Mark Twain once wrote, “I am an old man and have known a great many troubles. Most of them never happened.” The famous author was poking fun at our propensity as human beings to allow fear to make concerns worse than they really are.
You can confirm the validity of this tendency by thinking back to the thoughts that were running through your mind the last time that you were unhappy. If your spouse made a critical comment at dinner you may have been thinking “the evening is ruined.” If you observed a coworker leaving early when there was a deadline looming, you might have told yourself “they’re irresponsible.” Or perhaps you recently made a mistake yourself and have been kicking yourself by imagining “everyone will think I’m so stupid.”
This kind of automatic thinking frequently goes on uncensored in your head. But such self-talk contains cognitive distortions — ways of talking to yourself that magnify problems. When you twist your thinking by describing situations in an overly critical or catastrophic manner, you set off your brains stress reaction. That puts you into fight or flight mode, causing you to escalate the conflict or withdraw from the situation, neither of which moves you any closer to a resolution of the problem.
Being aware of your automatic thoughts, however, enables you to recognize the warning signs that what you’re thinking isn’t helping you improve the situation. Being mindful that your thinking is prone to error offers the opportunity to untwist your thoughts.
Here’s how to replace distorted thinking that’s amplifying your negative reactions. Slow your breathing down, focus on a positive outcome, and think of an action that might get you there.
Studies have shown that how we think controls how we feel, which in turn determines how we act. Cognitive-behavioral psychologists have found that when we’re feeling angry, anxious, or depressed there’s a steady stream of negative thoughts fueling our unhappy emotions. This barrage of unfiltered negative thinking is almost always riddled with irrational twists and exaggerations.
There are 10 common ways people are prone to distorting their thinking. Any apply to you?
1. All or nothing. Do you make problems are black or white with no middle ground? Is it hard to find mutually agreeable solutions because you think you have the right answer? Do you stop taking in information from sources that do not support your pre-existing position?
2. Overgeneralization. Do you interpret one negative event to be an endless pattern of problems? If you fight with your spouse, do you think that they don’t ever care about how you feel? Do you assume that many of their comments are intended to hurt you?
3. Mental filter. Does one negative exchange color your perception of an entire event, like a drop of food coloring in a glass of water? If your boss makes one critical comment, do you assume your job is in jeopardy?
4. Dismissing positive. Do you brush off any compliments, praise, or appreciation for efforts you’ve made with a self-deprecating comment such as “it was nothing”? Are you limiting yourself to dwelling what you’ve done wrong?
5. Jumping to conclusions. Do you decide that something is bad without knowing all of the facts? Do you conclude that a chatty coworker is slacking off because you’re unaware that they’re celebrating completion of a project?
6. Magnification. Do you exaggerate the severity of a problem in your mind by imagining that a catastrophic consequence will result? If you make a minor mistake at work, are you convinced your coworkers think you’re incompetent?
7. Emotional reasoning. Do you believe that because you feel strongly about a situation that means you’re right? If you’re angry at someone who’s said something hurtful to you, do you think about how you’ve contributed to the conflict?
8. “Should” statements. Do you think that everyone, including yourself, should be able to live up to extremely high standards? Do you become judgmental if something’s not done your way?
9. Labeling. Do you label yourself or others when problems occur? For example, might you label your spouse a “control freak” when they’re asserting what they want instead of thinking “she’s just stating what she needs.”
10. Personalization. Do you blame yourself or others when problems occur, thereby focusing on finding fault rather than seeking solutions?
Cognitive behavioral coaching can teach you more practical and positive approaches for dealing with your troubles by helping you to examine your thoughts, identify your distortions, and correct how you’re thinking.