The 5 Thinking Habits Holding You Back


I remember someone once telling me that the mind is like a garden - it needs constant maintenance. If we leave it alone for too long, weeds start growing and the grass gets too long. By that point, there’s a lot of ‘gardening’ to do to get it back in shape, which is harder and takes longer than if you’d kept on top of it in the first place. It’s very easy to neglect the mind, and, before you know it, your thoughts and emotions are running wild!

What I’ve noticed over the past few weeks are a handful of thinking patterns that appear to be driving the fear and panic a lot of us are currently experiencing. I’m acutely aware of what these unhelpful thinking habits are because I often see them limiting the career change plans of my clients. I also hear them limiting my own thoughts on where I could take my business next, and I hear them getting in the way of so many of the things people want to achieve and experience in life. They trap us, hold us back, and cause us to feel stuck in a situation that we see no way out from.

So, what are these unhelpful thinking habits we can look out for? And how can we challenge them to enable us to think in a way that’s much more helpful?

1. Prediction

Believing we know unequivocally what’s going to happen in the future. For example, if I hand my notice in, I will not find another job, especially in this current climate. However, can any of us really predict the future with absolute certainty? No, and definitely not right now. How likely is it that the situation you’re predicting might actually happen? I imagine it’s not that likely if you have a plan and utilise as many options and opportunities as possible.

2. Catastrophising

Building on the above, imaging and believing that what you’re predicting will happen will be the absolute worst thing possible. For example, if I change career, I won’t be able to find another job, then I won’t be able to pay my rent/mortgage, and then I’ll be homeless. Convincing yourself that the worst possible thing will definitely happen isn’t that helpful right now. It’ll stop you moving forward in every way. In reality, what’s more likely to happen? What plans can you put in place to reduce the risk of these concerns happening?

3. Black and White Thinking

Believing that a situation or someone can be only good or bad, right or wrong, rather than anything in-between. For example, I want to change career, which means my current job must be really bad, so I should just quit now. However, things aren’t always either wholeheartedly good or totally bad - there are always shades of grey mixed in there. Where is this situation or person on the spectrum? There’s likely to be good aspects mixed in with the less desirable bits. What can you learn from this mix about what works for you, and what doesn’t?

4. Negative Filtering

Focusing almost exclusively on the negatives and seldom noticing the positives; an unhelpful pattern fuelled by the habit of rejecting any evidence or arguments that might contradict our negative thoughts. For example, I don’t enjoy my job but I have no other options, which means I’m completely stuck. No, I don’t have any transferable skills. No, I don’t want you to introduce me to anyone that can help. No, there aren’t any ways of gaining relevant experience. There are no positives to how I’m feeling. Ask yourself, am I only noticing the bad stuff? Am I filtering out the positives in this situation? What would be a more balanced and optimistic view to take?

5. What If?

You keep asking yourself a series of ‘What If’ questions about a certain situation, but you fail to actually answer these questions. For example, what if I change career and don’t like it? What if I run out of money? What if I fail? What if I succeed and get really overwhelmed or stressed out from being so busy? For this, take each eventuality and write an action plan for what you’ll actually DO if that does happen. By turning your hypothetical questions in to practical obstacles to be overcome with action can give you a sense of control, and help you realise you can manage whatever life throws at you.

In a nutshell, the main thing to remember is that what we’re thinking or assuming may or may not be 100% true. Also, try to recognise that your thoughts are not a threat; they are merely words and made-up scenarios inside our heads. We have a choice about how much we pay attention to these thoughts. They can come and go without us having to hold onto them, or desperately trying to push them away.

These are challenging times, but, if we can catch ourselves when we fall into the above thinking traps, we might just be able to retain some of our sanity during this crazy time.

And, as with any new habit, the more we can embed the ability to dispute these distorted automatic thoughts, the better we’ll be at challenging them in relation to future life events too.

Alice Stapleton

About Alice

Alice coaches those who want to change career but don’t know what they want to do instead. She offers Career Coaching designed to help graduates, early to mid-level career-changers, and parents returning to work gain a clear vision of what career is right for them, and how to achieve it. She is also an accredited Coach Supervisor, and host of The Career Change Diaries podcast.