Your alarm doesn’t go off; you are late for work. You tell yourself, “this is going to be the worst day ever.” In your mind everything does go wrong that day.
“My husband is late again. I know he is having an affair. Why doesn’t he love me anymore?”
A friend tells you the dress you are wearing is beautiful and you look fantastic in it. You respond, “this old thing. I think I look fat in it.”
You are exhibiting a cognitive distortion, or what I like to call a “thinking error” – unreasonable, inaccurate and negative ways of thinking as a default protective factor of an underlying insecurity.
If these thinking errors become a pattern – a way of life – they begin to manifest habits that impact your ability to listen objectively to conversations in a real, meaningful way. This could have a profound effect on relationships.
The first way to begin combating thinking errors is to recognize them. Here are a few common ones:
- Catastrophic, or end-of-the-world thinking: you always see yourself in the worst possible situation and there is no light at the end of the tunnel. You assume the worst is always going to happen.
- Magnification and minimization: you exaggerate the importance of something that really is not that important; you blow the situation or incident out of proportion; you magnify your flaws and minimize your accomplishments.
- Overgeneralization: after an unpleasant experience, you draw a conclusion that the same experience is destined to occur again. You tell yourself, “this always happens,” or “I’m never doing that again.” The key words are “always” and “never.” For example, you have a bad blind date and you conclude that all blind dates are bad.
- Jumping to conclusions: you automatically predict the outcome and usually negatively. You assume you know what others are thinking. This also can be called fortune telling or mind reading; you base your conclusions on your emotional reaction, not facts.
- Personalization: you blame yourself for a problem that is not entirely your fault, or you have no control over, or you blame everyone else, thinking they are going to blame you. This type of thinking error causes a person literally to view any interaction toward him/her as a personal attack.
- The “I should have” factor: “I should have said,” or “I should have done,” you frequently find yourself saying this when you struggle with self-doubt and confidence in choices, decisions or abilities. These words are self-defeating and impact your self-esteem. In your mind, you’ve failed which further withers personal confidence.
- Disqualification: this is the tendency to dismiss a positive occurrence as it relates to someone’s ability. Some people call this person’s thinking pattern “a hater.”
- Emotional reasoning: our emotions – not the facts – dictate the outcome. We validate our feelings as facts.
- All or nothing: you think in extremes, with nothing in between. You succeed or you fail. You are trying to achieve perfection always and when you don’t, you feel defeated. These extremes lack flexibility in the thought process.
- Labeling: characterizing yourself or someone else based upon a single experience – usually a negative one – can lead to unhealthy misperceptions of yourself and others. Negative labels associated with one’s identity can foster deep personal resentment and judgement of others.
How do cognitive distortions develop?
In most cases, cognitive distortions begin as a way to cope with a difficult life event. Often, we automatically think about the situation negatively, and these thoughts and emotions intensify over time and squelch positive thinking. Such thinking errors may lead to a pattern of unhealthy protective factors that insulate you from reality.
How do you flip thinking errors into positive thoughts?
First, we have to be aware of those intrusive thoughts that are distorted. Recognize, acknowledge and act to redirect your thoughts. This won’t happen overnight as most people have established unhealthy thinking patterns and barriers for much of their lives. Some habits are hard to break. Therefore, it is important to work on developing new thinking habits to address life situations so you are better equipped cope in the moment of a crisis.
Here are a few ways to begin this process:
- Think before you act. Respond before you react. Become a critical thinker.
- Don’t let your feelings and emotions fuel your actions – try to stop knee jerk reactions.
- Don’t let small mistakes or flaws overwhelm you.
- Be willing to challenge yourself and your thoughts.
- Focus on controlling your thought processes; don’t let them control you.
- Focus on positive thoughts and try to push negative thinking out of your mind. Try to replace every negative thought with a positive one.
- Welcome positive people into your life, not out of your life.
- Stop comparing yourself to others.
- Practice, and keep practicing.
- Set realistic expectations for yourself.
We are willing to change our physical health and fitness – we join a gym, or we walk every day for physical health; we find the time to make those changes in our life. What about our mental fitness? We need to focus on that equally and often. Mental fitness should include the intentional effort to challenge a thought process when one becomes aware of a distorted perception not based on fact but in a feeling. Feelings create emotion, and sometimes irrational thinking and emotional distress.
If you feel you need some help overcoming your thinking errors, I recommend you see a therapist so you can begin the process of living outside your tunnel of distortions. The Center for Relationship and Sexual Health has a team of therapists ready to assist you. Simply call the center at 248.399.7447 or visit the center’s website at crsh.com to set up an appointment with a therapist.
Rita Clark is a licensed master social worker (LMSW) with more than 20 years of experience. She works with individuals, couples and families needing help with communication problems; conflict resolution and anger management issues; domestic violence; those experiencing depression, anxiety, mood disorders and co-dependence; and individuals suffering from grief, loss and trauma. Rita also specializes in men and women’s sexual health, sexual orientation and gender identity, teen violence and social adjustment issues, and kink, BDSM and fetishes.
To schedule an appointment with Rita, call The Center for Relationship and Sexual Health at 248.399.7447 or visit the center’s website at crsh.com, go to “Meet our therapists,” and set up an appointment with Rita.