Distorted thinking patterns are common and that’s normal. Hands up if you sometimes speak to yourself. People who never speak to themselves are either not telling the truth or doing something wrong. We all have our self-talks and that’s fine. However, if these distorted thinking patterns are left unchecked, they can lead us down a spiral straight to anxiety and depression, and even self-harm.
What is distorted thinking?
Psychologists refer to it as a cognitive distortion. It is having an unhealthy misrepresented pattern of thinking built on an irrational belief system. Some refer to it as stinking thinking. The thought pattern involved is exaggerated and irrational and often may be first noted at the onset of depression and anxiety.
Common Examples of distorted thinking.
- Over-generalizing – when you view a negative event as a never-ending defeat. This usually involves words such as ‘never’, ‘always’, ‘nobody’ e.g When your friends go out without you – you think Nobody ever wants to spend time with me
- Ignoring the good – this is common when we focus on minor negative things instead of acknowledging all the positive ones just as well e.g After scoring a 98% grade you focus and crucify yourself for missing 2 questions and ignore the 98 ones you got correct. Or after a great date or presentation, you ruminate over one silly thing you said. Success is a relative remember. Frame the thoughts into a more balanced assessment of the situation e.g “Yes, you said a silly thing but the majority of what you said was great and you received good feedback.
- Mental filter – when you dwell on negatives and ignore the positives. Think of it as spinning your wheels in the mud. Some refer to it as ‘Ruminating’ e.g Beating yourself up over the loss of a toxic relationship, totally failing to see that you are better off without your ex-partner.
- All or nothing thinking – when you look at everything in all one way or the other way e.g All people are bad, or all people are good or Life is all bad or life is all good or I’m really clever, or I’m really stupid. Endeavor to stop binary thinking. Things aren’t often either this or that. Are some people untrustworthy? Yes of course they are! Do some people hate you? Probably Yes. But does that mean all people dislike you? No, it does not.
- Magnifying shortcomings and minimizing strengths e.g I tried to support my friend when he was feeling low, but I doubt I helped him. Try not to minimize your strengths, also learn to accept compliments.
- Automatic discounting – e.g writing an excellent essay or blog but then you keep telling yourself “It was easy anyone could have done it”
- Should statements – Using words like “should, must, ought to” e.g I should understand this article straightaway after reading it, I must not show that am angry, I ought not to be angry.By saying this you are imposing a harsh set of expectations that are unlikely to be met.
- Magical thinking – believing that our thoughts or sometimes actions can influence events that are beyond our control somehow e.g if I make more money this depression will end, I will be more respected if I go to the gym, I will meet my future partner. Anxiety often springs from a desire to control that which we cannot. Be smart enough to know which is which.
- Emotional reasoning – eg I feel very anxious or nervous about my exams, I must be incompetent. We often mistake feelings for facts and allow them to dictate reality Remember feelings are often unreliable.
- Labeling – an extreme form of generalization e.g Fail an exam and then think you are stupid. I’m feeling emotional since leaving home, I’m weak. This usually happens when we make a value judgment based on one bad experience. Remember often in life that what you perceive as a failure is actually an opportunity to learn and grow. Experience is the best teacher.
It might be useful when considering a specific situation to also try these to challenge distorted thinking.
- Write down your negative thoughts then find counter examples. If you think you are always being criticized by others – list the times people have paid you compliments, this will help you clarify your meaning.
- If you think you are weak, ask yourself what you mean – is it fair to label yourself just because of one aspect of your behavior?
- Befriend yourself. Develop a caring internal voice that challenges the internal critical voice.
- Ask yourself – What would you be saying to your best friend in the same situation? Chances are that you wouldn’t be harsh on them like you would to yourself.
- Change how you see things – if you tend to see things in absolute terms try seeing them in stages. For example, instead of thinking ‘you are a failure’ think ‘this is a setback’ when you haven’t done as well as hoped.
- Instead of over-generalizing – look for exceptions to the generalization. For example, instead of saying ‘” I must always be on time, tell yourself I have a strong preference for arriving on time”
What you are and what you believe are often different things. Although it may feel that way, remember that feelings are not factual. Facts don’t change, but feelings can and do.
If the distorted thought patterns persist speak to a CBT therapist. They will help you make connections between your thoughts and behaviors. To understand more about CBT and other therapies read this Blog.