Have you ever said to yourself things like, “I wish life was better”, “I wish I felt more fulfilled”, or “I wish I had more peace in my life”? If there was a guaranteed way to make life better, how far would you go to get it? What if the 3 pounds inside your skull could make your life better even without a single thing about your external life changing? That all sounds like it would be amazing right? Now, imagine that instead of using our minds to make life better, we actively used that same power to make us miserable? What if that same 3 pounds inside your skull made your life worse, no matter how many positive things you had in your life?
Truth is, we all have this power and we all use it to make our own life wretched from time to time. How do we do this? Through negative patterns of thought called “Cognitive Distortions”. Cognitive distortions are intrusive thoughts that are very difficult to change and rob us blind from the joy we could otherwise have. But if we can learn to identify cognitive distortions, we will be better able to think rationally, think more effectively, think more realistically, have more self-esteem, and therefore be happier! The first step to stop negative thinking is to identify the cognitive distortions. Here are 10 very common ones:
- All-Or-Nothing Thinking. This is when you are thinking in black and white. Absolutes. Using language like, “Always,” and “Never” are dead giveaways. Life rarely that simple.
- Over Generalization. This is when you use the one current situation as a never-ending pattern of defeat. For example, you might say, “You never take out the garbage on time!” and you would be guilty of both 1 and 2. Instead of that, think of this one situation and just one situation!
- Mental Filter: This is when you filter out the good and only see the bad. Searching for only the evidence that supports your anger or depression, refusing to see the rest. Life is about balance. There are always good aspects.
- Discounting the Positives: This is when you believe the positives don’t matter. You might acknowledge the positive exists (thus skipping #3), but refuse to put any meaning behind them.
- Jumping to Conclusions: There are two types in this category.
- Mind-Reading. This is when you assume people are acting a certain way because of you or to spite you when you have no definitive evidence.
- Fortune Telling. This is when you predict things will go poorly and react accordingly, even before anything happens.
- Magnification or Minimization: Magnification is when you blow something way out of proportion (usually something negative), and minimization is when you shrink the importance of something (usually positive).
- Emotional Reasoning: This is when you let reasoning have its foundation in your emotions. For example: “I feel stupid, so I must be.” Instead, take on the phrase, “I Choose to believe the truth and walk in it no matter my feelings or circumstances.” It can be difficult, but it is possible. Feelings come and go, but the truth always stays the same.
- “Should” Statements: This is when you criticize yourself or others with “Should,” “Must,” and “Have to.” When we say things like, “I should have known better,” we shame ourselves.
- Labeling: This is when you take one mistake and tell yourself, “I’m a looser because I made a mistake.” Instead, try saying, “Oops, I made a mistake.” No labeling needed.
- Personalization and Blame: This is when you take on full responsibility for something that was not entirely your fault, or you blame others for something when you were partially at fault, thus denying your responsibility. For example: thinking “My spouse should have known” means you are guilty of #10 (expecting them to read your mind instead of telling them) and #8.
It can be very difficult to change our thinking. Just the biology and anatomy behind how to change a thought is incredibly complex! Doing the hard work and disciplining yourself to identify the category behind your negative thinking is a great first step into changing how those thoughts work. If you do this for 21 days, you will see a difference in your thoughts, and likely, even your mood! Try it! What can you lose?
Comment time! I would love to hear from you! What thoughts do you struggle with and how have you learned to overcome some of the most nagging negative thoughts? I hope this list of cognitive distortions can help you learn and change those things that you just can’t stop on your own.