A Mini-Course by Chad Harrigan

Founder, You Can L.I.V.E. Now

 Lesson 1: Your Brain on Trust 

Your brain has a complicated relationship with the concept of trust. Trust/Distrust are distinct constructs associated with various neurological processes. Life experiences teach our minds to either trust or mistrust people, our perception, and the world around us. Your mind's flight or fight response (the reptilian brain) is wired for fear. When Man functioned mainly as hunter-gatherers, that flight-or-fight response protected us from danger in the wild. Now, however, the threats aren't to our physical person, but our self-construct. Your brain can't differentiate between the "lies" that come from you or another person. All your brain learns is that "I can't trust that person," even if that person is you. 


|"Your brain learns"I can't trust that person," even if that person is you."


Of course, your brain doesn't trust you. Why should it? Remember that your mind sees everything that you do. It knows everything that you think. You can lie to yourself, but not to your brain. Well, actually you can, and that's part of the problem. Your mind has watched you coerce, compromise, and cave against your best interest. Your brain has watched you betray yourself time and time again. Whether you realize it or not, keeping your word to yourself matters. Have you noticed that when you make declarations like "I am going to start exercising! I'm going to take control of my life", suddenly feelings of mistrust and doubt arise within you? Your brain responds with a "Meh... We'll see."


Interestingly enough, your brain isn't always the best at remembering things clearly. It does, however, have an easier time remembering things that have an emotional attachment. Basically, our mind has an easier time remembering our failures than our successes.


Why is that? There are three common reasons why this can happen. The first one is called a fundamental-attribution-error. It's a really fancy way of saying that when we succeed, we're "smelling ourselves bit." It believes that our talents or ideas got us where we are alone, with no recognition of factors we don't control. (Random events, environmental factors)


Next, we have overconfidence-bias. Self-assurance is great, but too much of a good thing can actually work against us. Overconfidence makes us believe that we don't have a need to improve or adapt. 


It actually leads to the third reason, which is not-asking-why. In real life, success can be a combination of many different things. Skills that we've gained from hard work, timing, our environment, the help of others, to name a few. We can spend so much time enjoying our success we won't even bother to scrutinize the cause of our excellent performance systematically.


On the other hand, failure moves us to investigate and pay attention to what went wrong. We become detectives and comb through every detail of evidence until we discover the culprits of our failure. We remember the bad because it hurts more. We pay more attention because we want to avoid it. We could actually experience more of the good in our lives if we paid more attention to how it happened.


Remember that when we repeat actions, words, feelings, and thoughts, we are building a sort of mental muscle memory. It's the same as the muscles in our body. People that were athletic in their younger days may find it easier to regain healthy habits when they're older. Muscle memory works. Our brains can function in the same way.


Every time that you don't keep your word to yourself, you experience guilt, disappointment, judgment, and shame. Your mind remembers those moments and automatically questions your resolve. You doubt yourself because your brain is, quite literally, doubting you. Those doubts lead to anxieties, which lead you to second-guess your intuition. Second-guessing your intuition leads to indecision. 


You doubt yourself because your brain is, quite literally, doubting you.


Here's the part that's really going to mess you up. You can't always trust your mind either. It's called Cognitive Distortion. "Cognitive distortions are simply ways that our mind convinces us of something that isn't actually true. These inaccurate thoughts are, usually, used to reinforce negative thinking or emotions — telling ourselves things that sound rational and accurate, but really only serve to keep us feeling bad about ourselves." - John M. Grohol, PsyD.


My clients know them as Thinking Traps. Imagine that your brain has tiny little feet, and it's walking through the forest. One of those feet gets caught in a beartrap. Now you're stuck. Your mind can't seem to shake it. Thoughts run through your head over and over again. Sometimes it's enough to be aware of the thinking traps, but sometimes they need to be addressed.


What are your Thinking Traps? Here are some common Cognitive Distortions.

  • Probability Overestimation: Exaggerating the probability that something negative will happen. The smallest decision automatically leads directly to ruin, even when there is no evidence to support such thinking. 

  • Catastrophizing: Believing that something is far worse than it actually is. In truth, the worst-case-scenario rarely happens. This distortion shows up in two ways. Magnifying occurs when you exaggerate the importance of insignificant events or possible outcomes. Minimizing occurs when you incorrectly understate the importance of significant events or positive qualities until they seem small and insignificant. 

  • All-or-Nothings: Seeing things in black-and-white ways. Things are either all good or all bad. Either we're perfect, or we're a complete failure. Every person, situation, or thought is an "Either/Or." There is no space for complexity. There is no gray or middle ground. Everything exists as one extreme or the other.

  • Shoulds: Rigid rules for how the world should operate and for how people (including yourself) should think, feel, and behave. You may often believe you are trying to motivate yourself with should rules as if you need to be punished before you can do anything.

  • Personalization: Overestimating your influence on negative events; taking things personally. Somehow everything others do or say is a direct or personal reaction to something that you've said or done. 

  • Mind-Reading and Fortune-Telling: Assuming you know what people are thinking, and what will happen in the future. We can assume that people are thinking the worst of us, or we predict that things will turn out terribly. Worst still, these distortions can become self-fulfilling prophecies where we react as if these fears are true or set in stone. This can lead to actions/behaviors that move us in the direction of the negative outcomes we dread, which then become further evidence for our negative beliefs.

  • Itʼs not fair/Fallacy of Fairness: Over-focusing on whether things are just, fair, or right. You become resentful because you "know" what's fair, but no one agrees/abides with it. Toughen up Buttercup. Life isn't always fair. It doesn't always work out the way we want. People who focus on the "expected fairness" of life can feel hopeless and hinder themselves from building the resilience and adaptability needed to overcome setbacks.

  • Control Fallacy: This thinking trap involves two similar beliefs about being in complete control of pretty much everything in your life. The first type is called external control fallacy, where we see ourselves as victims of fate with no direct control over our lives. For example, "I can't help it if my work isn't better; my boss demanded too much." The second type of control fallacy, internal control, occurs when we assume we are completely responsible for the pain and happiness of everyone around us. For example, "Why are you unhappy? Is it something I did?"

  • Emotional Reasoning: Taking your emotions as evidence of truth. When you base your interpretation solely on your emotional reactions, whatever you're feeling at the time becomes true automatically and unconditionally, regardless of the evidence. For example, "If I feel stupid and boring, then I must be stupid and boring."

  • Thoughts Are What They Say They Are: Treating your thoughts as if they are facts. For example, "Our interaction felt awkward. I don't think he likes me. He probably doesn't, so I am going to avoid him." 


This is actually my favorite cognitive distortion. Whether they realize it or not, everyone experiences this thinking trap. In truth, your thoughts are not what they say they are, which brings us right back to one of my earlier points. You can't always trust your brain.


I'm going to let you in on a little secret. You are not your mind. Your mind belongs to you. It's a tool to be used by you, that's why it's called yours. "The mind is a superb instrument if used rightly. Used wrongly, however, it becomes very destructive. To put it more accurately, it is not so much that you use your mind wrongly — you usually don't use it at all. It uses you. This is the disease. You believe that you are your mind. This is the delusion. The instrument has taken you over." - Eckhart Tolle


Let's pull back before we go too deep down this rabbit hole. 


In plain English, what we're saying is that we tend to take our thoughts and feelings at face value. We've not been brought up with the habit of analyzing our thoughts and feelings to see if they are real. I actually work with my clients through a process of Metacognition to help them regain control of their overactive thinking. (Some for the first time)


So let's look at that word I just used, Metacognition. Simply put, Metacognition is thinking about thinking. Webster's dictionary defines it as awareness and understanding of one's own thought processes. Understand that I'm not here to teach you how to think; instead, this lesson is here to inform you about how you think. 


Your thoughts and feelings can sometimes be bullies. They fight our minds for dominance and attention. The question you must ask is, are these thoughts and feelings real? The bigger principle here is that we must stop and take the time to analyze the validity of our thoughts and feelings. Unfortunately, before this turns into an entirely different mini-course, on a different subject, we need to move on to lesson two.


  1. Take your list of Thinking Traps (Cognitive Distortions) and see how many resonate with you. How many can you catch yourself engaging in during the week? 

  2. When your mind is flooded by negative thoughts and feelings, ask yourself, "Is this real or just a thought/feeling?" Who's voice that? (yours, parent, bully, teacher?) What would you like to be thinking/feeling instead?

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