Watch out for 'distorted thinking'
Although difficult life events such as financial setbacks, divorce or family conflict are hard for anyone to deal with, you make these events either easier or harder to deal with because of your thoughts and beliefs about them. This is the basic principle in cognitive therapy, which is why cognitive therapists such as myself place so much importance on understanding the way people think, especially when they are upset. If you can become aware of your automatic thoughts (which run through your head all day, providing a commentary on things you see, say and do) you can then start to identify unhelpful ways of thinking and try to change them.
Negative automatic thoughts, or NATs, are the ones most strongly linked to unpleasant emotions like anger, hurt or anxiety. For example, when you feel angry you may be thinking someone has disrespected you, or endangered you or your loved ones in some way. When you are anxious, you may be worried about future threats such as redundancy or health problems. Either way, in cognitive therapy we see the NATs as the source of your problem, because they are often exaggerated or based on interpretations, judgements or perceptions rather than concrete evidence.
It's also a vicious circle, because when we are upset the volume of NATs increases and we are more likely to use 'distorted thinking' rather than perceiving things as they are. Everyone does this, to a greater or lesser extent, and we all tend to use certain kinds of thinking more than others.
If you want to change unhelpful ways of thinking, identifying your own commonly-used distortions is a good place to start. Take a look at the following list and see which seem familar to you.
10 common thinking distortions
1. All-or-nothing thinking. This is when you look at things as absolutes: good/bad, success/failure, black/white. There's no room for shades of grey.
Examples: If I don't get an A on this test I'll be a total failure. Second place is for losers.
2. Catastrophising. Exaggerating how bad things have been or will be, using words like ‘awful’, ‘nightmare’ or ‘disaster’.
Examples: If she breaks up with me it will be a nightmare. God, this party is bound to be a disaster.
3. Overgeneralisation. You view a single negative event as a never-ending pattern of defeat, or take one situation that doesn't work out to mean that life is always this way.
Examples: That dinner party didn’t go well – I must be a terrible host. My partner seemed really grumpy with me last night – she’s obviously going off me and thinking about ending it.
4. Mental filter. You dwell on the negatives and ignore the positives. So, if your university tutor gives you a glowing assessment including one mild criticism, that’s what you fixate on.
Example: My appraisal seemed to go well, but all I can think about is that criticism of my grammar.
5. Discounting the positive. You reject all positive experiences, compliments or praise by telling yourself, ‘They don't count’, or ‘They're just saying that to be polite.’
Examples: That’s really kind, but anyone could have done it. We did get the best sales figures ever, but it’s all down to my team – I didn’t have much to do with it.
6. Jumping to conclusions. Making assumptions with little or no evidence, in two ways:
a) Mind reading. You assume you know what people are thinking – and it’s usually negative.
Examples: I know this girl thinks I'm boring. I’m sure they’re judging me behind their smiles.
b) Fortune-telling. You think you can predict the future – and assume things will turn out badly.
Examples: I definitely failed that test. I’m bound to be the one who gets made redundant.
7. Permission-giving thinking. Finding excuses to do something that provides short-term pleasure or relief but causes long-term difficulties.
Examples: I’ve had a really stressful day so I deserve another whisky. I feel a bit down today so I’ll buy that dress/those shoes/that flatscreen TV and worry about it later.
8. Emotional reasoning. This is when you assume something is true because you feel it so strongly, assuming that your negative emotions reflect the way things really are.
Examples: I’m so anxious I just know this plane will crash. I feel so jealous, I know he’s cheating.
9. Should statements. Placing excessively harsh demands on yourself, others or the world by using the words ‘should’, ‘must’, ‘have to’ or ‘ought to’.
Examples: I should be happier, what’s wrong with me? I have to lose 10lb or I’m pathetic.
10. Labelling. Calling yourself or others names like ‘idiot’, ‘failure’ or ‘bastard’.
Examples: I’m rubbish at maths – I’m such a failure. That Mrs Jones is such a witch.