Career Development

Pervasive Thinking: Overcoming Omnipresent Larger-Than-Life Thinking So You Can Thrive

Pervasive thinking blocks all of your triumphs and narrows your vision, so that all you can see is a core trigger. How do you turn the thought from becoming an unsolvable problem and approach it as a problem-solution statement?

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There was a time when I almost let pervasive thinking destroy my career in reservoir engineering. I was thinking that my work was not good enough, that I was not a good enough engineer, and that I should leave the field altogether. But I am lucky to have good people in my life—including a therapist—who pointed me in the right direction. 

My therapist got to the core of the problem almost immediately: “So you just don’t like your boss?”

“Yes,” I replied, with some relief and trepidation. 

“How often do you interact with your boss?” my therapist asked. 

“Maybe 10% of the time at work,” I responded. 

“And how much of the time at work and outside of work is this affecting you?”

I paused to reflect. “Perhaps 85% of the time. This is affecting me nearly all of the time.” What a realization!

Pervasive thinking, as I later learned, blocks all of your triumphs and narrows your vision, so that all you can see is a core trigger. 

Signs of Pervasive Thinking

It begins with becoming aware of your internal thoughts, and more specifically, your inner speech. According to Charles Fernyhough, a professor at Durham University, as he notes in his book, The Voices Within, we can clock up to 4,000 words per minute with the speech that goes on in our heads. 

For example, the thoughts about a certain situation at work can become intrusive. They interrupt your daily routine; they interrupt your daily functioning. You are thinking about this situation when you are at home. You are thinking about it when you are spending leisurely time away from work. You are thinking about it at work to the point you cannot do your job. 

Whether or not this inner speech is judged as good or bad is not the point. The tipping point occurs when you can no longer “not” think about that situation. 

Getting to the Root

Once you are aware of the intrusive thought, what steps can you take to actively manage the thoughts? Go back to the very beginning, when these thoughts started occurring. 

It may be what you were thinking when the work situation first occurred.

“I don’t like how my boss treats my work disrespectfully.” This thought can later snowball to any of the following: 

  • I am an engineer that produces low-quality work.

  • I should quit the industry. 

  • I am “less than” peers in the industry.

The list can go on. The most important part is to get to the root of the thoughts. I had to dissect the initial realization and get more specific with that thought. 
What specifically do I find so disrespectful in the thought, “My boss treats my work disrespectfully”?

What specifically do I find so “disrespectful about him treating me as a person”? 

Seeing the specifics, I can go into problem-solving mode, using the thought-problem-solution-action framework.

Thought: “My boss treats my work disrespectfully.”

Problem: The manager may be taking a geologist’s opinion on reservoir engineering over mine, despite the fact that I have specific work experience and licenses. 

I may perceive that he treats geologists better than the engineers, and that he sees more value in geology than engineering. I am an engineer, and feel that I am “less than” a geologist, even though we know that geologists, geophysicists, and engineers all need to work together for a better, more integrated understanding of the subsurface. This shows up in criticizing my work with little or no reason.

Solution: I may need to talk to the Human Resources (HR) staff and others who are higher up in the organization to solve the problem. 

Action: Schedule a meeting with HR. Then, schedule a meeting with the boss, and clearly explain my reasoning for feeling this way. I need to document each incident of this occurring.

Next, go back to the snowballed thoughts—the thoughts that have become pervasive and unsolvable from the initial work situation. 

How To Not Let These Thoughts Affect You

Here is the snowballed thought: “I’m an engineer that produces low-quality work.” What is not true about this statement? Find actual truths and facts that do not support that cognition. (Tip: look at your up-to-date resume). 

Here is another snowballed thought: “I should quit the industry.” Am I being “larger than life” with this thought? Is there a hint of something ridiculous and grandiose in this thought? I really enjoy being part of this industry. I have found friends and family here. I really enjoy the technical work. 

“I am ‘less than’ peers in the industry.” What is this actually about? Is it activating a trigger, which sets off a flashback transporting you back to the event of the original trauma?

The 40,000-ft View of an Intrusive Thought That Is Threatening To Take Over Your Brain

Ask yourself the following questions to see if there is any truth to the thought. How do you turn the thought into something that becomes less of the unsolvable problem, and more into a problem-solution statement? 

  1. Watch for and recognize signs of pervasive thinking. Anytime a thought is “all-or-nothing” or is absolute, this is warning sign. 

  2. Get more granular with the thought. What specifically about the thought is getting you to let it invade your thought process?

  3. Where is this thought not true? What evidence can you point to that says this thought is not based on real facts?

  4. What is this thought actually about? Is it tapping into a trigger, that transports you into a traumatic event?

  5. Is there a hint of something ridiculous and grandiose in this thought? Am I over-exaggerating?

Next time an intrusive thought comes up, you will have the tools to deal with it, and take action in a focused manner.

Beck, Julie. 2013. The Running Conversation in Your Head. The Atlantic, 23 November.

University of Alberta. What is a Trigger? PsyCentral (last reviewed on 17 July 2016). Last accessed on 16 February 2017.