We are all creatures of habit, and how we think is no exception. When we were small children, we developed many patterned ways of viewing ourselves and others that, as adults, we still utilize in making sense of our world.
Though most of our thinking patterns were developed as we saw life through the distorted, uninformed and immature eyes of a child, as adults we don't stop to analyze whether these ways of thinking serve us well.None of us escape from distorted thinking. And many of us are profoundly victimized by distorted thoughts that hold us in their grip simply because we don't know they are there, says David Burns, the author of the vital book "Feeling Good." These thoughts cause our negative moods - the feelings that overwhelm and stress us - including depression, anxiety, anger and guilt.
Knowing that thoughts are patterned allows you the possibility of gaining control of yourself and your moods in ways never before possible. The first step involves getting to know more about how you do think. Analyze your own patterns now by reviewing ten common thinking errors identified by Burns. Do any of these apply to you?
- All-or-nothing thinking. You see things in absolute categories. If your performance isn't perfect, you feel you're a total failure.
- Over-generalization. After something happens once or twice, you leap to the conclusion that it happens every time or to everybody or everywhere. Look for the words "always" and "never" in your thinking.
- Mental filter. You pick out a single negative detail and dwell on it so exclusively that it colors your whole vision of reality - like the drop of ink that discolors the entire beaker of water.
- Disqualifying the positive. By rejecting positive experience (it "doesn't count"), you nurture a negative belief that is contradicted by everyday experience.
- Jumping to conclusions. You interpret events negatively, even though there is no evidence to support your conclusion. This may involve either mind reading, where you believe that you know what another person is thinking, or fortune telling, where you anticipate that things will turn out badly, then later convince yourself that the prediction has been fulfilled.
- Catastrophizing or minimization. You exaggerate the importance of, for example, your goof-up or someone else's achievement, or you minimize into insignificance your own desirable qualities or the other fellow's imperfections.
- Emotional reasoning. Essentially you think, "I feel it, therefore it must be true," or "I feel like an idiot, so I must be one."
- "Should" statements. You try to motivate yourself with shoulds and shouldn'ts (or musts and oughts).
The emotional consequence is guilt. When you direct these statements toward others, telling them what they "should" do, you reap anger and resentment.
- Labeling. An extreme form of overgeneralization involving emotionally loaded language. Instead of describing your error, you attach a negative label to yourself: "I'm a loser." Or, when someone annoys you, you attach a negative label to him: "He's a creep."
- Personalization. You see yourself as the cause of some negative external event for which in fact you were not responsible: "My child got a poor grade. I must be a bad mother."
If some of these distortions seem uncomfortably familiar and you're thinking, "Yes, they do apply but I'll never be able to remember them all" - don't try. As an experiment, simply pick out the three most applicable, write them on a slip of paper you can refer to often and try to spot them as you're processing events this week.
You may be startled to see how often they are interwoven in your thinking and how impactfully they affect your moods.
For further self-study, read Burns' book, which essentially details an effective approach for combating negative feelings and changing self-defeating behavior. Burns includes chapters on such subjects as depression, self-esteem, anger, guilt, perfectionism, procrastination and managing criticism.
The essence of the "new mood" approach is to 1) identify your automatic thoughts ("Everybody knows how disorganized I am"); 2) identify the thinking error (jumping to conclusions, mind-reading, overgeneralization); and 3) develop a rational response to the situation ("I'm disorganized at times and organized at times. Everybody doesn't think the same way about me.").
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