Outgrowing reflexive thinking

As Wendy pondered the obstacles to reflective practicing at work, she dropped the phrase "reflexive thinking". Light bulbs went off in my mind when I read that. I suddenly realized why reflective practicing seems to be such a huge challenge cognitively. We cannot simply flip a switch to stop our incessant reflexive thinking.

When we are indulging in reflexive thinking, we are hard wired to our circumstances. We're thinking our situation "makes us feel" the way we do. We cannot change what we're thinking or feeling until the situation changes first. We are not looking in a mirror at our own reflection, we are looking at a picture in a frame of objectivity.

Reflexive thinking begins on the outside and comes inside our minds. We are reacting to what we perceive as facts. There's no two ways about it: "a fact is a fact". Anyone changing the facts is merely speculating, expressing opinions or distorting the truth.

Reflexive thinking can only label, categorize and compartmentalize the evidence. Reflexive thinking is an act of desperation to change uncertainty into familiar danger. The urgency of getting a handle on a troublesome situation immediately --  often results in cognitive distortions which feed into chronic problems:

  • over-generalizing, idealizing, catastrophizing
  • over-reacting, panicking, dramatizing
  • over-estimating, jumping to conclusions, exaggerating
  • over-extending, over-committing, approval seeking
  • over-indulging, neglecting, obsessing

Reflexive thinking opposes creativity. It cannot think outside the box, play with the rules, change the meaning or redefine the problem. Reflexive thinking necessitates: a realistic appraisal of the limitations, playing by the rules and dealing with the obvious problem objectively.

When we are aware of how reflexive thinking functions like we are right now, we are practicing reflective awareness. When we catch ourselves thinking with any of the patterns described above, we are reflecting on our thought processes. When we want to respond to a situation without our routine, hard-wired reactions, we are inducing our reflective awareness to come forth. When we routinely interrupt our desperate thinking to serenely survey the situation, we have outgrown our incessant, reflexive thinking.

Reflect on that!


  1. Hi Tom :)

    When you post an all encompassing list like that just makes me want to confess - a kind of hypochondria of the character. However, recently, routine interruption of desperate thinking and periods of episodic serenity are becoming familiar.

    I can recommend the process of substitution of one for t'other to anyone - makes breathing easier.

  2. Thanks for the comment minh!
    I agree this post offered no relief, only analysis of the problem.

    I'm also having success with breaking up my own reflexive thinking by closing my eyes. Without evidence to react to, I interrupt the reactive momentum. When my thinking is extremely persistent, a power nap works great to clear my mind.

  3. Tom :)

    Isn't that ability to slide into a short sleep just wonderful?!

    Another tool:
    I find that a wry smile indicating affectionate acceptance of one's tendency to indulge enhances the serenity trend.

    Thich Nhat Hanh is a strong advocate of the smile. Long ago I heard him give a talk to humanitarian workers who had had awful times. He recommended that they, among other processes of course, lie down on their backs & smile - until it started working.

    He radiates Kundun levels of serenity himself & like HH is given to smiling - a lot

    Also there are those serene gently smiling Buddha sculptures.

    So just adding smiling into the mix
    :) :) :)

    ps just so I'm not sailing under false colours - I am not a practitioner except perhaps of the occasional smile :)

  4. Thanks for adding your smiling. All those varieties of smiling by Thich Nhat Hanh reminded me of the difference I feel between really smiling with my eyes and trying to smile with my mouth. When I smile with my eyes, my mouth follows along without striving to make an impression. Perhaps that's like the "wry smile" you spoke of.

    Thanks for the added thoughts and links, minh!