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Have you ever been stuck in a negative mental loop?

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A mental loop is a repeated replay of something that’s bothering you. The dangers of a negative loop are that they can be distracting, often come with unwanted negative emotions and can result in consequences such as lost time, energy and hope.

To illustrate how we can become caught in a negative mental loop, let’s consider the following scenario. Sam worked closely with Sally over a 10-year period. Known by leadership as being a highly productive team, Sally and Sam appeared to all onlookers – and to Sam – as having a wonderful working relationship. Sam looked forward to his job every day. A great part of his job satisfaction was owing to the fact he enjoyed working with Sally. But his world changed suddenly one day when Sally decided to ask for a transfer. Sally didn’t tell Sam until the end of their shift on the day that she was leaving. She never really gave a reason – she just said she wanted a change – and wished Sam good luck.

Sam felt this change was abrupt and her exit was cold. He was disappointed that he didn’t see it coming and that she didn’t come to him earlier to discuss her plan or to give him some notice to prepare. He started to think that she must have left because of him, and that triggered a negative feedback loop.

This microskill explores what a person can do when stuck in a negative loop such as this.

Awareness

Whenever there is a difference between what we want and what we have in life, a negative feedback loop can be created. Dr. William Glasser, author of Choice Theory, taught that we all wake up each day looking to meet four basic needs: fun, freedom, love (including personal and professional relationships) and power (such as job fulfilment). What’s unique are the specific desires we have to meet these needs.

In Sam’s case, Sally supported his need for job fulfilment and relationships. Dr. Glasser purported that when a desire to meet a certain need becomes unfulfilled, it creates emotional pain until we can find another way to meet that need. Until that’s resolved, it’s normal to keep looping and focusing on the unfulfilled desire. Most people become stuck because they become hyper-focused on understanding the why instead of accepting what they can and cannot control.

Accountability

In the end, all Sam can control are his decisions and choices. He can’t control Sally’s decisions. Regardless of why Sally moved on, Sam is left with the reality that to move forward, he will need to figure out another way to enjoy his work and accept that Sally is no longer his work partner.

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For Sam, the why may not be as important as his level of awareness that he’s caught in a negative loop that’s affecting his mental health and quality of life. The looping thought of why Sally moved on caused him to withdraw from his family and friends. His diet changed; he began eating more to try to improve how he felt; he started taking an extra drink each evening, and he stopped exercising.

To get out of a negative loop, you first need to be aware that you’re in one and accept that the solution comes from your own actions. Once you’re able to do that, you’re positioned to break the cycle.

Action

Before answering each of the following questions, read each bullet point and reflect on the key message. Write out your answer and then read it aloud to help you break out of your negative feedback loop.

  • Why does it really matter to know the why, and how will it really change anything? Sadly, getting a why answered doesn’t change reality. It may provide some lessons that can be applied to the future, but it’s not guaranteed to change how you feel. Answering this question helps challenge your thinking, which can help change your focus. It really doesn’t matter, in the end, why something you didn’t want to happen did occur as much as what you choose to do next. Instead, spend your energy on finding a new solution.
  • Without judging, what are five possible ways to move forward? Answering this question challenges our rational brain to look for alternatives that can help us expand our conception of what’s possible. Often, when a person gets caught in a negative loop, their world can feel small, and their belief that there’s an alternative or solution can become dampened. Challenging our brain to find five alternatives can help activate our creativity as well as our desire to ask others for ideas.
  • How long am I prepared to stay in this negative feedback loop before I make a change? Life can be good and life can be hard. When we don’t have what we want in life, the path to a new solution often requires us to do something different. The good news is we don’t have to know what to do or how to change or solve all challenges or problems. We only need to decide we want the emotional pain to stop and find a positive solution. When we do this, we create an opportunity to find an alternative. If we can’t find it ourselves, there are alternatives such as talking to a trusted peer or getting professional counselling to help solve the challenge.

Bill Howatt is the chief research and development officer of work force productivity with Morneau Shepell in Toronto.

You can find all the stories in this series at: tgam.ca/workplaceaward