Becoming aware of our negative thought processes

As a practitioner, I have noticed many commonalities exist with my clients.  Although each individual or couple is unique and brings with them their own set of belief systems or ideals, I often hear: “I should be doing this,” or  “He always,” or “This is going to stick with me forever.” These types of statements not only magnify issues, but they also create a negative narrative that can be very difficult to shake.  Shame and guilt can begin to rule thoughts and eventually dictate identity when this type of repetitive negative dialogue continues. Many others place blame on themselves for certain events that simply have little to do with them.  

Too often when life throws us a curve-ball, we automatically believe that we are primarily responsible for the misfortunate event.  I hear statements similar to this one: “I made her leave me because I had too many work-related problems that she just couldn’t stand hearing about any longer.”  Certainly, consistently bringing home stress from work can wear on a partner’s patience and moral; but, if that partner is committed to the relationship, there are other ways of ensuring boundaries get established to keep work stress from interfering at home—rather than terminating the relationship.  In this situation, many other factors are at play, not just one.  This type of personalization often leads to increased levels of anxiety and depression, as we take on the full responsibility for the changes in our relationships, despite the fact that we are only half of a partnership.   

With this in mind, I wanted to share the top 10 “Cognitive Distortions” as described by David D. Burns, MD.  You may have already come across this information in your own therapeutic setting; if so, my hunch is that you saw some part of yourself and the ways in which you think/process somewhere within these distortions.  

I love this list as it helps my clients [and it helped me] quickly and easily recognize automatic negative thoughts that may be getting in the way of daily life and shaping internal belief systems and external behaviors.  Do you see yourself getting caught-up in these types of “Cognitive Distortions?” 

  1. All-or-nothing thinking: You see things in black and white categories.  If your performance falls short of perfect, you see yourself as a total failure.  “My boss was unhappy with my presentation this afternoon.  I’m a terrible employee.” 
  2. Overgeneralization: You see a single negative event as a never-ending pattern of defeat. “I just messed-up in my relationship, again. I guess it’s true, I’ll never be married.” 
  3. Mental filter: You pick out a single negative detail and dwell on it exclusively so that your vision of all reality becomes darkened.  Ask yourself, do certain events that do not turn out as planned cause you to question all other aspects of your life? 
  4. Disqualifying the positive: You reject positive experiences by insisting they “don’t count” for some reason or other.  You maintain a negative belief that is contradicted by your everyday experiences.  How many of us know someone or we are that person that never seems to remember the positive affirmations we receive?  Instead, we focus solely on what we deem negative feedback or criticism.  Eventually we begin to identify with that criticism.  
  5. Jumping to conclusions: You make a negative interpretation even though there are no definite facts that convincingly support your conclusion.
    • Mind reading: You arbitrarily conclude that someone is reacting negatively to you and don’t bother to check it out. “She must be upset with me, she hasn’t called me in a few days.” 
    • The Fortune Teller Error: You anticipate that things will turn out badly and feel convinced that your prediction is an already-established fact.  “I know my son won’t like the gift I made him. He’s 15; teenagers hate everything.”
  6. Magnification / catastrophizing or minimization: You exaggerate the importance of things (such as your mistakes or other’s achievements), or you inappropriately shrink things until they appear tiny (your own desirable qualities or the other person’s imperfections—also called the “binocular trick”). “I wish I could be more like my friend, he’s the most popular guy in the world and everyone wants to be around him.”  Or, “I guess I’m somewhat likable, but I think I talk too much, I get really anxious around others at times, and I hate that I don’t have as much money as my friends.”  Thinking this way leaves little room to remember the fact that you are actually a likable person. 
  7. Emotional reasoning: You assume that your negative emotions necessarily reflect the way things really are.  Example: “I feel it, therefore it must be true.” “I can feel it, we’re never going to recover from this financial disaster.  Life will never be the same again.”  
  8. Should statements: You try to motivate yourself with shoulds, shouldn’ts, musts, oughts. “I should be engaging in more social networking events.” “I should be more outgoing.” “I shouldn’t have spent time in the garden today when I ought to have been sitting at my computer paying the bills first.”  The emotional consequence here is guilt.  “Should” is fantasy.  Try to stay in reality; it feels better and provides for less remorse, guilt and shame. Likewise, when you direct “should” statements toward others, you feel anger, frustration, and resentment because they can not live up to your “unrealistic” expectations. 
  9. Labeling and mislabeling: This is an extreme form of overgeneralization.  Instead of describing your error, you attach a negative label to yourself. “I’m such a loser.”  When someone else’s behavior rubs you the wrong way, you attach a label such as, “He’s totally incompetent.” Mislabeling involves describing an event with language and a narrative that is dramatic and emotionally loaded.  Remember this saying, “The problem is simply a problem, you are NOT the problem!” 
  10. Personalization: You see yourself as the cause of some negative external event for which, in fact, you were not primarily responsible. Example: Your department is restructuring to adjust to financial cut-backs and you are let go.  Instead of seeing this restructuring as an event most likely completely out of your control, you personalize it and believe you were “fired” because you were not good enough for the job/department.  

[Adapted from Burns, David D., MD. 1989. The Feeling Good Handbook. New York: William and Morrow and Company, Inc.]

Becoming more aware of our cognitive distortions is the first step in changing self-defeating and negative thought processes.  When we recognize that we have automatic thought processes that often times put a negative tone or spin on our situations, we can step back and be free from identifying ourselves in such finite terms. (There is nothing finite about the body, mind, and spirit.) Reframing these types of thoughts with more flexibility and eclectic answers will decrease depression and anxiety symptoms, while increasing self-esteem, self-worth and enhancing our relationships.  



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