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Stop Harmful Thinking Loops

Updated: Mar 15, 2022

“If I had an hour to solve a problem I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and five minutes thinking about the solution” - Albert Einstein

"But Einstein" I said with agitation and fatigue etched into my voice, "I spent all night thinking about the problem while failing to fall asleep. Now I am tired and further away from solving the problem than ever!"

That is because this is not the kind of thinking Einstein was talking about. This kind of thinking is called ruminating and not a productive act. A more productive way of thinking is reflective thinking. In practice this means examining the facts without judgement and seeing what is possible for you now.

“We can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them." - Albert Einstein

So I want to share a story from my own life with you to demonstrate this idea.

It was early on a Wednesday morning, my wife and I woke up groggy from our five year old jumping into our bed after a sleepless night. Almost on autopilot, seeking a moment of relief and maybe another moment of shuteye, I broke one of the cardinal rules of our household, no iPad for our son before school. It seemed a benign bending of the rules until my wife asked him to get ready for school.

Moments later a shouting match had ensued as he firmly dug in his heels and summarily refused to go to school with the excuse that his leg was sore. In the past this is where I would usually be grumpy and give him an extensive lecture on how this was poor behavior and that he could do better and, and, and... Luckily, I had a coaching session on this very topic only a few weeks before and awareness dawned on me.

I realized that I was about to step into a regular thinking loop. If I handled this the way I had in the past, there were two ways it could go. He would be kicking and screaming all the way to school and we would all be upset for the rest of the day, or we would give up, he would stay home and we would have taught him a horrible life lesson.

The thing about this loop that stood out to me "taught him a horrible life lesson", was that it was not the desire to get him to school that was applying pressure to my tired brain, but this pressure to make this a positive learning opportunity. So I took a step back.

Regardless of how I approached it in this thinking loop, the outcome would fail to give me this positive learning opportunity. So I needed to break the loop. I took a deep breath and stilled my mind. I started to observe the facts.

  1. My wife and I were tired

  2. I gave my son the iPad

  3. He had been to school the previous two days

  4. He had broken his femur 8 weeks before

  5. His leg was stiff from sleeping

  6. He was right in the middle of a “game loop” where he was likely committed to a short term goal

  7. We still had time to get ready

  8. Coming late was better than not going

  9. He was really loving basketball at the time, especially playing with his dad

Given these facts, I decided on a new strategy.

"Mum, why don't you go make some breakfast for us," then I turned to my son and said, "Lets not commit to going to school yet. Why don't you finish up with what you are busy with in the next minute, and then me and you can go play some basketball before breakfast."

"Okay dad," he said, now excited by the idea of playing ball. So excited in fact that he put the iPad straight down and leapt off the bed.

"Now, if you want to play, step one is to get dressed right?" I guided him.

"Sure," he responded as he made a swift turn to go to his room to retrieve his clothes.

In short order we were playing ball, thereafter it was a simple matter of giving him another “five more throws” deadline before we headed in for breakfast.

Now with his muscles warmed up, energy levels surging and calm restored, I turned to him to say, "When you are back from school and I am done with work tonight, why don't we play another quick game of basketball?"

The request was met with a big smile and the commitment had been made. That morning he virtually ran into school, to his mother's chagrin, as the doctor still had him under a strict no running order.

Stop yourself

When you find yourself facing a situation like this where you tend to retread old ground repeatedly. The first step is to stop.

  • Breathe in slowly

  • Hold it for a second

  • Breathe out slowly

  • Count ONE,

  • Repeat the cycle until the count reaches FIVE.

Reflect on your thinking

Try these question:

  • How are you feeling right now?

  • What would you like to have happen?

  • What makes that so important to you?

  • What positive difference would that bring to you?

  • What is the need that you are hoping to satisfy?

By finding the answers to the above questions you can start to disrupt the loop and move yourself to a more reflective space. This is the fuel you need for the next step.

List the facts without moral judgement

Now you can consider the real facts on the table. This is something that requires practice. We are so conditioned in our society to judge what we see, that it takes a real concerted effort to see things purely as they are.

When you make observations, notice only the behavior and park what you think the consequences of that behavior are aside. Notice how you and the other people in the situation are feeling. Consider the needs of all the other people being affected. Clarity on the whole picture is essential to help you find a way to deal with it well.

Consider your nonviolent options

Marshall Rosenberg says in his book Nonviolent Communication if you ever get anyone to do something by force, no one gets what they want. He makes the point that you can always find a way, through empathy, collaboration and authenticity, to meet everyone's needs. Even if that means asking one or more people in the conversation to ask someone else to meet their needs. When you genuinely and curiously seek to understand the other person's needs, and strongly guard your own needs with compassion for both yourself and them, you would be surprised what opportunities for mutually beneficial resolutions present themselves.

Communicate your own needs while recognizing the needs of the other

My need: "As a responsible parent, I need to have a consistent school routine for my son and teach him the value of that consistency"

My feelings: "When I see my son saying 'I will not go to school' I feel panicked and helpless"

These were overwhelmingly real for me during the above story. Studies have shown that Putting feelings into words has a measurable impact on how we experience those emotions. The act of recognizing and naming our feelings will help you change them. By laying them out in the above way, we also enable the other person to see the effect their actions are having without feeling judged.

His need: “I think you are right in the middle of a level and you want to finish it. I also see that your leg might be stiff and sore right now.”

His feelings: “I wonder if you are feeling frustrated by stopping without completing your level and anxious about walking around on a sore leg?”

By offering a guess at the other person’s needs and feelings we can start a compassionate conversation about their perspective, that also shows them that you are open to their perspective. With these statements, keep cause and effect out of it, you are simply stating the facts without assuming you know any more than is directly observable.


With this kind of approach you can take control of your thinking pattern and set yourself on a new path with increased chances for success. Engaging your reflective thinking capacity takes practice and it is okay to fail multiple times on the path to establishing it as a habit. I can assure you that I did. It can help to get a coach to work with and help you redesign your thinking habits. If you do, always make sure that you are working with a credentialed coach who has completed science based, verified, high quality training. See the International Coaching Federation website before choosing your coach.


10 Tips to Help You Stop Ruminating, Medically reviewed by Timothy J. Legg, Ph.D., CRNP, Written by Erica Cirino, Updated on 2019 April 18

Reflective thought, critical thinking (Eric digest) 1999 November by Shermis, S. Samuel

Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life: Life-Changing Tools for Healthy Relationships (Nonviolent Communication Guides) 3rd Edition by Marshall B. Rosenberg 2015 September 1

Lieberman MD, Eisenberger NI, Crockett MJ, Tom SM, Pfeifer JH, Way BM. Putting feelings into words: affect labeling disrupts amygdala activity in response to affective stimuli. Psychol Sci. 2007 May;18(5):421-8. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2007.01916.x. PMID: 17576282.

Why Choose an ICF-Credentialed Coach? By International Coaching Federation 2021

Written by Jaques Smit, PCC, 2021

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