In Part 1 of this series, you learned about 10 common cognitive distortions that skew our perspectives on ourselves, others and situations we find ourselves in. In order to develop a healthy self-concept, build strong relationships and make good choices, you can take the following steps to combat the impact these distortions have on your life.
If you haven’t read Part 1, click here before reading Part 2.
My Writing Exercise
I recently had the worst bout of insomnia I’ve ever had in my life. I couldn’t make and keep plans with people and I would sometimes spend whole afternoons in bed, too tired to get up. I was having many negative thoughts and feelings, mainly around my inability to be productive and fulfilled.
After weeks of beating myself up and stressing out that this would never end, I decided to try changing my thoughts. I began by writing out all my most intense thoughts and feelings around my insomnia.
Then, with my list of cognitive distortions in hand (see Part 1), I began identifying them in my thinking. I wrote down those I had identified. Finally, I rewrote the paragraph using the steps I’ll show you in this article.
The result was not a cheery paragraph. Insomnia is awful. The idea behind identifying negative automatic thought patterns is not to replace them with more positive patterns that are just as skewed; it’s to replace them with more accurate, realistic ones. My new paragraph allowed me to see that my decline in productivity was just that – a decline, not a full stop. I reminded myself that I have no way of seeing into the future, and therefore no reason to think things will never change or that insomnia will ruin my whole life. There was a lot of sadness, anxiety and self-pity bound up with my distorted thinking. Once I started to work on those skewed thoughts, I was able to drag myself out of bed and be more productive.
The following information is designed to help you as it helped me.
Step 1: Identify distortions
Use the knowledge you gained about different types of distortions in Part 1 to identify them in your thinking. Which ones do you have? Jot them down.
Step 2: Examine the evidence
When we examine the evidence, we look at the “whole picture.” Pieces of evidence are different things we’ve experienced and have been told up until now. Looking at the whole picture can help combat a number of cognitive distortions, including jumping to conclusions, filtering, control fallacies and catastrophizing, because it allows us to see things we might be ignoring.
A student receives his paper back with glowing comments as well as critical ones. At first, he feels he has done poorly because he only focuses on the critical comments. If he catches himself and decides to examine the evidence, he will acknowledge the positive comments he received and be in a position to have a more accurate view of his professor's opinion of the paper. He will likely feel less inadequate and more motivated as a result.
Step 3: Grey up your thoughts
You can resist all-or-nothing thinking, overgeneralized thinking and labeling if you think in shades of grey, not black-or-white. Try using a scale of 0-100; instead of saying that something is either a 100% success or a complete zero, grade your experience or situation somewhere in between. What are some positives or benefits that you gained from the experience? This will help you recognize the positives of an otherwise negative situation or to understand that failures are usually only partial.
"I didn't get the job I wanted. I'm a complete failure."
Sure, you didn't get the job, but you did get interview experience and updated your resume. You’re not a complete failure and the experience itself was not a complete failure. Something good came out of it. So maybe the experience was actually 30% good.
Step 4: Pretend you're someone else
We are our own worst critics. While self-criticism has its place, it’s destructive if it creates a distorted view of ourselves and leaves us feeling like we can't improve.
There's really no reason we shouldn't treat ourselves just as well as we treat those we love. So, in this step, pretend that your friend is experiencing what you're experiencing, and think of what you would say to him or her. This step puts us in a position to better examine the evidence when our own negative self-talk is getting in the way.
"I lost the game, therefore I'm a loser."
Would you call your friend a loser for losing a game? Unless you're not a very good friend, the answer is no. What would you say to your friend if she said this to you? You'd likely think of all the ways in which she is successful -- having made the team in the first place, having worked so hard during the game, being skilled at many other things in life, being a good friend, and so on. In this broader context, one experience of losing a game does not have the power to define her (that is, yourself).
Step 5: Define your words
As described in Part 1, when we label, we reduce a whole, complex person down to a narrow definition. It's helpful to break down the definition and really look at what it means, then question whether that's an adequate way to describe an entire person, or yourself.
Let's use the one above: "I lost the game, therefore I'm a loser." Now, technically, this is accurate -- if we take the word "loser" to mean one who has lost something. But when we call people losers, we mean more than that. We mean someone who loses at life, someone who never wins or succeeds, someone who can do no good.
Have you never succeeded at anything? Will you never succeed again? Is nothing you do of worth and value in the world? "Loser" describes a person in an isolated instance or, perhaps, a pattern of behaviors or experiences. Either way, dropping the label helps you put this in perspective and identify changes you can make to improve your situations, rather than remaining stuck in some assumed role.
Step 6: Challenge your beliefs
Sometimes we're so convinced that the way we're thinking about things is necessary that we don't stop to question them. When our ways of thinking are potentially harmful, though, we should do a little experiment to test them.
"If I don't beat myself up for not exercising enough, I won't exercise more."
Seems reasonable, but beating oneself up can actually de-motivate a person. It can lead to the kind of all-or-nothing, labeling thinking that prevents us from improving ourselves. What if you tested this claim by trying the opposite?
"If I am kind and compassionate toward myself, I might exercise more."
There's no harm in trying this out, but there is something to gain from not beating yourself up. You might even find the kinder approach to be more effective.
Step 7: Ask around
Many of the resources at Good Choices Good Life advocate the importance of independent thinking, of not going along with the crowd. While being your own individual is certainly important, that doesn't mean that the perspectives of others aren't important. When cognitive distortions are at play, having some outside input is highly valuable.
"My boyfriend forgot our anniversary, therefore he doesn't care about me at all."
You may float this by several friends and family members and, after describing the situation to them, hear that, while they agree that the forgetting in question was inconsiderate and should not be repeated in the future, that one inconsiderate act doesn't mean he does not care for you at all. Here's where you can examine the evidence as well, noting bits of evidence that contradict your conclusion. Maybe he forgot your anniversary because he worked a 12-hour shift that day; maybe he did something very sweet for you just the day before.
Step 8: Who's really responsible?
This step is helpful for people who practice either external or internal control fallacies. If you feel like the weight of the world rests on your shoulders and that everything comes back to your actions, you can pick an event for which you felt wholly responsible and ask what other factors – people or not – may have been involved. If, on the other hand, you feel that you have no control, you can question that assumption and ask what you could have done.
- After not delegating any tasks to his employees: “I’m the only person who can do anything around here.”
If the boss questions himself, he’ll realize that he didn’t delegate – he’s not the only one responsible for things, but he’s created a situation in which he doesn’t allow others to be.
- After being late for the third day in a row: “I got fired because my boss is a jerk.”
If you’re willing to question this situation with logic and be honest to yourself, you’d realize that you got fired for being unreliable.
Better Thinking, Better Living
Remember that cognitive distortions are thought patterns that have developed throughout our lives. We can’t expect to change them overnight, so don’t beat yourself up when you catch yourself thinking distorted thoughts. Catching ourselves is, after all, the first step to better thinking and, therefore, better living. Rather than feeling discouraged when you catch yourself, I recommend congratulating yourself, then moving on to use the steps above for developing a more realistic, accurate perspective.
For some, it might be necessary to seek out the help of a therapist or counselor. These professionals can help you identify and correct cognitive distortions, and are a great resource for people with anxiety and depression. Never be afraid to use those resources. There’s no shame in needing help!
I hope my own story above showed you that working on cognitive distortions can have real, concrete results. We may not be able to see or touch our thoughts, but they influence the way we live our lives possibly more than any other factor.
Your relationships, self-esteem and choices all stand to benefit immensely from this personal work. Think well, choose well and live well.
“Without reflection, we go blindly on our way, creating more unintended consequences, and failing to achieve anything useful.”
Written by Amée LaTour
- OTHER PARTS IN THIS SERIES -
BETTER THINKING, BETTER LIVING
Identifying Negative Thought Patterns
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A Busy Life is a Meaningful One
It Will All Work Out Someday
A Real Life Experience
Identifying Negative Thought Patterns