Thinking Clearly Under Fire

When we are in stressful situations our ability to think clearly can be greatly diminished. This could be a result of poor coping skills, a genetic predisposition, a learned behaviour, or a clinical condition. The result, however, is often the same – we struggle to think clearly and make good decisions because of faulty thinking.

“Most people, when they say they are thinking, are merely rearranging their prejudices.” (Donald Barnhouse)

Everyone creates certain patterns of thinking that appear to work for them over time. They usually do this for as long as it works for them but slip into crisis when the thinking/behaviour habits of the past are no longer effective.

This faulty thinking can contribute to behaviours that are irrational and self-defeating and can reinforce feelings of anxiety, anger, guilt, poor self-image, and resentment. For some people faulty thinking only occurs when they are under some sort of pressure. For others the problem is more chronic and can be linked to difficulties such as burnout or depression. In these cases such irrational or negative thinking becomes like rigid rules that dominate our view of everything and everyone around us.

In an organisational setting people like this can add anxiety and distress to the workplace. Ultimately, this diminishes the possibility of building effective teams and creating solid business solutions.

Here are some common examples of faulty thinking. They all allow us to take the information we get and view it in a biased, unbalanced and unrealistic way that can result in emotional distress and poor decisions.

1. Everything is Someone Else’s Fault:

Life is full of mishaps, accidents, unfairness and difficult situations. There are many ways that people cope and accept what is happening. This provides opportunities for reflection and action. However, some people cope by simply blaming others for everything that has gone wrong.

When everything is someone else’s fault there is no need to examine yourself or any role that your own actions and attitudes might play in the current stressful situation. This constant blaming solves nothing, feeds anger, creates resentment and encourages bitterness.

2. Predicting the Worst:

This is an unhealthy focus on negative possibilities like pain, embarrassment, fear, and rejection. It’s usually characterised by thoughts of “What if?” such as, “What if I get sick and can’t pay my bills?” “What if I embarrass myself?” “What if this doesn’t work?” “What if they say no?” By exaggerating the possibilities into catastrophes we create emotional turmoil from many things that (in the big picture) are merely inconveniences.

3. Black and White Thinking:

It’s easy to see things as extremes: all good or all bad. Ignoring the reality that most situations can be complex and are rarely absolutes: a dream or a disaster. A part of this can be our tendency to overgeneralise.

We draw conclusions from little evidence and start using absolute terms like “everybody” “always” “never” etc. There is no middle ground or other options. This can include “labelling.” There is a big difference between telling ourselves “that was a stupid thing to do” and “I’m a stupid person (labelling) and always do stupid things (overgeneralise).”

4. Hearing Only What You Want to Hear:

Our experiences and preconceptions can bias the way we view the things around us. In the same way, our views about people, situations and ourselves are coloured by our experiences.

By focusing on one aspect of a situation we filter out information that is inconsistent with what we currently believe. This might reinforce our belief that someone lacks integrity, or that you are worthless, or that you are right, or that a business is greedy etc.

All of these thinking patterns can cause us to be immobilised by the things we are telling ourselves. They can produce distressing feelings and produce behaviours that are self-defeating.

Moving Forward: Thinking Clearly and Building Positive Solutions

The following questions can help you separate the cold, hard facts from your distorted assumptions. Then through self-awareness and planning you can build healthy, practical solutions to help you move ahead.

Observe and Reflect

  • What are the indisputable facts here – how might an outside observer view what is happening?
  • What real evidence do I have for my opinions?
  • What assumptions might I be making? Especially about the things I can’t really see or know.
  • What distortions or exaggerations might there be in my thinking?
  • Who could I ask for feedback to help me see other perspectives?
  • What other ways could I interpret this situation?

Plan and Act

  • Based on what I know to be the facts – what choices do I have?
  • What is the outcome I really want?
  • What plan of action can I take to produce the very best results for me?