Most of us have found ourselves feeling ‘stuck’ at some point in our lives – wanting to make a change, and perhaps even being clear on what the change is, yet somehow being unable to make it.
When we’re contemplating big changes like starting a business or moving to a different country, it makes sense to weigh-up the pros and cons. But taking time over our decisions may not be the only thing that’s delaying our progress. Even when we’re certain about what to do, we can often find that we’re still not doing it.
Surely smaller, seemingly less significant decisions, such as starting an evening class, asking that person you like out a date, or joining a gym, should be easier to follow through? You’d hope so. But again, we’re often left paralysed when it comes to actually taking action.
Sometimes there’s an obvious reason for our inaction. We might not have the financial resources to start the business, or the person we want to ask out might already be in a relationship. While these reasons are not necessarily barriers to action (we could ask the person out anyway), at least they provide a rational explanation for our lack of action. A bigger problem occurs when we can’t bring ourselves to take action, even though there appears to be little stopping us. In these cases, our thought process may be at the root of our problems – ‘thinking errors’ might be holding us back.
‘Thinking errors’ or ‘cognitive errors’ are inaccuracies in our thinking and thought processes. Rather than being rooted in reality or based on facts, they’re actually based on flawed logic. Thinking errors can manifest themselves as conscious reasons for inaction (like the times we say to ourselves: ‘it will never work anyway’ or ‘I‘ve never been good at that sort of thing’), or act more subtly by undermining our behaviours or emotions without us even realising it’s happening.
The good news is that if we can identify thinking errors by thinking about the way we’re thinking (what psychologists call meta-cognition), we can start to change our faulty thinking and think in ways that are more logical and beneficial to our well-being.
There are many different thinking errors, and below is some advice for avoiding 5 key ones that can stop you taking action and making positive change in your life.
Albert Ellis, the grandfather or cognitive behavioural therapy coined the phrase ‘musturbation’ and warned of the dangers of feeling that certain things must happen in our lives or that we or others must behave in certain ways.
Having a list of shoulds and musts can lead to us waiting until we feel that circumstances are absolutely perfect before we take action, and when we do act we can get sabotaged by the shoulds/musts related to the targets, goals and expectations we have for ourselves.
If thinking in terms of ‘should’ and ‘must’ is holding you back, try re-framing your thoughts – you might ‘prefer’ for these things to happen, but is it absolutely essential that they do?
Lose the crystal ball
‘Fortune-telling’ is a thinking error that involves making assumptions about the likely results of our actions. We gaze into the future and assume that something negative will take place, even though we don’t have any real evidence that it will. This can easily lead to us deciding to do nothing at all.
If you’ve let a thought like: “This will never work, I’ll make an idiot of myself”, prevent you from doing something, you’ve been fortune-telling. Try ditching the crystal ball and weighing up the evidence instead – you might find that the future actually looks pretty good.
Remember: You’re no Derren Brown
‘Mind-reading’ is a very common thinking error. When we ‘mind-read’ we assume we know what other people are thinking – that they’re focusing on our weaknesses and flaws and being critical of us.
I know people who won’t go to an exercise class because when they do they’re convinced that other people are secretly laughing at them or criticising their technique. They’ve got no real evidence for this, but they hold on to the belief anyway.
If mind-reading is an issue for you, think about whether or not there’s any firm evidence to back up your assumptions. If there isn’t, maybe you need to change your thinking. Could it be that your own critical view of yourself is causing you to assume others think about you in a similar way?
Think in shades of grey
‘Over-generalisation’ is ‘always’ or ‘never’ thinking. We may feel that we’re never confident in social situations or that something bad always happens, when the truth is that few things are that black and white.
If you tend to over-generalise, try thinking in shades of grey and replacing strict terms like ‘never’ and ‘always’ with more flexible ones like ‘rarely’ and ‘sometimes’. You should then be able to start recognising the positives that have occurred in the past.
Focus on strengths and assets
If you’re not taking action because you feel you haven’t got the skills, knowledge or other resources to do so, make sure that you’re accurately assessing your strengths and weaknesses.
Many of us underestimate our personal resources. Try taking an ‘asset-based’ approach – look at what you can do with what you have rather than over-focusing on what you lack. You might find that the resources you have are greater than you’d thought.