One of the greatest things we can do for ourselves is to become self-aware. When we’re self-aware, we take notice of our thoughts and feelings. We observe them. We examine how they drive our decisions and shape our lives.
And we have the opportunity to make decisions that are genuinely helpful for us — from how we spend our days to how we care for ourselves to how we relate to others.
Often, our thoughts are inaccurate. And they might sabotage our goals or aspirations. They might trigger undue stress.
We might be convinced we aren’t smart enough to complete a project. We might be convinced our only options include staying in a job we hate or leaping without a parachute into entrepreneurship. We might ruminate about all sorts of painful scenarios that never come to pass.
As psychology professor Vince Favilla said, “We walk around with a lot of implicit beliefs about the world; ideas we’ve picked up and internalized without even realizing it.” When we notice these beliefs and examine them, we can refute what isn’t helpful, he said.
Below, Favilla shared some of the signs of unrealistic thinking and tips to help. Do you see yourself in these thoughts?
You think in “either or.”
That is, your date was either perfect or a giant disaster. You’re either smart or an idiot. You’re either Zen master calm or a crumbling, stressed-out mess. Your project was either a success or a failure.
But thinking in extremes is limiting. It pummels our perception of ourselves. It stops us from learning.
Instead, Favilla suggested adopting a “both-and” perspective. He shared this example: “I’m both competent and I didn’t get a promotion this year. Maybe next time.”
He also suggested forming “nuanced critiques,” instead of creating rigid categories. (We like to categorize things because it appeals to our need for certainty, he said.)
For instance, instead of believing something was a complete and utter failure, ask yourself: “What went well? What didn’t? What can I do better next time?”
You think you’re worthless or unlovable.
Or you think you’re a loser, or a failure, or any number of nasty descriptors. However, as Favilla said, “Humans are too complicated to summarize in one word.”
Again, life is filled with nuances; we are filled with nuances. If you’re having these sorts of thoughts, practicing self-compassion can help.
You think success will be effortless, or a task will be quick.
It’s important to think we can succeed. Optimistic expectations protect our self-esteem and give us a sense of control over our future, said Favilla, also founder and lead writer for Sooniwill.be.
However, “When you think that success will be effortless — that the law of attraction will make great things happen to you — you set yourself up for disappointment.”
According to Heidi Grant-Halvorson, Ph.D, believing in “effortless success” is a recipe for failure. Success is paved with setbacks, hard work and perseverance.
Unrealistic expectations can discourage you when you hit a bump (or two), and stop you from pursuing meaningful goals. Giving yourself a small window of time to complete a project can set you up for failure.
According to Favilla, “Have faith in your ability to succeed, but expect setbacks along the way and plan for them.”
When someone doesn’t respond or says no, you assume they don’t like you.
When it comes to others, many of us assume the worst. Rejection is painful, and it’s easy to take it personally, Favilla said. However, in reality, people are busy and have all sorts of reasons why they don’t respond to a voicemail or email, or decline an invitation or offer.
It usually doesn’t have anything to do with us. Plus, someone saying no today doesn’t stop them from saying yes in the future, he added.
You ruminate about all sorts of bad scenarios.
We also assume the worst in other ways. When we hear sirens, we assume something terrible has happened to a loved one. When we make a mistake at work, we assume we’ll lose our jobs, our homes, and our families.
We somehow think of our lives as a set of dominos. Once one falls, the rest naturally fall down with it.
“It’s human nature to assume the worst,” Favilla said. “It keeps us safe by helping us prepare for bad situations.” However, these worst-case scenarios rarely occur. Ruminating about them only boosts our stress and causes us to worry needlessly about imaginary problems, he said.
To stop catastrophizing, Favilla suggested finding evidence that your expectations contradict reality. As he said, “Understand that we tend to project our emotions out into the world; if we feel anxiety, we’ll look for evidence that justifies it and confirms our feelings.”
When you don’t complete a goal, you say, “forget it.”
Favilla referred to this as the “what-the-hell” effect. This is the “tendency to go all-in and fail spectacularly when we fall short of our goals.” He shared this example: You decide to quit smoking cold turkey. But you slip up, and have one cigarette. You think you’ve ruined everything, so you reach for the entire pack.
You likely did this because you’re engaged in all-or-nothing, black-or-white thinking. You might have “the unrealistic and unhelpful expectation that you’re either a non-smoker or a chain smoker.”
Again, when you’re pursuing any goal, there will be setbacks and challenges and obstacles. The key is to learn to navigate those downs (like anticipating potential obstacles, and establishing a plan for dealing with them).
Throughout the day, all of us think unrealistic thoughts. And some of these can be unhelpful or even hurtful to us (and others). Paying attention to your thinking gives you insight into whether you’re doing things that actually align with your wants and values. And if they don’t, this gives you the opportunity to pause and then revise and readjust.