How many times have you imagined the very worst-case scenario, worrying yourself sick over something that ultimately never happened? Just think, you could have saved yourself all that misery. Have you ever worried so much over something that you completely talked yourself out of doing it? Do you ever regret that decision? Was it based on fact or was it just your over-active imagination replaying horror stories in your mind of what “might” happen?
We have all done it, haven’t we? In the CBT world, these are called “Cognitive Distortions” and they are extremely common. We all do them to some extent, but whether you see yourself as a born worrier or a happy-go-lucky type, we can all learn to identify and dispute these thinking errors, helping us to think more clearly and positively. It may even make us braver and change the course of our lives. Thoughts are things, remember, and they can have a huge impact on how we live our lives.
So, what exactly are these thinking errors or “cognitive distortions”? I am willing to bet you are guilty of at least one or two of these.
Magnification and Minimisation
Do you ever exaggerate the importance of particular events or actions or “make mountains out of molehills?” Perhaps you have looked back afterwards and wondered why you over-reacted.
Did you beat yourself up for months over a comment you made at a social gathering? Did you go over and over it in your mind wondering what others may have thought of you? In reality, it was probably not even noticed by anyone else but you spent weeks and weeks putting yourself down and replaying it in your mind, maybe even forgetting about all the great aspects of the occasion. Why?
On the other hand, you might minimise the importance of something you did really well with statements such as, “Anyone could have done that,” or “It was no big deal.”
Do you automatically imagine the worst-case scenario? Whatever is coming up in the future, do you go over and over it in your mind, imaging all the ways it could go wrong?
If your boss asks to see you, what is your first reaction? Do you assume you are in trouble or about to be fired or do you immediately imagine that you are in for a pay-rise and promotion? I bet the majority of people reading this automatically think the worst. It seems to be our default setting.
Do you over generalise according to limited experience? Does one bad experience for you automatically mean in your mind that all similar experiences will be the same?
“That dog is vicious! So, all dogs are vicious.”
We have all heard someone say, “What did I do to deserve this?” or, “Why me?” In most cases, they’ve done nothing at all, but that doesn’t stop life throwing us a curveball now and again. Life is not always fair.
Have you ever thought to yourself, “I am a good person therefore others should be kind to me?”
Why? Do you really believe that you have magical powers and somehow think that your actions should have wider-ranging consequences, even though they might be totally unrelated? Being a good person doesn’t stop you from getting sick or hurt by others. Logically, life just doesn’t work that way for any of us, good or bad.
Do you take absolutely everything personally?
“My mum is upset. I must have upset her somehow.”
Why would you think that? Could she just be having a bad day? Why don’t you ask? It is amazing how often people do this. Not everything is your fault!
Jumping to Conclusions
This can take two forms:
Mind Reading: How many times have you imagined that you know what someone else is thinking? Is there any evidence to support this conclusion?
”Why is she looking at me like that? I bet she thinks I look really fat in this dress. She has such a cheek…what makes her think she is so perfect, anyway?”
Fortune Telling: This is similar to catastrophising as usually we imagine the worst case scenario, even though we have no evidence to support our theory.
“He is late home. I can’t get hold of him on the phone, either. He must have had an accident! I bet he’s lying in a coma somewhere. What am I going to do? How will I ever tell the children their dad is dead?!”
Well, maybe he got held up or decided to go out for a drink with some friends. The truth is, you just don’t know.
Do you ever find that your emotions take over your thoughts and you start to believe what your body is telling you without really looking at the evidence? I feel it; therefore, it must be true!
“I feel really guilty for missing Amy’s birthday this year. I am such a bad friend.”
Disqualifying the Positive
Have you ever received 99 positive reviews or compliments and one bad one? Which did you focus most on? Was it the 99 glowing reviews or the one that disagreed with everyone else and gave you negative feedback?
Many of us naturally focus and obsess over the negative criticism far more than celebrating the positive ones. We also remember negative comments much more clearly than positive comments. We feel threatened by anything that disapproves of us and worry that we may be rejected and left out in the cold. As social beings, this is natural but it is an outdated response and often a complete over-reaction.
How many times a day do you use the word “should” or “must”? It could be about yourself or someone else?
“I should really go to the gym more.”
“He should be a better father.”
“She shouldn’t talk to me like that.”
“You must walk the dog now.”
“I mustn’t eat another biscuit.”
Whose rules are you following? Why should you or must you do anything? Next time you catch yourself saying it, examine the statement carefully and ask yourself, should you really? Should they?
It is better to say that you are or are not going to do something. “Should” implies that you really don’t want to but that you are being somehow forced against your will. Nobody likes to be told they “should” or “must” so why do it to yourself? Either do it, or don’t!
Language is so powerful and can really affect the way we feel about certain events, people or situations so choose your words wisely!
Do you ever find yourself thinking in absolutes and using words such as “always”, “never”, “everything” or “everybody”? Next time you find yourself saying any of these words out loud or to yourself, really think about what you are saying and question it.
“Everybody thinks I am an idiot.”
Does everybody really think you’re an idiot? Is there anyone who doesn’t think like that? Who, exactly, thinks you’re an idiot?
“I never do anything right.”
Never? Can you think of anything you have done right in your life?
“She always shouts at me.”
Always? Are there ever times she speaks to you without shouting?
“I get blamed for everything around here.”
Everything? Was there ever a time when someone else was blamed?
There are many other examples of cognitive distortions but I think these are the most common and they tend to be the ten that I teach my clients when we work on spotting thought patterns. I also teach children to become “Naughty Thought” detectives so they can begin to spot these thought patterns for themselves and understand how their thoughts can affect their feelings. It is a great skill for them to learn and can have a huge impact on their mood and behaviour.
So, are you guilty of any of these thinking errors? Maybe next time you start to fall into the traps of distorted thinking patterns, you will notice and begin to break down and question your thoughts.
If you would like more help with taking control of your thoughts, emotions or behaviours, please get in touch.