Why Is Constructive Thinking Kind Of a Big Deal?
What is constructive thinking? Do you believe it’s merely a way of looking at the brighter side of every situation? Turns out, it’s much more than that.
According to psychologist Dr. Seymour Epstein, “Intelligence of the experiential mind is referred to as constructive thinking, which provides the key to understanding emotional intelligence.” It’s a set of cognitive and habitual processes that affects a person’s ability to solve problems and react to situations. Whereas IQ values a person’s logic and ability to obtain information, constructive thinking values experience, intuition, emotion, and imagination, and relationship-building skills.
Constructive Thinking in the Real World
As humans, we either instinctively react to events, or proactively choose how to respond or feel about them. If someone insults your work, you either take it personally or view it as a challenge to improve yourself.
Your first instinct—or automatic response—to any situation is developed based on your environment, upbringing, and previous experiences.
According to Dr. Lisa Lentino, CEO of The Coaching Connector, “Our thoughts and beliefs are merely words that reflect the data our mind has collected from our experiences and subsequent interpretations.” The problem arises when we start treating the thoughts in our heads as if they’re “absolute truths,” and not just opinions, interpretations, or inferences.
Is your first reaction to insult the person who critiqued you? Know that you can train your brain to respond in a more positive and productive way that prevents you from dwelling on the insult, or whatever negative situation you’re in. That’s the core belief of constructive thinking.
Advantages of Constructive Thinking
Every situation and crossroad in your life requires a combination of rational thinking and drawing on your previous experiences.
Decisions about your career path, marriage, finances, and business can’t be reduced to a bunch of pros and cons. Your life experience and emotions will always affect your choices, so it’s better to have them working for you instead of against you.
According to Epstein’s work, constructive thinkers:
- Focus on the tasks at hand, and not the negative emotions they feel because of what they’re doing or feeling
- Don’t let negative situations outside their control affect how they live their lives
- Think things through without jumping to inaccurate or negative conclusions. They see the world in a more optimistic, yet equally realistic point of view.
- Know that failure is an important part of the learning process. They know their failures aren’t indicative of their worth, so they don’t let it affect their confidence
- Face challenges head-on, focusing on the silver lining and learning opportunity at hand.
- Don’t waste time worrying about what-if events and fears that might not even happen
What About Negative Emotions?
Why do people act foolishly sometimes? Why do we do the wrong things when the right thing seems so obvious? The answer lies in your irrational beliefs. According to Albert Ellis, founder of Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT), people’s irrational beliefs are a major source of negative emotions. Such beliefs, according to Ellis, stem from these three core statements: “should,” “have to,” or “need to.” According to the Albert Ellis Institute, REBT “is an action-oriented psychotherapy that teaches individuals to identify, challenge, and replace their self-defeating beliefs with healthier ones that promote emotional well-being and goal achievement.”
Epstein suggested that people’s ability to manage their negative emotions (caused by irrational beliefs) affects how well they can use their logical ability (IQ), which in turn determines their capacity for problem-solving and constructive thinking.
Constructive thinkers have a different mental frameworks that helps them cope with negativity while staying on a problem-solving state of mind. Lentino explains: “Constructive thinking isn’t about being unrealistically positive and denying negative emotions. It’s about how you view your current reality and how you use your mind to create a more ideal life.”
On the other hand, negative thinkers that don’t have these frameworks automatically jump to fear, irrational thinking, over-generalizations, and other ill-adaptive thoughts that make them feel even worse.
But your words and thoughts only have power to the extent that you listen and believe them. “At no point in time can a symbol (a word or a string of words) actually handcuff you or prevent you from taking action unless you give it that power,” according to Lentino. So negative emotions aren’t ignored when you practice constructive thinking. Constructive thinking helps you cope faster, so negative thoughts don’t dictate your life.
How a Mind Coach Can Help
Lentino uses imagery and metaphors to help clients practice constructive thinking, so they become observers of their thoughts, not a victim.
Picture a huge raging river. This represents the thoughts, feelings, behavior, and memories of your mind, the surging whitewater being the negative and strong emotions. Then imagine you’re standing at the middle of the rushing river, trying to stand your ground and stop it with your bare hands. That’s one way your mind tries to control your river of thoughts, or what Lentino calls “avoidance strategies.”
Avoidance strategies are often bad or compulsive behaviors that distract your mind, or numb it, in hopes of avoiding stressors.
Ever wonder why you want to just lie down and have a nap when you’re overwhelmed at work? That’s an avoidance strategy. Your brain is telling you, “You can’t do this… It’s too much,” so to avoid thinking it through, your brain fills your head with ideas of other stuff to do, like napping, eating, or smoking.
A trained mind coach can hone your constructive thinking skills by assigning tasks that will force you to become an observer of your mind. These will stop your brain from triggering avoidance strategies and channel your thoughts in a more positive, problem-solving approach.
In turn, you can use your newfound constructive thinking skills in different parts of your life so you can:
As a thought comes into your consciousness, label it for what it is—a thought. Then just let it flow down your river of thoughts. Don’t latch on. To clarify this, here’s an example from Lentino’s book, Constructive Thinking: How To Grow Beyond Your Mind.
“If I was sitting still trying to ground myself in the observer role, I might notice the thought, “I have to go to the grocery store.” I first label it, saying to myself “There’s the thought I have to go to grocery store.”
As best I can, I would let that thought come in and go out of my consciousness without engaging it.
What if, on the other hand, the thought, “I have to go to the grocery store” comes into my consciousness and I starting thinking “What do I need at the grocery store?” and “What are we having for dinner?” Do you see how I grabbed the thought and then my mind was off to the races?
Good constructive thinkers are less frazzled and react with less negative emotions when subjected to stressful situations, according to a study of 556 undergraduate students at the University of Massachusetts. The non-constructive thinkers showed an increase in blood pressure and negative thoughts, among other indicators of stress.
Increase Your Self-Confidence
According to the same study, both good and bad constructive thinkers had similar academic performance. But the bad constructive thinkers leaned towards judging their work as inadequate compared to their peers.
Because their expectations are too high, those who don’t practice constructive thinking look at themselves as failures, even if they’re doing just as well as others. They’re also constantly worried that others are disappointed in them.
Epstein observed an incredible feat of constructive thinking from a 5-year old boy who managed to befriend a boy bullying him in nursery school.
The boy, let’s call him John, was building a tower of blocks when the bully approached and kicked his blocks. But instead of crying and telling his teacher, John just laughed along with the bully. He said, “Wow, you really sent them flying all over the place.”
Instead of reacting to the negative behavior, John saw the humor in his situation. After the two boys had a good laugh, John admired the bully’s display of strength once more and then invited him to play blocks. He made the bully his friend, instead of crying and or relying on an external force—the teacher—to solve the problem.
After that, Epstein saw the two boys playing blocks. And this time, John was directing how the bully should stack the blocks. John didn’t let negative situations faze him. He didn’t dwell on his setback, the falling tower of blocks, or the threat he faced, the bully. To him, the whole ordeal was a challenge to overcome.
Poor constructive thinkers tend to interpret things negatively, making them stressed and unhappy with their lives. For example, negative thinkers believe their happiness depends on external factors. But constructive thinkers know their happiness—or lack thereof—depends on how they choose to react to what life throws at them.
Give constructive thinking a try. Next time something doesn’t go your way, try to move past your initial reaction. Try to see things from another angle. Look for the solution and don’t dwell on the problem or its cause. Maybe even get a life coach to show you how.