We all know our thoughts and beliefs can sometimes negatively impact us and lead to our self sabotage. This post is to talk about common thought processes that we engage in and how we can work to change it. As you're reading through this, try to point out which types of cognitive distortions you engage in most of often so you can be more aware of how you need to restructure your thinking. Cognitive behavior therapy focuses on these concepts.
Drawing conclusions without any evidence or without seeing the whole picture: This stems from paranoia and thinking the worst because you’re scared of getting your hopes up or scared that something may be too good to be true. For example: “none of my friends actually like me,” even when your friends talk to you frequently and you generally have positive interactions with them. Or if you get accepted for a new opportunity (new job, getting accepted into a program in college, etc) and your anxiety gets the best of you and you think you won’t succeed, even though you’re clearly qualified enough to have gotten the opportunity in the first place. It’s hard to shake those thoughts but focus on the supporting evidence, not the baseless claims you’re making to protect yourself from disappointment or hurt. As far as not seeing the whole picture, this is focusing on some details instead of all of them before jumping to conclusions. "They didn't text me today. They must hate me." In actuality that person was busy studying for finals or was stuck at work.
Mental Filtering: Only focusing on the negatives. For example if you failed an assignment you might think you’re incompetent but you’ve gotten good grades on previous assignments in that same class. An error doesn’t mean everything else is now invalid. Another example would be if your boss usually gives you praise but one day gives you criticism. Now you think you're a bad employee. No one is perfect. If most days you do relatively well in something, don’t throw that out of the window because sometimes you have less pleasant days. There are positives in a lot of situations.
Expecting the worst: this is assuming things are going to have a bad outcome no matter what. It's being a pessimist in all situations and expecting things to be a disaster. People think they're just saving themselves from disappointment thinking this way, but they're not giving themselves a chance to learn how to be optimistic in different situations. You'll have a hard time seeing the good things life has to offer.
Over-generalization: This is being extreme in your beliefs based on past experiences. For example: “I’ve been hurt in past relationships. Therefore, any one else I date is not to be trusted.” " I had a friend who talked about me being my back. I refuse to be close to anyone now." Your experiences are valid but they are not definite. Not everyone is the same. Not every situation is the same. So don’t keep yourself in a small box by having a fixed view on something.
Making something bigger than what it is: This is blowing things out of proportion. For example: If your friend genuinely forgot about plans you made with them, becoming angry and lashing out at them. Instead, you should communicate with them what the problem was, reschedule, and offer to give reminders next time.
Making something smaller than it is: Let’s say you just bought a house or you got a promotion at work. Minimizing the situation would be trying to play it off like it’s not a big deal when it really should be. That’s an accomplishment to be proud of! Or if your partner really hurt your feelings, saying “it’s fine” instead of talking about it. It's also if you gas light someone and minimize their feelings.
Self-blame/ Personalization: This is relating things that are external to you even if there’s no personal connection to it. For example, if you have a boss who’s rude to everyone, this would be you thinking they're rude to you specifically. Or if your partner says they had a bad at work and they don’t want to talk much, it would be you thinking it’s somehow your fault still that they're in a bad mood.
Labeling: Associating your identity only with the mistakes you’ve made or flaws you have. This is thinking poorly of yourself. For example: "I'm a stupid person." Just because you've made some unwise decisions before, doesn't mean you're a stupid person overall. If people didn't make mistakes, they wouldn't learn how to become better people.
Black and white thinking: There’s a lot of situations where there’s a gray area. Things aren’t always as easy as one way or another. There’s usually different factors to consider. Polarized thinking makes it hard for you to see other perspectives. Try not to view things in absolutes and consider why there's a gray area. For example: some people might think you can only be straight or gay and there's nothing in between, even though sexuality is a spectrum. Think of what other things can be a spectrum.
Now that we've identified the most common types of cognitive distortions, we must identify how to make them less frequent.
First step you need to do is realize your emotions when you find you're trapped in a thought process. Are you anxious, angry, sad, irritated, etc.? What is your body doing? Is your chest tight, are you getting hot, are your jaws clenched, etc.?
Second step is to keep track of the automatic thoughts you're having. These are thoughts that rush to your brain and are easy to fall into. They are thoughts you have frequently in stressful situations.
Third step is describing to yourself which type of cognitive distortion you're engaging in so you can recognize the characteristics easier.
Fourth step is to challenge those automatic thoughts by looking at evidence, getting more insight on situation whether it's getting it from other people or from you slowing down, and looking at the entire situation. Try to point out what's realistic and what's not based on evidence, not what you feel.
Last step is recognize how your body is feeling afterwards. Are you still feeling how were you before? What improved if you are feeling better? And you just repeat those steps until it becomes almost subconscious and you're able to block those automatic thoughts easier.
Source: Theory and Practice of Counseling and Psychotherapy by Gerald Corey.