• Tina

I can predict the future ...

So far we have looked at two unhelpful thinking styles: generalisation and mental filter, and we have a better idea of what they are and how to tackle them. Today we are looking at predicting the future also known as fortune telling.

Like the first two unhelpful thinking styles predicting the future is another cognitive distortion however, in this case you predict a negative outcome which is seamlessly done without giving any consideration to the actual odds of the predicted outcome happening. Often the odds of something happening are over predicted leaving little room for us to consider the actual odds of something actually happening. It may come as a surprise to discover predicting the future is one of the most common thinking distortions and the one most of my clients identify when we do this work.

This made me wonder why this is such a common thinking error. For those of you with good memories (you will note I avoided the saying old enough to remember) when I was younger on TV was the great Mystic Meg, there was nothing she was not able to predict with certainty. Yes it was interesting and funny but I doubt many of us are clairvoyants.

I think the reason this is a common thinking error is because we all need to predict the future, but not in a clairvoyance way. From babies we need to develop skills to determine if an outcome is likely or not. For example, we need to predict we will be ill if we eat foul smelling food (HH would say that about some of my cooking). We need to be able to develop the skills to make judgements based on odds namely I can predict that if I study and place enough emphasis on my exams the outcome is more likely to be a positive one.

However predicting the future tends to take things a little too far ... the odds of something bad happening are increased at the cost of a positive outcome. Take for example people who have been unlucky in love, it happens to us all. Some people may take the view - well if I do not get out there I am unlikely to find the love I desire, others may take the view once bitten twice shy - best stay in and read a book - then I won't get hurt, problem solved !! In one case the positives and negatives are balanced, in the other the negatives win the day, in a way which seems to be quite justified in the mind of the person.

How do we manage to deal with this unhelpful thinking style - because it is causing lots of people lots of upset.

Rule 1 - What ACTUALLY is the evidence for and against your prediction ?

Write it down so you can see it and think about it ...

Here is an example (all my own making !!)

I predict this plane will fall out of the sky (anyone who has been to me for counselling about anxiety will know how I suffered with this)

Evidence for...

  • hmmmm ... a few planes drop out the sky - normally due to mechanical fault or attack. It is a possibility it could happen...

Evidence against...

  • I am more likely to be hurt driving my car to the airport

  • Many thousands of planes fly every day without incident

  • Planes are subject to very stringent inspection (I see the pilot looking round the place before every flight, I don't do that for my car)

  • Even if there is an incident many planes are successfully landed and everyone is safe

  • I could go on but I won't (Sully says it all)

It is important to examine the actual evidence, and even more importantly, the quality of that evidence. I am able to come up with lots of reasons that support my predicting the future that supports me feeling bad but would this evidence hold up when I write it down, I may also consider why it would not be as convincing to someone else.

Rule 2 - ask the question Why am I predicting the future ?

There must be a reason why I am predicting the future and at what cost to me. If I refuse to fly because I over exaggerate the outcome of the prediction what is the cost to me .. I don't fly anywhere? There may be benefits to making this prediction, in my case I felt safer, I did not live with the anxiety of boarding a flight but if i avoid it I never learn whether my prediction is likely to be wrong. Is my prediction helping me build resilience for the future and dealing with other difficult tasks? Predictions can make us feel powerless and that is what has happened, you have sacrificed control to your unhelpful thoughts - they are now ruling the brain. When you start making this type of assessment you can begin to ask the question, is my predicting the future style more helpful or harmful?

Rule 3 - Put on your thinking hat

  1. What is your track record for predicting the future; how often are you right?

  2. If you think about this how likely is the current prediction to come true - would you change your prediction?

  3. If the prediction came true how difficult would it be for you - OK in my case a plane crash might be quite difficult but being rejected on a night out (not that it will happen with HH around). Ok I might be sad and upset but I would recover and likely be ok. Sometimes it helps to write down what the bad outcomes would be and then look at the list to think what they would actually mean to you - or as I would ask in counselling what is the worse thing that could happen and of these things how many could you overcome.

  4. Using your thinking hat find three positive outcomes to balance out the negative ones e.g. I get on a plane - it lands - I get my hire car - I see my mum. If you can train your brain to actively think about the positives you may find your unhelpful thinking habit of predicting the future is less present in your life and you begin to feel more confident.

So I will draw to a close with the same message as previous blogs, a thought is just a thought, an electronic pulse in our brain which may or may not be true. If it is true its a fact and we need to deal with that, if not its an opinion and best we leave it to one side whilst we find some facts.

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