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Are thinking patterns undermining your resilience?

I attended an interesting workshop on Resilience presented by Dr Andrew Shatte from the University of Arizona. The workshop was based on a single powerful fact – that it is your thinking patterns that determines your level of resilience.


Because how we think plays an important role to how we deal with adversity. Your behaviours and emotions are triggered by your cognitions, or thoughts. If you have irrational and negative thoughts, you are more likely to experience negative emotions, which in turn affects your behaviour.

For example, your team is undergoing a restructure and you think “My boss does not like me and so my job is on the line …I won’t be able to find a suitable job elsewhere”. This kind of thinking creates anxiety and stress impacting on your ability to deal with the change.

The theory of negative thinking patterns (cognitive distortions) was first suggested in the 1950’s by Dr Albert Ellis who noticed that his patients improved significantly once they changed their ways of thinking about themselves and their problems. Ellis (1979) developed the ABC rational-emotive therapy approach to detecting and eliminating faulty thinking and mental distortions. In Ellis’ model, the “A” represents activating experience which the individual believes creates the “C”, the emotional consequence. Rather, it is the in between ‘B, the beliefs that create the feelings, not the event.

His discovery was based on the insights from the Greek Philosopher Epictetus, who said, “What disturbs men’s minds is not events but their judgements on events”. David Burns built on this notion of cognitive distortions by developing a number of thinking traps in his book “Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy in 1992. Some of these thinking traps are:

  • Over-generalisation — taking a single event and assuming all others are the same
  • Magnifying and minimising — exaggerating the importance of certain aspects of a situation and underestimating the importance of other aspects
  • Personalising — attributing the blame or responsibility of an adversity to one’s personal characteristics or actions
  • Externalising — attributing the blame or responsibility of an adversity to another person or external circumstances
  • Mind reading — expecting the other person to know what you are thinking, or assuming you know what the other person is thinking
  • Emotional Reasoning — tendency to use your emotions as an accurate indicator of what is happening in a situation
  • Pessimism — exaggerating the negative impact of an event
  • All-or-nothing thinking — Seeing things in black and white with no middle ground.

In my executive coaching practice, I have found that these cognitive theories are a powerful tool to help my clients to think with more clarity and to unravel distortions in their thinking. I have clients who have modified their behaviour by becoming more aware of their thinking and redirecting negative thoughts towards a more positive way of being.

Let me tell you the story about Michael. Michael was an Executive Director of Public Affairs and Communications in an Engineering company. He approached me to help him to more effectively manage his underperforming team (activating experience). Michael was very stressed, not sleeping at night, and brought work home with him every evening (consequence). He was frustrated that some of his team members were not committed to their role, consistently depended on Michael for guidance and were not delivering on their key accountabilities.

I used cognitive coaching to examine if his beliefs and thoughts were impacting on his ability to motivate and lead his team effectively. His surface level thoughts were:

  • I must do my team’s work in order to show that I am a competent executive director
  • My team members are incapable and do not have the right skills for their roles
  • It is easier to take their work home at night and do it myself

We were digging for sometime when we spotted the underlying belief, which was “If I don’t do their work and show that we are delivering, I will seen to be a failure by the senior executive team and will lose key accountabilities”. This is a classic pessimistic thinking trap characterised by exaggerating the negative impacts of the event. When I challenged this belief, there was no evidence to support it. Michael was suffering from pessimistic thoughts that were not valid and had him spinning out of control. Once these underlying illogical beliefs were surfaced, Michael developed more realistic and helpful approaches to developing his team.

So the next time you are troubled by something at work, explore the impact of your thoughts by doing your ABC’s and challenging your beliefs: Ask yourself:

  • What is the adversity (A)?
  • How are you feeling ©?
  • What are your thoughts and beliefs (B)?
  • What is the evidence for and against these beliefs?
  • If your belief is true, is it helpful?
  • Are their alternative more logical explanations to explain the adversity?

Then, if appropriate, replace your old thoughts with more supportive truthful messages. Give this approach ago, as it is a proven methodology for helping individuals to deal better with change and adversities.