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BETTER THINKING, BETTER LIVING

Identifying Negative Thought Patterns
Part 1 of 2

My name is Amée, and I jump to conclusions. “That woman I just met probably doesn’t like me.” “Nobody’s going to read this.” These thoughts pop up in my head without any conscious effort on my part, and I feel so sure of them. But I have no supporting evidence for these conclusions.

Maybe you just jumped to the conclusion that you don’t jump to conclusions. That might be true, but you don’t really know whether or not you do until you think hard about it.

Jumping to conclusions is an example of what is known in the field of psychology as a “cognitive distortion,” a term that means we have a skewed perspective on situations we’re in, our own selves or people around us. My perspective on how people feel about me and the value of my writing is often skewed; perhaps your ideas about your own thinking are skewed.

In the article, “The Importance of Good Thinking,” the author points out that the way we think influences the choices we make. We can’t make good choices if we don’t have an accurate view of ourselves, of others and the situations we’re in.

That’s why it’s important to understand what your own cognitive distortions are. We likely all have them – for some of us, they cause tremendous anxiety or depression, while for others, they simply get us into trouble now and then. But we can limit their effects on our lives.

I’m working to correct my thinking so I can live a better life, and in this article series, I’ll provide you with information that will empower you to do the same.  

The first step toward changing your thinking is learning about the different types of cognitive distortions and how to identify them. You’ll have to question yourself, and that’s uncomfortable. It means acknowledging that sometimes, you might not have the right idea about things, despite how sure you may feel. This will take vigilance and self-reflection, as many of the thoughts you have are habits – they occur automatically, and you may not even be aware of them.

Below, you’ll find a list of the more prevalent cognitive distortions. Which ones do you recognize in your own thinking? 

Cognitive Distortions

“We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”
Albert Einstein

1. Jumping to Conclusions

We jump to conclusions when we are convinced of something even though we have no evidence to support it. Two common ways for jumped-to conclusions to manifest are fortune-telling and mind-reading. Fortune-telling means you convince yourself that something bad will happen even though there’s no firm reason to suspect it. Mind-reading involves assuming you know what another person is thinking or feeling without having a solid reason.

 Examples:

  • “There’s no way I’ll get the job I just applied for.”
  • “That person I just met probably hates me.”
  • “She hasn’t called in a while. She must not care about me anymore.”

2. All-or-Nothing Thinking 

This cognitive distortion is also known as “black-and-white” thinking. It’s what we do when we don’t acknowledge that, in most situations, there are “shades of grey.” We think everything is either good or bad; complete success or complete failure; that there is no middle ground. There are several ways such thinking can manifest.

Examples:

  • I didn’t get the job I wanted. I am a complete failure.”
  • “My boyfriend did something inconsiderate yesterday. He must not care about me at all.”
  • “Lying is always bad; if you’ve told a lie, you’re a bad person.”

3. Filtering

We apply a mental filter to situations in our lives when we overemphasize the negatives and ignore the positives. This is also referred to as “maximizing/minimizing” – maximizing the negative and minimizing the positive.

Examples:

  • A student submits a paper to his professor and receives both glowing comments and critical ones. He ignores the positive feedback he receives and dwells on the more critical comments, causing him to feel inadequate.
  • A man gets splashed with some mud on his way to work, and he feels the whole day is ruined.
  • A woman gives a presentation at work, and one colleague was not paying attention, while the others expressed appreciation of her work. She concludes that her presentation was boring and is angry with herself.

4. Catastrophizing

This is a more extreme form of maximizing the negative; it happens when you first assume a negative outcome will occur, and then think that the negative outcome would be an all-out catastrophe.

Examples:

  • “If I don’t get this particular job, I’ll be unemployed forever and have to live on the streets.”
  • “The pain that I’m feeling now will never go away. It will ruin my life.”
  • “If I get sick, I’ll have to miss work. I’ll be fired and then will starve.”

5. Labeling

Labeling involves reducing ourselves and/or others to narrow, and often negative, definitions. When you label yourself, you can lose motivation to make positive changes in your life by assuming that the label sums up “just how you are,” and you might not try things you otherwise would. When you label others, you don’t give them the chance to show you other sides of themselves.

Examples:

  • “I lost the game, therefore I’m a loser.”
  • “He lost his job and hasn’t found another one yet. What a dead-beat!”
  • I didn’t get the job I wanted. I am a complete failure.” (overlaps with all-or-nothing thinking)

6. External Control Fallacy

We express this cognitive distortion when we have an overly-limited sense of our own control over things – when we feel like we’re helpless leaves being blown about by the winds of fate.

People with this distortion feel more helpless than they really are, and tend not to take responsibility for things that happen in their lives.

Examples:

  • After not doing homework for two months: “I get bad grades because my teachers don’t like me.”
  • After losing a promotion to someone with more qualifications: “I didn’t get the promotion – that other guy must have cheated somehow. 
  • After being late for the third day in a row: “I got fired because my boss is a jerk.”

7. Internal Control Fallacy

This is the opposite of the external control fallacy; it occurs when you take too much responsibility for situations around yourself. “Personalizing” is another term for this.

The internal control fallacy may stem from perfectionism – the idea that there is one way for things to be done, and you have to do everything yourself for things to be done right. Or, a person might feel an inflated sense of responsibility for the well-being of others.

Examples:

  • “My boss is in a bad mood. I must have done something to upset her.”
  • “He’s unhappy. It’s up to me to do something to make him feel better.”
  • After not delegating any tasks to his employees: “I’m the only person who can do anything around here.”

8. Emotional Reasoning

We show this cognitive distortion when we take a feeling as the starting point for our reasoning. Because we feel something, it must be true. This is problematic, not because we shouldn’t ever trust our feelings, but because there are thoughts beneath our feelings. The way we think about a situation generally determines how we feel about it. Sometimes, though, the thoughts underlying our feelings are distorted, so that the feelings that come from them won’t be appropriate for the given situation. I might feel angry because I think I’ve been wronged, but maybe I’m just misinterpreting the situation – the feeling (anger) comes from the thought (“I’ve been wronged”), and if the latter is inaccurate, the former will not be appropriate.

Examples:

  • “I feel inadequate, therefore I really am.”
  • “My feelings are hurt, therefore my girlfriend did something wrong to me.”
  • “I’m scared. I must be in danger.”

9. Overgeneralizing

When you overgeneralize, you assume that one bad instance is definitely going to repeat itself throughout your life. Words like “always,” “never” and “forever” often pop up in overgeneralized thoughts.

Examples:

  • “My boyfriend broke up with me. I’ll be alone forever.”
  • “I got a bad grade on the last test. I’ll never get an A again.”
  • “I didn’t get the job. Nobody will ever hire me.”

10. Shoulds and Oughts

Having ideas about how you should or ought to behave is an important component of a moral compass. These are only cognitive distortions when your ideas about what you should or ought to do cause you to use guilt as a motivating factor, or when the thoughts cause you a lot of anger and frustration toward others who don’t conform to them. Sometimes, we set up unrealistic or overly-rigid shoulds and oughts that leave us feeling inadequate, or lead us to judge others too harshly.

Examples:

  • “I should be more successful at this point in my life.”
  • “I should be loved by everyone.”
  • “He ought to be making more money.”

You’ve Taken the First Step

So, which cognitive distortions can you recognize in your own thinking?

As you can see, there is some overlap between these cognitive distortions. You may find that you practice one or two of them regularly, or that several make an occasional or frequent appearance in your thought process. 

You’ve taken the first step toward correcting your thinking by learning to identify your own cognitive distortions. Next time you have a negative thought, feeling or reaction to a situation, ask yourself if one of the above distortions might be at play.

Next, it’s time to learn cognitive tools that you can employ to tackle these negative thought patterns and replace them with accurate, constructive ones that will lead to a better life through better thinking.

On to Part 2!

Written by Amée LaTour

- OTHER PARTS IN THIS SERIES -

Part 2:
BETTER THINKING, BETTER LIVING
Tools for Developing Healthier Thought Patterns 

©Copyright 2014 / Good Choices Good Life, Inc. / All Rights Reserved

“Critical thinking is thinking about your thinking while you’re thinking in order to make your thinking better.” Richard Paul