We all have our moments when we have bizarre or irrational thoughts. For most of us, this sort of distorted thinking usually happens when we are in intense or emotional situations, like when we are angry, sad, excited, etc.
Logically, we would assume that since our thoughts tend to become more emotional as we become more emotional, that the emotion is the cause of the thoughts. However, research has showed us that this is not the case. In fact, every emotion or feeling you have is a result of your thoughts, or how you speak to yourself inside your own mind.
So if your self-talk is negative or depressing, your mood will become depressed. If it is positive and encouraging, your mood will be positive and encouraging. So why do we have negative thoughts at all, if they are the cause of our negative feelings and emotions? Good question. Some experts point to complex neurochemical interactions in the brain, others to environmental influences, others to the foods we eat… In my view, the cause is a combination of all of these things, and others.
However, regardless of the cause, we can change our thoughts if we are aware of them and how they influence our outlook on life and our moods. There are ten types of negative or distorted thoughts that are particularly common, and particularly damaging to our moods, that we should always try and be aware of and try to counter. These types types of thoughts are often called “cognitive distortions,” and are discussed in great detail in Dr. David Burns’ book Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy Revised and Updated (I highly recommend everybody read this book!)
The 10 most common cognitive distortions
1. All or nothing thinking. I also call this “black or white” thinking. When you are thinking in this way you see things as either good or bad, right or wrong, fair or unfair… you get the idea. So in the extremes, when you are thinking in this way, if something is not absolutely perfect, then it is utterly horrible.
2. Overgeneralization. You tend to view any single negative thing as an eternal pattern of negativity. For instance, if your friend is late for a lunch meeting, you may say “John is always late,” even if he has never been late before. Look out for words like always or never in your thinking. These are clear signs of overgeneralization.
3. Disqualifying the positive. You can’t accept anything positive ever happening. So if something good happens, you always find a way to turn it into a negative thing, or explain why it was a fluke or it doesn’t count. This allows you to stay in a negative frame of mind or bad mood indefinitely as nothing ever good happens to you!
4. Mental filter. You filter out all good qualities of something so you can focus on the negative. In this way everything becomes negative. You become a “glass is half empty” kind of person.
5. Jumping to conclusions. You become a mind reader and a fortune teller. You interpret everything in a negative way without any supporting evidence. In fact, combined with some of the other cognitive distortions, you may actually simply ignore any evidence that contradicts your belief that things will simply turn out wrong. You may decide that everybody hates you, or that things simply never work out, without reason.
6. Catastrophizing or minimization. You blow minor things out of proportion, and minimize positive things. You make mountains out of molehills, and at the same time minimize anything positive about a situation or person (including yourself, sometimes).
7. Emotional reasoning. You assume that your negative emotions and feelings reflect actual reality. I you feel bad, everything is bad.
8. Should statements. You try and mold the world to your vision of reality, instead of accepting the world’s reality. You have very clear ideas of the way things should be, and refuse to acknowledge the way they are. Instead of acting in positive ways to make things better, you simply get angry, frustrated or resentful because they aren’t the way you think they should be.
9. Labeling and mislabeling. Overgeneralization in the extreme. You actually believe the overgeneralizations and make them reality in your own mind. So instead of saying “that guy is always mean to me,” you simply state “that guy is a jerk.” Notice the difference. The first simply describes a feeling, the second assigns a label. When you mislabel you use language that is highly emotionally charged.
10. Personalization. You take things personally. Anything bad that happens is your fault, even when you were not really involved or even around. You carry the burdens of the world on your shoulder.
So how do I overcome cognitive distortions?
The first step in overcoming your distorted thinking is recognition. Learn to pay attention to your thoughts and the self talk in your head. Learn to recognize the situations and people that are likely to be associated with (notice I did not say “cause”) your distorted thinking.
Dr. Burns outlines a number of exercises in Feeling Good. I really like the journaling methods he discusses. Each day reflect on the times when you were angry, depressed or otherwise feeling negative emotions. Write down the situation and what happened. Then create a chart listing the specific thoughts you had at the time you were feeling these negative emotions. Create another column and identify each thought as a type of cognitive distortion. In the next column, write down a possible alternative to the thought.
An example is shown below:
After you have kept a journal of your cognitive distortions for a few weeks you will be able to see patterns that you can then start to change. I like to include a summary of the situation I was in when I had the negative thoughts, then after I have created my table, write an alternate ending based on the rational responses.
Try it for 14 days and see if you notice any negative patterns or cognitive distortions in your thinking. Work on countering them and see how your reality changes!