As human beings it is inevitable that we will face difficult and upsetting situations. Some are not in our control (e.g. losing a loved one), some we do not ever expect or can ever prepare for (e.g. natural disasters), and some of them are inevitable (e.g. job loss, relationship problems, etc.). In many cases what differentiates those who overcome these obstacles from those who are overwhelmed by them is how we interpret life events.
In a general sense, our interpretations of self, others, and the world are shaped through the interconnection between our thoughts, feelings, and behaviours. A change in one of these components has a tangible impact on the other.
When working with clients in therapy, I often draw parallels between using prescription glasses (for those of us who do not have 20/20 vision) to literally see the world, and using our thinking patterns or “mental” prescriptions to psychologically see the world. If these “prescriptions” are comprised of negative, unrealistic, and irrational thoughts, this will be our view of the world regardless of whether they are realistic or not. Recall the distinction I made between adaptive and maladaptive emotions in other articles, and their relationship to our psychological well-being; the same principles apply to our thinking. Therefore, we need to ask ourselves the following question: how adaptive or maladaptive is our “vision”?
What type of thought distortions do you use?
No one is immune from having biased thinking on occasion. We tend to distort our interpretations when we experience sadness, anger, stress, or depression. As well, we are more susceptible to falling into biased thinking when we do not take of ourselves and when we experience negative emotions such as sadness or anger.
Common thought distortions that people fall into are:
Overgeneralization: Thinking that one negative life experience is part of a never-ending cycle of events and blowing a situation out of proportion.
Black or white thinking: Seeing the world as good or bad, right or wrong. The tendency for those who use this thinking pattern is to view one mistake as a total failure. For example, if a friend does not call you back once when they said they would, you write them off as untrustworthy and unreliable.
Fortune-telling: Predicting something bad will happen, even though you have no evidence for the prediction.
Mind reading: Believing you know what others are thinking without any evidence.
Labeling: Saying something bad about yourself or others.
Mental Filter: Focusing on the negative in a situation and neglecting the positive.
‘Should’ Statements: Telling yourself that you should or must act a certain way in a situation. For example, telling yourself “I shouldn’t be crying about this” when faced with a difficult situation.
Emotional reasoning: Believing that what you feel about a situation determines how the situation actually is. For example, if you feel anxious on a plane, you believe that, “if I am feeling anxious it must mean that it not safe to fly.”
(This list was adapted from Dr. David Burns’ The Feeling Good Handbook.)
Ineffective strategies to overcome distorted thinking patters
First and foremost, healthy thinking does not mean only thinking positively. “Just think positive”, though well-intentioned, is not necessarily the most effective way to see the world. Always thinking positively can sometimes be detrimental especially when it is not reality based. An extreme example would be someone not getting help for a medical condition and relying solely on positive thinking to feel better. Conversely, having negative thoughts is not always unhealthy. When faced with bad situations it is realistic to assume that we will have negative thoughts. The key in healthy thinking is interpreting and analyzing a situation, both good and bad, in ways that are realistic, helpful, and adaptive.
Secondly, do not try to suppress your thoughts or try to NOT think about them. Research has shown that the more we push away negative thoughts, the more they come back. Consciously trying to not think about something triggers the very thing we do not want to happen: thinking about it! Here is a classic exercise to prove this point. Ready? I want you to try to not think about a pink elephant. Any luck?
Thirdly, avoid saying to yourself, “I should stop thinking that way” or “don’t think such stupid thoughts” (i.e., ‘should’ statements). Although we do want to stop thinking a certain way, just saying it is not effective. We need to use concrete, specific, and measurable techniques to challenge and overcome these distorted thoughts.
Overcoming distorted thoughts
For starters, examine the evidence. This involves trying to find evidence that goes against your thought. For example, “I am a terrible father because good fathers do not have the problems that I have with my kids” may be your thought. Ask yourself, “Is there any evidence that disproves this thought?” Perhaps try recalling the fact that your wife tells you how great you are with the kids and your kids telling you how much they love you. You can also survey other parents who you believe are good fathers and see if they behave in ways that are similar or different from you.
Look for double standards when it comes to how you think about yourself and how you interpret situations. Good questions to ask are: “Am I being harder on myself than I am on other people?” or “If someone else thought about a particular situation the way I did would I agree with his interpretation?”
It is not situations themselves, but rather our interpretations of those situations, that cause us trouble.
The next time you find yourself being too hard on yourself or interpreting situations from a biased perspective make sure to get your psychological lenses checked. You may be in need of a new prescription.