Dont Let Technology Psych You Out!


We've all experienced it-computerized technology that doesn't function properly. PCs that crash on Monday morning, copiers that melt transparencies, printers that smear ink on Board reports, phones that crackle during crisis calls, Internet viruses that destroy everything but non-essential data, faxes that send documents to the wrong long distance number, and so forth. The list is nearly endless.

Many strategies exist to help you deal with difficult or even "impossible" work situations, including those in which technology seems to have gone awry. Here I present some of the basic principles of psychological self-defense-in particular, mental reframing-to arm you with cognitive tools necessary to live a peaceful coexistence with computerized gadgetry.

Central to the psychological self-help methods presented in this report is the philosophy of First Century C.E. Greek philosopher, Epictetus. According to the ancient Roman and Greek Stoics, it's not the world that causes you problems; instead, it's how you look at the world. Even William Shakespeare in Hamlet wrote, "For there is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so." In other words, life's difficulties aren't caused by various "externals"-like bosses, spouses, and malfunctioning "thingamajigs"-but rather by how you evaluate these.

Let's review how thinking affects life. According to cognitive-behavioral theory (which is an area of psychology concerned with why people think and act the way they do), beliefs, life events, and reactions all interact and affect one another. Of special note is the direct influence that beliefs (thoughts, evaluations, assessments) have on emotions and behaviors. From the perspective of this "Event-Belief-Reaction" model, it's your interpretations of situations and people that cause you to feel and act the way you do-not the situations or people themselves. For example, the woman who continually believes and tells herself she can't figure out PCs, soon gets upset about it, berates herself, and then feels like a failure. The more she engages in negative thinking, the more she believes and tells herself she just can't do it, gets depressed about it, and so on-all of this reinforcing and perpetuating a vicious cycle of frustration, self-pity, and self-defeat.

Also important to keep in mind here is that most of our daily hassles and disappointments come from demanding rather than preferring modes of thinking. People who feel angry, anxious, nervous, irritated, or guilty don't just desire or prefer something, they usually require, demand, and dictate that they get what they want. As an example, a man might demand that his office computer work perfectly all the time, so he becomes hostile when it doesn't. Or he might dictate that everything at work be easy and trouble-free, and browbeat himself when the job gets rough.

Indeed, most of the time when people are upset, they're telling themselves that something is awful or terrible rather than simply inconvenient. Psychologists refer to this process as awfulizing or catastrophizing. Put another way, the catastrophizer might decide he's a failure because he's imperfect. Or she might conclude that work is a disaster when electronic gizmos don't function the way she wants.

Whenever a person believes something in life is disastrous or horrible instead of simply unpleasant or unfortunate, he or she has probably drawn a number of false conclusions, such as:

The situation, which is totally bad, makes me utterly miserable.
The condition shouldn't exist because I don't like it.
I can't tolerate the predicament for one minute longer.
I have to find a perfect solution to and fix the situation, or else I'm a defective person and a technological washout.

Yes, people engage in many types of nonsensical thinking. Such distorted beliefs are often termed crazy-makers, nonsensical notions, irrational beliefs, cognitive distortions, negative automatic thoughts, negative self-talk, and so forth-depending on the author. Here are some of my favorite categories of crazy-makers collected from the writings of various psychological experts:

1. All-or-nothing thinking: Seeing all of life in "black-or-white" terms.

2. Accusing: Blaming others without the necessary evidence.

3. Emotional reasoning: Assuming one's emotional state reflects the way things really are.

4. Personalizing: Blaming oneself for some negative event.

5. I-Can't-Take-It-Another-Minute-itis (very low frustration tolerance): Easily becoming frustrated when wants aren't met.

6. Damnation (negativizing): Being excessively critical of self, others, and the world.

7. Perfectionism: Requiring that everyone and everything in the universe be flawless and without blemish.

8. Mental filtering: Focusing on specific details at the expense of other important details within a situation.

9. Mind reading (fortune telling): Presuming to know what others think, feel, or plan to do.

10. Overgeneralizing: Using words like never and always; applying the characteristics of one member to an entire group.

11. Minimizing (downplaying the positive): De-emphasizing one's positive characteristics and accomplishments.

12. Magnifying (upplaying the negative; catastrophizing): Overstating the negative aspects of a situation.

13. Jumping to conclusions: Drawing conclusions about people and events without the necessary evidence.

Nonsensical thinking can also take the form of numerous cognitive blocks that interfere with healthy and rational living. Cognitive blocks often begin with words like, "What if...?" "Oh no...!" "I can't...!" or "How awful...!" Here are a few possible cognitive blocks of frustrated techno-phobes:

I can't ever make a typing mistake! What would my boss (or employees, coworkers) think?

Drat? the network is down again. It just can't be my fault!

Oh no, what if the copier breaks down again when I'm on a deadline? That would be dreadful!

Having identified some of the primary causes of emotional distress, let's now turn our attention to the means of changing, or reframing, life's problems by modifying our thoughts.

First, to overcome your nonsensical thinking, you accept the fact that you're a fallible human being. By embracing your humanity, you lay the foundation for overcoming your useless pessimism.

Second, you quit demanding and complaining about not getting what you want. You let go of the shoulds, oughts, musts, and needs. Only then can you adopt the more realistic perspective of preferring and accepting.

Third, you take away the horribleness and terribleness from the things in life that bother you, and acknowledge that nothing is, in fact, more than unfortunate or inconvenient.

Finally, you admit that problems, conflicts, and upsets are really opportunities for personal growth, not defeat! In other words, you decide that you can tolerate virtually anything-once you take control of your thinking.

This entire process of challenging and eliminating irrationalities is referred to as cognitive reframing, which involves two essential steps. The first step is identifying your crazy-makers, and the second is disputing and challenging your beliefs, after which you replace them with new, rational beliefs. Disputes often look like this:

Where's the rule that says...?
What proof do I have that...?
Who says...?
Who cares if...?
What's the probability that...?
What's the worst thing that would happen if...?
Why do I need to...?
So what if...?

The modern world has certainly provided us with many devices to help make our lives easier-at least in theory. But with all benefits come costs. And if you've ever stared at a "tilting" photocopier when you absolutely, positively, and without a doubt need to make an immediate copy, then you know what I mean.

So let's examine some crazy-makers and disputes for a typical person who lets himself get really annoyed, for example, when he can't make his email program work. Try these beliefs on for size:

My email mustn't do anything to frustrate me, because that will be disastrous, and I will hate work and life in general.

I must be free to do whatever I want easily whenever and wherever I wish; otherwise, life is unbearable and I can't be happy at all.

It's horrible if people think I'm dumb or disapprove when I can't figure my email program out. If they dislike me, then their disapproval is intolerable. And it's always catastrophic if people think less of me.

My self-esteem is completely tied up in my technology. If it doesn't work flawlessly, then I'm automatically inadequate and worthless.

And now for some sample disputes and sensible answers:

Where's the law that says I mustn't ever be frustrated?

It's inconvenient if I can't get what I want, or if people treat me badly, but it certainly isn't terrible. I can stand it, just as I've done many times in the past. No matter how poorly my email functions or other people act, I can still keep my cool and accept myself the way I am.

Sometimes life stinks! But that's no reason for me to get upset about it. Tomorrow always brings a new day.

Who says people have to like me, accept me, or praise me? What counts is the fact I feel comfortable with myself and my abilities.

I'm a fallible human being who makes mistakes. My self-worth isn't dependent on others' opinions of me or on my mastery of anything. And it doesn't matter if people think there's something wrong with me. It might be nice, but I don't need their approval!

See how it works? Let's try a few more reframes. To get rid of those nonsensical ideas involving your having to like and get along with your fax machine, or the terribleness of losing your self-respect if you can't program your television's remote control:

1. First, you identify your crazy-makers, such as:

I must enjoy working with gadgets.

I must keep up with, purchase, and master the latest version of everything-computer processors, software, wireless contraptions, universal remotes, etc.

I must always be 100% in control of the technology in my life.

2. Next, you consider how demanding musts inevitably lead to catastrophizing:

If I don't like gadgets, it'd be horrible.

If I don't keep up with, purchase, and master the latest version of everything, I'll look stupid in front of my boss (coworkers, employees).

If I don't always control the technology in my life, then I'm a failure and an awful person.

? and how demanding leads to the experience of low frustration tolerance:

If life is horrible and I'm a failure and a goof as a person, then I won't be able to stand it.

3. Third, you come up with disputes that challenge your nonsensical thinking:

So what if I don't like gadgets? What's so horrible about that?

Why do I always need to master everything? If for some reason I don't, why does that mean I'll look stupid?

Where's the rule that says if I don't control the technology in my life then I'm a failure and a goof?

4. And finally you devise some sensible answers to your disputes:

It's inconvenient if I don't like or get along with my gadgets, but it isn't horrible.

It may be uncomfortable when I don't always own and master everything I want, but that doesn't mean I'll look stupid.

It's unfortunate if I can't control my technology, but there isn't any rule that says I'm a failure because of this.

From these sample crazy-makers and sensible answers, we see that seemingly devastating scenarios aren't necessarily so when facts are separated from irrational fears and assumptions.

Of course, psychological self-defense techniques like the ones just described are only techniques. To find true and lasting happiness with computerized technology, you'll want to work at changing your irrational thinking patterns into rational ones. This means you'll also want to practice, practice, practice! Why? Because when you practice a new activity, you effectively train it into your nervous system. I'm sure you've learned to type on a keyboard or play a musical instrument. When you first begin to learn a new skill, it all seems very awkward. Your hands don't want to do what your head tells them to do. Every motion requires considerable conscious thought and effort to execute, and you can quickly become discouraged. However, after many, many hours of practice, the new skill becomes more automatic, so that you no longer need to concentrate so intensely.

The same is true of learning and mastering the cognitive techniques described above. Once you've practiced and trained your nervous system for psychological self-defense, you won't have to think about the techniques in order to use them. They'll become an instinctive reflex, available whenever you need them.

In the end, what probably bothers people the most about technology at work is the frustration that typically accompanies its breaking down. And the best means of dealing with this frustration? Don't let the technology psych you out! Instead, try accepting computers and other electronic wizardry for what they are-fallible mechanisms-and then go about your work and life with a realistic and relaxed attitude about it all.

George Zgourides, Psy.D., is a clinical psychologist and healthcare chaplain from Texas. He and his wife Christie are the authors of several books dealing with various psychological and self-help topics. Dr. Zgourides' website can be found at www.lutheransonline.com/chaplainzgourides">http://www.lutheransonline.com/chaplainzgourides


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