I once taught a course at Columbia University titled, “Driving Strategic Impact.” One of my students, Maria, was totally disengaged during class, which upset and unnerved me. On some days I would exit the classroom annoyed with myself, thinking, “Maria was so disengaged today. My class must have been quite dull and irrelevant. I’m so incompetent!” On other days I would fume at her: “Maria was disengaged again today. She must be at business school just to land the right job. What a nightmare to have to teach these kinds of students.” After class one day, mid-semester, Maria approached me and said, “Professor, can I have five minutes of your time?”
I sat down with her in the corner of the classroom. She said, “I have to confess, I have been quite disengaged in class this whole semester.”
I thought, Oh, wow. Finally, she’s admitting it. The truth is out. So I said to her, “Okay, yes, tell me about it,” attempting to sound casual. “It’s all quite painful,” Maria continued. “During the summer break, my father passed away. Ever since I’ve returned to school this fall, I have found it a real struggle to be motivated.” She described feeling disconnected from her classmates. She fretted that job-recruiting season was just starting, and that her family had high hopes for her— yet she was still trying to cope with her father’s death. “I know you teach a class on personal leadership,” she said. “I was wondering if you might have some guidance to give me on how I can make peace with my loss and learn to move on.”
Can you imagine what a fool I felt like in that moment? I had been flip-flopping between thinking I was a bad teacher and thinking she was a bad student, while all along it had been about her painful personal loss. All those hours and days I had spent being upset—how wasteful, how unnecessary!
A few decades ago, two path-breaking psychotherapists, Albert Ellis in New York City and Aaron Beck at University of Pennsylvania, quite independently of each other, stumbled into the same insight that the Stoic philosophers in ancient Greece had discovered some 2,300 years earlier: Our emotions aren’t caused by the things that happen to us, but by the thoughts these events trigger. I’ve benefited from learning about the beautiful discipline of cognitive behavioral therapy from one of its preeminent exponents, Dr. David Burns, professor emeritus of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University; this section is largely based on his work.
My feelings of frustration didn’t arise because Maria was disengaged, but because of the thoughts that her disengagement triggered in me: that my class was dull and irrelevant, or that she was academically unmotivated. These are ANTs—automatic negative thoughts. We experience them all the time. “This project is a disaster.” “Those people just don’t understand.” “It’s useless talking to him.” “She is so uncaring.” “I’ll never be able to do this right.” In situations where we experience ANTs, we depart from fact-based reasoning and fall prey to mental distortions. My favorite distortions are the following:
5 common distorted mindsets
Mind reading: Mind reading happens when we assume we know what the other person is thinking or feeling. “I haven’t heard back from him. He must not have liked my proposal.” Mind reading can have a punishing impact on our interactions and relationships.
Mental filtering: Mental filtering makes you pay attention to a small set of observations and ignore all others. In entertaining the thought, “My class is dull and irrelevant,” I was ignoring how engaged the other 43 students were. You might focus on one critical comment someone made during a meeting, ignoring the positive comments others made, or a few disappointing actions by someone you know, looking past all their positive contributions.
Labeling: When I called myself “incompetent” or described the situation as a “nightmare,” I was labeling—using dismissive words that caricature one’s thinking and feelings about situations and people. When your thoughts include words like “moron,” “disgusting,” “ridiculous,” or “frustrating,” you’re likely labeling. These words carry a strong emotional punch, trapping us in an extreme view and restricting us from thinking more freely and objectively.
Blame: When I concluded that my class was no good, I was engaging in self-blame. When I concluded that Maria had no academic motivation, I was engaging in other-blame. In this mental distortion, you assign blame to yourself or to others, while the true case for a problem may lie elsewhere, as it did in this case.
All-or-nothing thinking: All-or-nothing thinking causes us to view things in a polarized manner, as wholly good or wholly bad. Someone is either a hero or a zero. A certain choice is either perfect or totally flawed. Either your job is great, or it sucks. Either your subordinate is awesome, or they’re awful. In most cases, people and situations are more textured, and truth more nuanced.
Distorted thoughts typically have a whiplash effect on our emotions, making us experience an unproductive dose of anger, anxiety, or other emotions. Our aim should be to replace these ill-conceived ANTs with thoughts that are more precise, logical, and fact based. When you find yourself getting consumed by ANTs, challenge your thinking through questions like, “Am I mind reading here? Filtering? Blaming? Labeling? Engaging in all-or-nothing thinking”?
Excerpted from Inner Mastery, Outer Impact: How Your Five Core Energies Hold the Key to Success by Hitendra Wadhwa. Copyright © 2022. Available from Hachette Go, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc.
Hitendra Wadhwa is a professor at Columbia Business School and the founder of the Mentora Institute, an organization that focuses on leadership development.