How To Dig Out Of 5 Stress & Misery Thinking Traps!
I was all set to write about the science of gratitude, but I can’t stop thinking about some tough conversations I’ve had this week. Maybe it was the Super Moon or raging post-election emotions, but for whatever reason, this week I found myself listening to wonderfully capable, smart, loving human beings totally stuck in negative thinking quicksand, wrestling with self-doubt, stress, and misery.
We all go there from time to time, and it does feel like quicksand—you can almost witness yourself not thinking clearly, but you still can’t seem to find a way out. Reflecting, I heard the similar themes emerge from multiple sources—subconscious premises that lead right to these sand traps. Heck, I know them all personally! So I’ve been thinking a lot about how can we back up from the circles, dig out from the emotional hooks, and challenge the thought traps that get us stuck?
Just when you feel the most stuck, the most like quitting, the most overwhelmed/stressed out, when you think you’ve made some horrible error, that you are not capable, not worthy, not ever able to figure out how to be happy or find the right relationships/career/life course/circumstances that work for you… that is the moment when you have the most choice. It just doesn’t feel like it.
Your darkest feelings—lost, scared, defeated, alone, worthless, depressed—all find voice in your inner critic. Emotions fuel cesspools of circular thinking, and reinforce the erroneous premise that everything would be ok in different circumstances. If you had a different past, a different brain, more money, a thinner body, a baby on the way, a more understanding partner/friend/parent…. then you could be happy, feel secure and safe, optimistic.
When you are so far down the pathway of thinking that there is a particular pathway to happiness, you are most ready to see the “Wizard” to find out you had the “power” all along. This is, perhaps, one of life’s hardest truths to swallow. But one made easier if you learn to recognize the thinking traps that keep you from your power.
Some circumstances really are treacherous, and require the ultimate courage, compassion, strength, and humanity. If this is true for you right now, please feel held by those who care, and never hesitate to ask for help.
But for most of us, our stress and misery have as more to do with our thinking than our circumstances. Unfortunately, stress and emotional turmoil can cloud the very thinking we need to change our circumstances or our perception.
See if you recognize any of these Thought Traps or their escape routes!
Thought Trap #1: I am stuck.
I know it really, really feels like it, and you can give me a litany of proof. I hear these stories a lot in coaching. My brain can manufacture its own impressive closing argument!
But…are you really stuck or are you just having trouble seeing your alternatives? Would you see them for your best friend? (I.e., if you were unhooked from your emotions and your story, would you see choices?) Or are alternatives scarier than the misery you know? Or are you just too tired to “see straight?”
Dis-stress hijacks your smarter, creative frontal lobe. When your energy is depleted, it is much harder to disrupt circular thought patterns or muster up creativity, positivity, or hope.
- Just know that. Then do what you need to power it back up.
- First fuel your brain with rest, distance, diversion (temporarily disengage from the problem), nutrition, hydration.
- Then with a clearer head, brainstorm all the different choices you do have- no matter how far-fetched! What small steps could you take right now to feel some modicum of control? Do this with a buddy or coach if that helps you stay out of your quicksand.
- Recognize that feeling “stuck” is symptom fortified by story, not a permanent condition. Not much is permanent in life. What has helped you get “unstuck” in the past? What supports your greater wisdom? What gives you a broader perspective?
Thought Trap #2: There is a “right” path.
If you could just find that right path, you would be happy, engaged, worthy, secure, loved, etc., etc. Ha! I’m not saying there are not important goals to be set, dreams to pursue, choices to be made, guided by your values and purpose. But there is no ONE way you should evolve! There is wisdom to gain on every path.
Constantly analyzing your circumstances and choices is exhausting. It fuels “grass is greener” frustration, self-doubt, FOMO (fear of missing out), and burnout. Meanwhile, you can never measure up. You discount the wisdom and benefits of your current choices, and frustrate the heck out of yourself. You sacrifice contentment and satisfaction—and sometimes even careers and relationships.
Perfectionists are pros at this thought pattern, because it comes with hidden rewards. “If I always believe there is a better path, I don’t have to accept the one I’m on.” Or “I’m actually better than this.” (I know… “ouch!” Like many professionals, I can do perfectionism all too well!)
- Again, recognize the assumptions that set you up to feel worse, then fuel your best brain and thinking to look with fresh eyes.
- What you have already gained from the path you are on? What do you want more of? What do you need less of? What parts align with your values? (Have you taken time to think about your values?) What parts align with your purpose? (Don’t get hung up here if you don’t “know” your purpose!! That can be another thought trap!) What do you need right now to make your days matter?
- In other words… take time to go inside and get grounded in who you are, what you care about, and how you can support your best being no matter what path you take.
- You have to see yourself as worthy, loved, secure first, and then with curiosity and compassion explore experiment your choices. (This is where coaching can help!)
Thought Trap #3: I will feel worthy, loved, seen, safe when…. (Insert any extrinsic metric, accomplishment, validation, life event, etc.)
This is a corollary to #2: this “right path” leads to some destination with a pot of gold. This is dangerous thinking! And backwards. And you know it—you don’t think your best friend is less worthy because he hasn’t lost weight or made partner, so why subconsciously tell yourself a similar story?
- Bring these false premises into full consciousness and take back your power to choose how you feel.
- Create rituals and habits that repetitively bring your attention to your real values, a bigger perspective, and what really matters.
- Clean up your language: self-talk and spoken. Then tell the stories that validate the feelings you want most.
- Play with other possibilities: what would you do differently today if the Wizard already gave you the courage, heart, worthiness, safety?
Thought Trap #4: Life shouldn’t be this hard.
This one has many corollaries based on themes of deserving, fairness, and controlling life circumstances. (“I shouldn’t have a bad boss. I deserve a break. It shouldn’t be this hard to figure out how to cope. Etc.”)
Actually, it’s a relatively new concept to think that life should be without unpredictable, scary challenges. (My grandmother would be laughing at this one. Of course, she also would have had a far better chance of surviving the Oregon Trail than wimpy I would!)
It’s human nature to want to make sense of the world, to find ease and predictability. They translate to safety. But life is unpredictable, unfair, and you can only control certain variables, most importantly your own mindset.
There are 2 subsets of this thinking trap:
- “It’s my fault.” Really?? While I am all for greater personal accountability for much of an individual’s experience of life, it’s almost narcissistic, delusional to start letting this premise take over your joy. Of course, do you best to set yourself up for success, but also develop resilience skills for the unpredictable, the out of control, and personal failures. Bad stuff happens and you get to decide who you are in each circumstance.
- “It’s not my fault.” Learned helplessness is just as scary and a great cop out. When the going gets tough, some folks can get stuck in victim mode. Here’s where the hard truth of personal responsibility is most powerful. No, you didn’t pick your boss, but you have the power everyday to not be a victim. Channel your heroes. In medicine, I have seen people suffer incredible, insensible loss with triumphant spirits. Give me one iota of their courage to choose to how to think and feel.
- Again… fuel your best brain and heart, and hit refresh to lose this toxic premise. (“Should” is often part of toxic thinking!) Life can be hard and joyous, and meaningful and messy. Finding clarity in chaos or strength under pressure is exhilarating.
- Find what you can control and find the support you need to create ease and joy and connection.
Thought Trap #5: I should be able to figure this out myself.
This thinking trap sets up the downfall of many smart, high-achieving, well-meaning individuals. And it’s such a waste! Don’t you love to help someone figure out a problem or find their power? So why deprive someone else of helping you. You know it’s hard to see all your choices in the middle of a situation. And you know we are stronger together.
- Take a lesson from the elephants or the vampire bats- take help from your species mates. Humans are wired to connect and help each other. Resisting help defeats us all. Find sounding boards, mentors, advisors—people who care enough to be honest.
- Give up the notion that vulnerability is weak- it is power! Check out Brene Brown’s work if you need convincing.
No matter what the circumstances, we all want the same things: to feel safe, to be loved, to matter. When you tap into your curiosity and compassion, you can dig under your emotions and circumstances and learn to recognize the thinking errors that compound your stress and misery. Then you will have greater access to your wisdom and options—the way out of the quicksand!
*photo by Anyka