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Have you ever sent a friend a text and didn’t hear back so you wondered if you were being snubbed or ignored? That’s your brain telling you a story, trying to make sense of your situation. Your brain could have said, They care about me, so they must be busy. But brains generally assume the worst. Why? Because over time our brains evolved to keep us safe by looking for danger. The second we catch a whiff of uncertainty or something triggers a memory of rejection, our brain goes to Olympic heights to keep us from feeling discomfort. By imagining the worst-case scenario, our brain thinks it’s being helpful in keeping us safe. The problem is that this threat feedback loop gets exhausting. And if left unchecked, our brain will become absorbed with stories and reality will start to slip away.

This is why the power of observation to reflect on who we really are and what’s going on inside of us is so valuable. It’s a concept Daniel Siegel, the Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine, calls “mindsight,” and it means we can learn to stand back and witness our thoughts. And here’s the really good news, this type of self-reflection activates the neural circuitry of the brain that creates resilience, and well-being and leads to empathy and compassion. It also leads to satisfaction, and happiness, and stops our brain from working overtime making utter nonsense.

Take Brie*, for example, a client who confessed to spending hours a day checking social media, worried that her friends were intentionally leaving her out of activities. Because Brie believed she didn’t measure up to their standards of beauty and wealth she spent money on trips she couldn’t afford and salon services that only temporarily made her feel better. Though her friends gave her compliments she didn’t trust them. In her mind, she couldn’t measure up. But when Brie learned how to step back and notice her negative stories something powerful happened, she found that just because she felt inadequate, that didn’t make it true! She’d been basing her conclusions on feeling, rather than fact, and falling prey to one of the most common pitfalls of distorted thinking. As Brie began to practice paying attention to the stories she was telling herself, noticing her automatic assumptions, she made room for a different and more compassionate narrative. By thinking more kindly toward herself, she behaved differently too. Eventually, Brie discovered she didn’t need things to be accepted, she just needed to accept herself.

When we pause and pay attention to our thoughts, we can hear how distorted our own stories can become. We can find the fallacies. It’s a good idea to write them down because getting our thoughts out on paper helps us analyze them for evidence of fact or fiction. Here are five ways we distort our thoughts. Do any sound familiar to you?

· Mind Reading—you think you know people’s motives and tend to assume the worst. You’re often anxious and conclude that others judge you negatively.

· All or Nothing Thinking—things are either all good or all bad, there’s no in-between. You think in extremes and talk in extremes too, using words like “always,” “never,” or “everyone.” You’re self-critical because you think you have to be perfect, if not, you’re a failure.

· Shoulds—you “should,” “ought to,” or “really must,” and there’s no room for error. You have rules for the way people should act and find fault with yourself anytime you don’t measure up.

· Emotional Reasoning—because you feel it, it’s got to be true! Feelings replace reasoning and you forgo fact-checking for accuracy. If you feel rejected, incompetent, unlovable, or stupid, that’s your reality.

· Catastrophizing—negative thoughts take over and small events quickly escalate to total disaster. A fight with your partner has you thinking of divorce, a financial setback leads you to worries of bankruptcy. This kind of rumination occupies your mind and limits any alternatives.  

The next time you find yourself triggered, angry, hurt, or confused, write down your thoughts then stand back and notice if judgment or criticism is present. Ask yourself, would you say this to a friend? Is there an alternative explanation? Is this thought helpful? By pausing to notice before reacting, you’ll be able to choose how you want to respond. If practiced with some regularity, your “observer mind” will start to catch your negative thoughts the moment they’re happening and replace them quickly. With more consistent practice, your automatic thoughts will begin to take on a more compassionate quality and you will discover the freedom that comes from knowing your mind and owning your story.

*Names and some details have been changed to protect the identity of this client. 

Siegel, D. (2011). Mindsight: the new science of personal transformation. Bantam Books.