‘Thought drama’ – what do I mean by this? It’s a phrase that was introduced to me a few years ago by coach Brooke Castillo and I think it’s a brilliant way of describing the repetitive, unproductive cycles of thinking in which many of us frequently get stuck.
Our capacity for rational thought
But what could possibly be wrong with thinking? It’s a tough one to call. As intelligent beings we learn to prize critical thinking, careful consideration and reflection – it’s one of the things that marks us out as human. Our capacity for rational thought means we can resist rushing into things blindly, acting on impulse or relying solely on instinct to guide our actions. We can use the immense power of our brains to weigh up issues, solve problems and make better decisions. And that can only be a good thing, right?
Well, yes – and no!
The problem with thinking
The problem with thinking is that we often lack discipline over it. When we don’t have discipline and focus in our thinking, it can go awry. We can shift into negative or distorted thought patterns where we lose clarity and perspective. This is the type of woolly, circular thinking where you might find yourself overgeneralising, catastrophising, jumping to conclusions, exaggerating, over personalising, focusing on negatives, or looking backwards. These kinds of thoughts lead to overwhelmingly negative feelings and worry. The result: we avoid taking action.
Thought drama prevents positive action
So how do you know if your thinking is rational or has become overly dramatic and harmful? Think of a scenario in your life that might require you to make a decision or take some action – such as having the opportunity to move to a bigger, better firm at a time when you’re focused on starting a family. What are your thoughts about this scenario? Do you fear the uncertainty of the outcome and find yourself using phrases like ‘what if..?’, ‘but’, ’I don’t know…’? Do you find yourself thinking about everything at once in relation to the issue? Do you find your thoughts going round in a circular pattern, never leading you to a resolution? Are your thoughts making you stressed? Do they stop you from taking action?
Thought drama limits your progression
If the answer to those questions is yes, then you may well have a drama queen acting out in your head. The trouble with this (apart from it being emotionally exhausting, of course) is that it is limiting your progression in life. Thought drama stops you from moving forward, it keeps you stuck, like a broken record. As humans we are hard-wired to be risk averse – to keep ourselves safe in primitive times. And it’s this primal risk-aversion that is the source of our thought drama. It triggers thought drama to stop us from taking action so that we keep ourselves safe from new or threatening situations. What might be a useful response to prevent us from being attacked by a sabre toothed tiger, however, isn’t quite so useful when it comes to our modern lives. Should we change jobs, go for that promotion, have a baby? We don’t need to keep ourselves safe when making these sorts of decisions – we just need to take some sort of action. Thought drama is stopping us.
First step: Self-awareness
What can you do when you have a tendency towards thought drama? How can you keep moving forward in life if thought drama is impeding your progress? The good news is that you have now identified this negative pattern of thinking – and you’ve given it a name. Understanding what you’re dealing with, seeing it for what it is and recognising what your brain is doing , is half the battle. Once you have reached this level of self-awareness, you can start to tackle the problem.
How to overcome Thought Drama
When you’re dealing with a new scenario, or facing a decision – take a moment to notice your thought responses. What’s going on? Are you following a logical thought process, or are you caught up in a spiral of ‘what ifs’ and ‘maybe this, maybe that’ and ‘if only-ies’?
Acknowledge the worrying thoughts that have popped into your head and why they are there: your primitive brain thinks you‘re in danger and is trying to keep you safe.
3. Take action.
Take some action, however small. For example, if a promotion opportunity were to arise, instead of going round and round in your mind, weighing pros and perceived cons, finding excuses, fearing the worst about uncertain outcomes – just do something. Fix a meeting with your boss to talk about it. Do some research. Give it a try. The endless unproductive debate in your mind need never happen if you take this tiny step forward. The action you take will produce feedback and concrete information, which you can then use to rationally inform another small action. You will move forward towards making the decision you need to make without descending into a spiral of unproductive, fearful thinking.
The more you practise this sort of response to new challenges and decisions – i.e. refusing to engage with your thought drama and taking small active steps, the easier it will become. A new pattern of action followed by informed thinking and further action will become wired into your brain. So you’ll spend less time stuck in thought drama, and more time making progress.
Tune into this week’s podcast episode ”Stop the Thought Drama” for more advice on vanquishing your thought drama. I also help clients overcome this problem through my Having it all coaching programme.
Email me firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.