Your brain might seem like an amazing con artist.
It’s not that your brain is intentionally trying to lie to you - it’s just that in an attempt to make sense of the world, and with the intention to protect you, it sometimes gets it wrong and leads you to believe things that are not true!
We call those unhelpful interpretations : cognitive distortions.
In the 80’s, David Burns published a book called the Feeling Good Handbook and highlighted 10 of those distorted thinking patterns:
1. All-or-Nothing Thinking:
We tend to see the situation in black & white. For instance, if things did not go our way, we will often see it as a total failure.
When a small mistake is made, we tend to feel that it is the end of the world. We find that we are unable - or less able - to see the "the in-between" and grey areas. This can lead us to overestimate or underestimate our abilities or the circumstances.
We use words like ‘never’ and ‘always’ - ‘I never get it right’ ‘I always fail at this type of task/exercise’. ‘She is obviously wrong. I got it right.’
2. Over generalization:
This often comes with black and white thinking. We interpret a single event as an indicator of our future or fate.
We will also tend to use words like ‘never’ and ‘always’ - ‘I spilled coffee everywhere. Now everything is ruined. This always happens to me’. ‘He left me. I will never meet someone’ ‘I did not pass my exam. I will never get a job’ ‘Everyone else got it. So why not me?’
Counter-thoughts: Life is not black and white. It is full of nuances. We should remember to try to distance ourselves/detach regularly enough that we can try to see the bigger picture. Try to see the situation from different point of view/ different perception. Limit the use of the words ‘always’ and ‘never’ and replace them with ‘yet’. This will allow more flexibility in your thinking and reinforce the belief that we can learn and that things can change. Nothing is fixed or set forever. A person is not a static thing but an ongoing process of growth and development.
3. Mental Filter:
We focus on the negative. We might have received compliments but we will often find ourselves thinking over and over about the only negative comment that was made even when the majority of feedback we have recieved is positive.
If we hold a negative belief about ourselves or a situation, we will also have a tendency to see the evidence that belief.
4. Discounting the Positive:
We completely forget the positive. We dismiss or minimise our achievements and anything positive about us and our futures.
We exaggerate the negative or the importance of something that has happened.
Counter thoughts: Take the time to detach yourself and take into consideration the full picture. Spend time noticing the positive. List your achievements. Start gratitude practice to identify the positives in your life.
6 Jumping to Conclusions:
Our interpretation of the world tends to move to extremes and more specifically in this competitive and stressful world we tend to jump into the negative - even if we have barely any evidence to support it.
We will have the tendency to deduct what people think of us and our situation (Mind Reading), or to predict what it means about our future (Fortune-telling).
“They all thought I was stupid” “I’ll never get better.” “She behaves this way because she thinks I am not important”
Counter-thoughts: Remind yourself you cannot read people’s mind or the future.
7. Emotional Reasoning:
You blindly believe that if you feel it, it must be true!
Counter-thoughts: It is not directly reality that is making us feel but our perception of reality. Feelings are not a true representation of a situation. They are triggered by what we think about the situation. Two people can go through the same situation and have very different feelings. Do not believe in all the thoughts that your brain creates. Think of thoughts and feelings as like your internal weather - they don't always make sense and they can pass as if flowing down your stream of consciousness.
8. “Should statements”:
You have a preconceived view of the world, with clear ideas about how things ‘should’, ‘must’, ‘ought’, ‘have to’ be.
You often use these words when you are making sense of a situation.
‘He should have understood what I wanted. it was obviously important to me’ ‘He must do the first step. I won’t talk to him until he comes and talk to me first. it’s his fault.‘ ‘She shouldn’t have done that. it just means that she doesn’t respect me’
Counter-thoughts: Be mindful of the use of the words ‘should’, ‘must’, ‘ought’, ‘have to’ . These words lead us to be more rigid and black and white in our thinking. Replace by ‘could’, ‘can’ and ‘want’ when appropriate.
From one event, we tend to jump into conclusions and label ourselves or view the situation through a black and white lens.
“I made a mistake so I’m a loser.”
“I didn’t get it right the first time so I am a failure”
We might also label others:
“He didn’t call me back. He is a bad person.”
Counter-thoughts: Do not forget that an event/ behaviour does not have to define who we are. We can cultivate power and awareness to re-define ourselves as we please.
10. Personalization and blame:
We blame ourselves. We find ourselves guilty and responsible for things that are not entirely within our control.
“He doesn’t know any reason to be with me: it must be because I am not good enough.”
“My son is behaving. This shows what a bad mother I am"
Sometimes we do the opposite, it’s too upsetting to take responsibility for our actions so we think in black and white and blame others or externalities for everything that is going wrong.
“It’s his fault if it did not work out“
Counter-thoughts: One event/ behaviour does not define who we are deep-down.
Slow down. Take a step back. Be mindful. Consider the bigger picture and all the nuances. RESET your thinking.