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This is part of a series looking at micro skills – changes that employees can make to improve their health and life at work and at home, and employers can make to improve the workplace. The Globe and Mail and Morneau Shepell have created the Employee Recommended Workplace Award to honour companies that put the health and well-being of their employees first. Read about the 2017 winners of the award at Register your company for 2018 at

Have you ever looked at another person you would like to meet but failed to walk over and introduce yourself?

If you have, you're not alone; this is more common than you may think. Regardless of the situation, whether at work or in your personal life, the reason may be fear of rejection.

The purpose of this micro skill is to introduce the concept of cognitive spyware and what we can do to remove automatic programs that impact our decisions and actions.

Cognitive spyware is made up of cognitive schemas that influence how we automatically process our interactions with the world. Cognitive schemas can be positive or negative. One way to think of a negative cognitive schema is like spyware on your computer. It can sneak through your anti-virus software and get on your machine without your knowledge and run in the background. Spyware comes in many forms, from minor to major like ransomware that takes over your computer.

When a negative schema becomes ingrained in our brain it can automatically generate responses that may not be in our best interests or what we really want. For example, you're at a social gathering and see someone you think is interesting and would like to meet. You say to yourself, "I would like to meet them but feel that I can't go over to say hello."

Why? It may be due to cognitive spyware running a negative cognitive schema that automatically generates a response such as: "They would never be interested in me." This thought deters you from trying. You end up accepting failure in your head, rather than trying and seeing what happens. This kind of negative cognitive schema also could stop you from suggesting a new idea at work or tackling a new project.


One consequence of negative spyware is that it can limit our social interactions. Some of us are lonely and one reason can be due to negative spyware that stops us from trying to meet people. If you feel that you are lonely, complete this Loneliness Quick Survey.

Negative cognitive schemas can negatively impact our mental health.


Fear of rejection is real. This means that fear stops us from trying. The reality is, as distasteful as it may sound to a person who is lonely or fearful of trying in a social context to meet people, is to accept the value of taking a calculated risk that can end in failure.

Albert Ellis, one of the fathers of modern day psychology, suggested to some clients who were socially fearful of meeting people to sit at a busy park bench, say hello to someone and try to start a conversation. His logic was that most people who are fearful have irrational thinking as to the consequences. When his clients reported their experience, he would help them learn how to dispute their irrational thinking. His process is akin to cleaning spyware out of their computers.

Until a person understands what's happening, it's difficult for them to take accountability. The good thing is that negative, unwanted spyware can be eliminated, but we need to be willing to do the work.


Here are four steps for cleaning unwanted negative spyware that's impacting your social interactions.

  1. Notice and challenge the negative schema – Once you notice that a negative thought is limiting you from taking part in a social interaction, the first step is to simply acknowledge it. Then ask yourself, “Where are the facts that I know this negative thought is 100 per cent true?” The reality is, there’s no evidence other than your perception.
  2. Frame the risk – Ask yourself, “What’s the worst thing that could happen by going over and saying hello to this person?” Answer this question a few times until you can’t think of anything negative.  
  3. Self-debrief – Ask yourself, “What if the person is interested in meeting me? How will I ever know unless I ask?” Compare the risks to the benefits. Often, the worst case is failure to gain the benefit of meeting a new person. The ultimate outcome for not trying and risking failure can be loneliness or struggles with building your social network.
  4. Go or no go – Make your decision to go or not go. Take action and own it.

If the above plan doesn't work for you and you can't delete this spyware yourself you're not doomed. A trained cognitive behavioural therapist can often, within five to 10 sessions, help you learn how to clear out negative cognitive schemas that are impacting your social interactions and your overall mental health. None of us likes being lonely, and with support we don't need to be.

Bill Howatt is the chief research and development officer of work force productivity with Morneau Shepell in Toronto and creator of an online Pathway to Coping course offered through the University of New Brunswick.

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