. If initially, you are having difficulty changing your thoughts, based on the above principles, it’s okay. Think of something else or ask yourself what would you tell your best friend who had these same negative thoughts, then tell yourself those things. People tend to be kinder to others than they are to themselves. Once you become familiar with the above principals it can better help you manage “Stinking Thinking”.
Amen, Daniel G. (2015). Change Your Brain Change Your Life: The breakthrough program for conquering anxiety, depression, obsessiveness, lack of focus, anger, and memory problems (Rev. ed.). Harmony Books.
Burns, D. D. (1999). The Feeling Good Handbook (Rev. ed.). Plume/Penguin Books.