We usually don’t question our thoughts. We assume that our minds are fully objective, neutral machines, processing and sourcing information. Not true! Our emotions constantly affect – and distort – our thinking process, often turning our thoughts to the negative when it isn’t at all helpful. Here are the most common cognitive distortions:
- All-Or-Nothing-Thinking – oversimplifying into good/bad
- Overgeneralization – using “always” and “never”
- Catastrophizing – assuming the worst will definitely happen
- Disqualifying the Positive – focusing only on the negative
- Jumping to Conclusions – deciding without enough facts
- Mind-Reading – assuming what another person is thinking
- Exaggerating or Minimizing – making facts too big or too small
- Emotional Reasoning –you feel it, so you think it must be true
- Labeling – reducing yourself or another person to a disrespectful, oversimplified label (like ‘loser’)
- Personalization – giving yourself total responsibility for an event which was a complexity of causes
- Should-ing – pushing and punishing yourself or others
- Perfectionism – expecting yourself, others, or events to be perfect and to stay perfect
Once you realize that your thoughts have a life of their own, and that they often are not in your best interest, the next step is to intervene. But how? It takes some time, so don’t give up when it doesn’t happen right away.
- First, practice becoming aware of your negative thoughts in the moment.
Notice when you feel anxious, sad, ashamed, depressed, hopeless, guilty or angry. What thoughts are in the background? Your thoughts may be causing – or deepening – your distress.
At first you may not notice an actual thought, but more of a subconscious murmur. If you listen more closely you will begin to discern actual thoughts. It might help you if you write down what you discover. Remember that even if though it is difficult to face your negative feelings and thoughts, ignoring them won’t make them go away.
- Challenging Negative Thoughts
Once you have learned to become aware of your negative thoughts, the next step is to challenge them and to begin to find more realistic and helpful alternatives.
Ask yourself these questions to challenge your negative thoughts:
- What is the evidence for my thoughts? Do the facts really support my conclusions?
- What is factually true?
- What is factually NOT true?
- What ‘thought distortions’ am I using?
- What alternative explanations could there be?
- What is the effect of thinking the way that I do?
Check back to your list of Cognitive Distortions to see which ones you are using….and keep practicing!