Challenging stress (4)

Richard Martin




This is the fourth and last in a series of short pieces about how our unconscious thinking can create unnecessary stress - so called Negative Automatic Thoughts or NATs. In previous articles I talked about how we tend to catastrophise, personalise, generalise and default into black and white thinking.

Two other very common thinking traits which will, if left unchecked, increase our stress levels unnecessarily are selective abstraction and the way in which we draw negative inferences. Both tendencies overlap to an extent with some of the other NATs and can certainly reinforce those ways of thinking.

Selective abstraction describes how we dwell on (obsess over?) negative aspects of an overall picture which may actually be very positive. On a very basic level, imagine you have a to do list with ten things on it. At the end of the day you have ticked eight of them off. Do you congratulate yourself on having achieved those eight, or focus on the two left? 80% sounds pretty good to me. My daughters are in the midst of exam result reporting and if they achieved 80% in each of their exams we would be pretty please I reckon.

Or take a different example - I deliver a pilot training session to a new client and ask for full and frank feedback so that we can refine and improve the training to make it as impactful and effective as possible. The feedback is generally very positive but there are a couple of things that they would like added or taken away - some things that did not land as well as I hoped. How easy is it to beat ourselves up over those bits that did not work, personalise the limited areas of constructive criticism, convince ourselves that we are not up to the job and lose all perspective of the overall positive feedback? While at the same time the client is saying they want to tweak the sessions to take account of the feedback and begin an immediate organisation wide roll out of the programme.

Another classic scenario is when we have a performance review and receive any number of plaudits for our good work, commitment and successes, and are given a couple of areas to work on in the future. It is a great review but we can so easily focus on those development areas and convince ourselves that we are doomed.

Whenever we selectively abstract in this way, we inevitably (and unnecessarily) increase our levels of stress.

Negative inferencing describes the way in which we seek to interpret a situation and end up doing so in a way that reflects negatively on ourselves, usually with no basis on which to do so and with a myriad of other more positive (and less stress inducing) alternative interpretations. It is probably worth remembering the difference between inferring and implying. If I say something with a deliberate intent to convey a message that is not explicit, I, the speaker, am implying something. Inference is something done by the receiver of the message (assuming there is a message at all).

The classic example used to explain this tendency is to imagine you are walking down a street and you see someone you know - let's assume it is a client. You wave and the person does not wave back. What do you think? I have upset them, they do not like me, they don't appreciate the work I do for them, they are giving their business to someone else and are too embarrassed to even acknowledge me. These are of course all possible scenarios but probably quite unlikely. More likely is that the person did not see you, was distracted, was on the phone, or perhaps is a bit rude!

Another example, and where inferring and implying can get confused, is where your boss says something to you which is ambiguous - or perhaps gives someone else a new project that you would have liked to get. It is easy to assume that the boss is implying to you a message that says the other person is preferred to you, is better than you etc. Very likely the boss has no intention of implying any message to you at all - it is you drawing an adverse, negative inference.

And, of course, we have a very easy way of sorting these potential misunderstandings out - ask the other person. Say to your boss that you have noticed that the new project went to so and so and you were wondering whether there was any reason you needed to know about. Your boss can (and should) then give you a clear, simple and reassuring explanation of her/his reasons. Left unchecked, however, these negative inferences will fester and feed off each other, probably damaging your relationship with the other person and becoming self fulfilling - with a huge serving of stress on the side.

As with all forms of Negative Automatic Thinking, these two are most easily seen and challenged by someone else, which is one of the reasons why it is always good to talk about the things that are worrying or stressing us - a third party can often much more easily see where our thinking has gone astray. But we can learn to do it for ourselves, if we can step back and tell ourselves "Hold on a minute, let's just revisit this because I am getting worked up about something when there may not be any real reason at all."