There’s that old saying—the mind makes a wonderful servant but a terrible master. If you’re feeling insecure—about yourself, your relationship, or your life—these three thinking habits may be mastering your mind.
Psychologists call these toxic habits cognitive distortions, which is just a technical way of saying “lies we tell ourselves.” But they’re tricky because on the surface, they seem accurate, and more importantly, they feel accurate. And that’s the problem—cognitive distortions keep us feeling stupid, annoying, inadequate, or otherwise insecure.
Now, it’s really important to note that we all make these thinking mistakes from time to time. It’s part of being human. But when we truly start to believe them, or we over-rely on them, that’s when we feel as insecure as a wifi network without a password.
Toxic Thinking Habit #1: Emotional reasoning
This toxic thinking habit mistakes feelings for reality. If you feel guilty, it must be your fault. If you feel hopeless, there must be no way out. If you feel anxious, something bad is about to happen.
But emotional reasoning makes us feel the most insecure when it extends to our relationships: “Because I feel jealous, it proves you’re cheating on me” or “Because I feel anxious, it must mean we’re about to break up.” Then those thoughts spiral and turn into a fight your partner never saw coming. Needless to say, emotional reasoning is particularly frustrating for partners because it’s impossible to argue with a gut feeling, even an inaccurate one.
Toxic Thinking Habit #2: Mind reading
This toxic habit is exactly what it sounds like: assuming you know what other people are thinking. Your insecurity puts imaginary judgmental thoughts in other people’s heads, which you then believe wholeheartedly, which in turn makes you feel more insecure. It’s a vicious circle of epic proportions.
Mind reading makes you think others are either judging or rejecting you. “He didn’t text me back so he must hate me.” “My boss wants to see me so she must be mad.” “Everyone will see I’m sweating and think I’m a freak.”
On the flip side, you might mind-read and assume others are superior to you: “She looks like she has it all together; she must be so confident.” “He got another promotion; he must know exactly what he’s doing with his life.” “He’s so hot he must make a dragon wanna retire.” Okay, not that one, unless you’re mind-reading Bruno Mars. Regardless, no matter how you slice it, mind reading makes you come up short.
Toxic Thinking Habit #3: Personalization
This is also precisely what it sounds like: the thinking error of personalization makes everything about you. Your spouse is grumpy, so you assume it’s something you did. Your boyfriend looked at another girl, so you must not be enough for him. Your friend is grumpy, so you must not be entertaining her adequately. Regardless, whatever dark alley personalization leads you down, it ends at the dead end of self-blame.
Discussing whether or not thoughts are true is almost never helpful. The question is not one of true or false, but rather, “If I hold on to these thoughts tightly, does it help me to live my values, be the person I want to be?” Instead, of getting caught up in whether that thought is true/false, fact/fiction, positive/negative, opinion/belief, we want to know… do these thoughts help me live my values and be the sort of friend/partner/employer/employee/parent/sister/daughter/son, you want to be? Some will say, “But that thought (see above) is true!” When someone wants to debate the veracity of a thought, I tend to respond, “In this perspective, (Acceptance-Commitment-Therapy; Hayes, 1999) we’re not usually interested in whether thoughts are true or false. What we are mainly interested in is this: “If you get all caught up and entangled in these thoughts, or if you let them push you around and dictate what you do, will that help you to behave like the sort of person you want to be? Do the things you want to do? Or will it pull you away from them?” Does it help you to act effectively? To come up with a strategy or action plan? To cope with the stress?” Typically, the answer will be no.
Now I don’t know how to stop your mind from generating scary thoughts about bad things that might happen. That’s a normal process. And of course, the reality is, many of these things you’re worrying about might well happen. So I don’t know how to stop your mind from doing that.
But if you would like to learn how to unhook yourself from those worrying thoughts, how to disentangle yourself from them, so instead of getting caught up in worrying all day long, you can engage in life, take action, live your values, I can help.
The name “acceptance and commitment therapy” reflects a key message: accept what is out of your personal control, and commit to action that improves your life. Part of this approach involves learning skills to handle difficult thoughts and feelings more effectively, so they have less impact and influence over you. ACT also involves clarifying your values: finding out what matters to you, what you want to stand for in life, what strengths and qualities you want to develop, how you want to treat yourself and others. And it also involves taking action to solve your problems, face your challenges, and do things that make life better.