Are You “Hooked”? Working through Thoughts, Emotions, and Stories that Hold You Back

What are “Hooks”?

Sometimes the stories we believe about ourselves or the world, or the thoughts emotions we experience, begin to dominate our actions, clouding our perspective and keeping us from moving toward what we value.  These are what psychologist Susan David calls hooks.  

Hooks…

  • Begin when we accept our thoughts as facts.
  • May trigger avoidance, rumination, or internal conflict with thoughts/emotions.  
  • May be tainted by criticism, judgment, comparison, or anxiety.   
  • Are similar to what are known as cognitive distortions

Four Common Hooks

  1. Thought-blaming:  Believing our actions/inactions are the direct result of our thoughts rather than recognizing that we have the power to control our choices.  For example, you may have the thought, “No one is interested in me”, accept it as fact, and blame that thought for your choice to avoid talking to anyone at a party.
  2. Monkey-mindedness:  Includes imagining the worst-case scenarios for interactions or events (e.g., thinking up all the ways a work presentation can go wrong), as well as “making too much of a minor problem”.  When you’re in “monkey mind”, the pain of the past and the fear of the future distract you from living effectively in the present.  Judgmental language (words like “must” and “should”) may dominate your thoughts.
  3. Old, Outgrown Ideas:  Mindsets or belief systems that were helpful in the past (e.g., protecting us) but that hinder us in our present circumstances.  Updating and adapting our ideas allows us to be more successful with our current goals, values, and challenges. 
  4. Wrongheaded Righteousness:  The need to be right and demonstrate our “rightness”, blinding us to the big picture and unnecessarily aggravating contention/misunderstandings.

Unhooking

Two common but ineffective ways of dealing with hooks or other uncomfortable emotions are what David calls bottling(trying to ignore difficult emotions and to force positivity) and brooding(fixating on an emotion, often with the good intention of “thinking it through”).  Both practices end up amplifying difficult emotions and impair our ability to problem-solve, make decisions, and engage with the world around us.

A more effective way of “unhooking” is approaching your thoughts, emotions, and stories – as uncomfortable as they may be – with compassion and curiosity, seeking to accurately label what you are experiencing, validating that experience without letting it control you, and then finding small ways to act in accordance with your values.  For example, if your spouse is inconsiderate, it may trigger unpleasant thoughts and emotions for you.  You can notice, “I am feeling hurt and irritated” and recognize that you value kindness and respect in relationships.  You can then choose to stay true to those values in your reaction, perhaps by letting the offense go or by asking your spouse if they are okay.

Working through and letting go of the hooks that come up most often for us isn’t easy – after all, some of them have been part of how we look at the world for a long time, perhaps since childhood.  But as we practice the process of acknowledging and working through difficult thoughts, emotions, and stories, we may gradually understand that they need not control us.  We can validate and learn from these experiences and step by step use them to find and move toward what really matters to us. 

References

David, S.  (2016). Emotional Agility: Get Unstuck, Embrace Change, and Thrive in Work and Life.  New York, NY: Penguin Random House LLC.

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