Your mind can be very deceitful. It has a way of distorting reality and making you believe that something is rational and accurate, when it is in fact a distortion. Here’s what I mean. After a job interview you do not receive the expected callback. You jump to the conclusion, “I’ll never get the job I want.” Or perhaps you just received a compliment from your boss for a job well done. You tell yourself “This appreciation doesn’t count because anyone could have done as well.”
These examples are called “cognitive distortions,” which are simply ways that your mind convinces you of something that isn’t really true. The result of this kind of inaccurate thinking is a downward spiral. The first step in challenging a cognitive distortion is recognizing when it shows up. Thirty years ago, Dr. David Burns popularized this concept in his best selling book, Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy, by presenting 10 forms of twisted thinking. As you read through this list, think of times when this kind of stinkin’ thinkin’ has shown up in your life.
- All or nothing thinking. You look at things in absolute, black-or-white categories. For example, if a situation falls short of perfect, you see it as a total failure.
- Overgeneralization. You see a single negative event as an ongoing pattern of defeat by using words such as always or never when thinking about it.
- Mental Filter. You dwell on the negatives and ignore the positives. For example, you ignore the many positive comments you receive on a presentation but obsess about the one criticism.
- Discounting the positive. You insist that your accomplishments or positive qualities don’t count.
- Jumping to conclusions. You interpret things negatively when there is no evidence to support this conclusion. This can take two forms: mind-reading, when you conclude with no factual basis that someone is reacting negatively to you; or fortune-telling, when you arbitrarily predict things will turn out badly.
- Magnification or Minimization. You exaggerate the importance of problems or shortcomings or you minimize the importance of your desirable qualities.
- Emotional Reasoning. You assume your negative emotions reflect the way things really are. For example, “I feel like an idiot, so I really must be one.”
- Should Statements. You criticize yourself or other people with judgmental statements such as should, shouldn’t, must, ought, have to. These types of statements lead to feelings of guilt, frustration, and anger.
- Labeling. You label yourself based on your shortcomings. Instead of saying to yourself, “I made a mistake,” you tell yourself, “I’m a jerk” or “a fool” or “a loser.”
- Personalization and Blame. You blame yourself for something
you weren’t entirely responsible for, or you blame other people and overlook your own contributions to the situation.
Want to untwist your thinking and set the record straight? Try one of these three strategies. Write down your negative thoughts and use the list above to see which of the 10 cognitive distortions are at play. Recognize that this is your stinkin’ thinkin’ and find a more positive way to think about the situation. Another technique is to examine the evidence. For example, if you feel like you are a failure at work, list several things you have accomplished. Or, instead of putting yourself down, try talking to yourself in the same way you would talk to a friend who has in a similar situation.
The next time you feel depressed, anxious, guilty or angry, take the time to uncover any distortions in your thinking. Just because you’re on a downward spiral, it doesn’t mean you deserve to be there. Use these strategies to untwist your thinking and set yourself free. Life is meant to be lived on an upward spiral!
If you want to understand more about cognitive distortions and learn more ways to untwist your thinking, check out the resources available from Dr. Burns.