Stinking thinking: How our thoughts determine how we feel

When negative thoughts become habitual or are applied in the wrong context, they can be damaging


By Dr. Ellen Kirschman

In police work, thinking the worst can make the job safer and your life harder.

How we think and talk to ourselves determines how we feel and how we act. We are all prone to making thinking errors that tend toward the negative. This is called a negative bias override and it comes from the need for survival dating back to cave person days.

Stinking thinking usually starts with a trigger, often a criticism or a nasty remark, followed by a thinking error and negative emotional response.
Stinking thinking usually starts with a trigger, often a criticism or a nasty remark, followed by a thinking error and negative emotional response. (Photo/Getty Images)

A cave person who ignored a rustling in the bushes could be eaten by a saber-tooth tiger. Whereas the cave person who got scared and ran away – even if the noisy animal turned out to be a harmless house cat – lived to tell the tale. The moral of this story? Better to be embarrassed than to be someone’s supper.

If you’re a cop, a negative bias override is tactically necessary for safety on the job. The only problem is that when negative thoughts become habitual or are applied in the wrong context, they can be damaging.

Too much negative selftalk and too many thinking errors result in a negative mood like depression, anxiety, or the urge to drink. This happens so fast, you probably don’t know it’s happening.

Stinking thinking usually starts with a trigger, often a criticism or a nasty remark, followed by a thinking error (aka an unproductive thought) and then followed by a negative emotional response.

Here are some common thinking errors:

All or nothing thinking: Usually associated with the words always or never.

  • I’m right, she’s wrong. She’s right, I’m wrong.
  • People who make mistakes are losers. I made a mistake so I’m a loser.

Superpowers: Mind reading and fortune-telling.

  • I know he hates me.
  • No matter what I do, he will always hate me.

Jumping to conclusions:

  • I failed at this relationship, I’m going to fail at every relationship I try.
  • Therapy won’t work, not for me.

Magical thinking/unreasonable self-blame: Usually starts with the phrase "if only."

  • If only I had been working that day, turned left not right, just drove a little faster or a little slower that (fill in the blank) would or wouldn’t have happened.

Disqualifying the positive: 

  • I was just lucky.
  • I was just doing my job.

Catastrophizing: Looking for bad outcomes and/or acting that it's already happened.

  • They'll defund the police, I'll lose my job, can't pay my mortgage, my wife will leave me and take the kids with her.

Can you stop stinking thinking?

Yes, you can. Use the three Cs.

  1. Capture the thought: Ask yourself "What was I saying to myself before I started feeling down, frightened, anxious, angry, in need of a drink?" Check your thinking against the above list.
  2. Challenge yourself by asking yourself the following: "What's the evidence that my negative thoughts are true?" Be tough. Do an honest cross-examination.
  3. Change your thoughts to something more reasonable, yet realistic. Here's an example from a true story. David (not his real name) got an unacceptable rating from his FTO and reacted as if he was about to be terminated. He sought help from a peer supporter who pointed out that David was catastrophizing, reading his FTO's mind, and fortune-telling. He helped David rephrase his thoughts and soften his self-talk. This is what they came up with: I'm a rookie, rookies make mistakes, that doesn't mean I'm about to be fired. Trying to second guess my FTO is going to mess with my concentration. I can always ask her how she thinks I'm doing. As it turns out, David was being hyper-critical of himself. According to his FTO, he was doing better than he thought.

The next time you catch yourself feeling bad and you're not sure why, rewind, take a look at this list of common thinking errors and put the three Cs into action.


About Dr. Ellen Kirschman
People call me the cop doc. I’ve been a clinical psychologist far longer than I’ve been a mystery writer. My specialty is treating first responders, cops and firefighters who are suffering with work-related traumatic stress. My protagonist, police psychologist Dr. Dot Meyerhoff is a spunky, 50 plus year old who takes orders from no one, including her chief. I named her after my mother and grandmother. Dot and I share some traits, but we’re definitely not the same. She’s younger, thinner, investigates crimes when she should be counseling cops and has some skills I don’t need: breaking and entering, impersonating a public official, and assault with a deadly weapon. Too dedicated for her own good, not to mention stubborn, impulsive, and full of self-doubt, Dot never gives up on anyone which is important because cops are difficult clients. They hate reaching out for help because it makes them feel weak and they don’t trust outsiders, especially “shrinks.”

I started my writing career with non-fiction and I’m still at it. Along the way, I’ve earned awards from The California Psychological Association for Distinguished Contribution to Psychology and the American Psychological Association for Outstanding Contribution to Police and Public Safety Psychology.

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