September 25, 2008

Thought Trap #1: All or nothing thinking

One of my clients is a doctoral candidate in clinical psychology. She runs a weekly in-patient group for people who have depression, and she uses a tool that I find applicable to all of us.

The focus of this weekly group is "thought traps," ways of thinking that create negativity and keep us from seeing the positive in our lives. While people with depression might experience thought traps as a significant part of their illness, we all experience them from time to time.

I'm going to cover these thought traps over the next few months, one at a time. Recognizing your thought traps about public speaking is the first step to changing them -- and changing the way you view public speaking altogether.

Thought trap #1: All or Nothing Thinking

You see things in black and white. If your performance falls short of perfect, you see yourself as a total failure.

How many times have you said to yourself after a presentation, "I forgot to make that important point," "I stumbled over my words," "I looked at the floor too much?" And then, instead of acknowledging one or two mistakes and moving on, you declared the presentation "a disaster."

Here are some suggestions on how to approach these thoughts once you become aware of them (from a great article in Mother Jones about cognitive therapy and thought traps):

1. Write it down. Writing automatically provides perspective and helps reveal distorted thinking.

2. Identify the distressing event. What's really bothering you?

Is it that you forgot to make the key point, or is it that you didn't prepare enough? Or is it something else altogether, like not organizing the flow of the presentation in a way that made sense?

3. Identify your negative emotions.

Are you embarrassed that you forgot the point, disappointed that you didn't prepare enough, or frustrated about not organizing the presentation well?

4. Identify the negative thoughts tied to your emotions.

If you feel embarrassed, do you find yourself thinking, "The audience thinks I'm an idiot?" Or if you feel disappointed in yourself, does that become, "I'm so lazy. I never take the time to do things right?"

5. Identify distortions and substitute the truth.

Pay attention to those thoughts and reframe the way you perceive yourself. "Everyone forgets things sometimes, and I'm no different. The audience doesn't even know I forgot anything." Or, "I'm not lazy. I'm usually very organized. I got busy and ran out of time this week."

I would add one more to this list, specifically regarding public speaking:

6. Take action.

What will you do differently next time?

Are you an all-or-nothing thinker? Share your examples in the comments!

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