Today's question is around how to identify and overcome the negative thought patterns in our brains (also known as cognitive distortions).
There is a lot of emphasis on the importance of monitoring and actively directing what we think, but the practical steps to doing so are not always evident. The first step in being able to identify and overcome our negative thinking involves becoming familiar with the most common negative thought patterns. We need to know what we are looking for in order to begin to identify them. Below is a list of the most common negative thought patterns, according to Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT). It's important to familiarize ourselves with these patterns and to reflect on where they might show up in our lives. While not all of them may apply to you, it is very rare to meet someone that doesn't at least have one or two that their brains go to as a default, particularly in times of stress.
Common Cognitive Distortions
This includes thinking in patterns of extremes: "All or Nothing", "Black or White."
e.g. Either you are perfect or a complete failure. Doing all of your rounds of practice or none.
Mental Filtering/ Focusing on the Negative
Focuses only on the negatives in a situation and filters out or disqualifies the positives. Negative details are magnified, and sometimes we may acknowledge the positives but find excuses to dismiss them or turn them into negatives
e.g. Completing brain retraining practices every day this month except one. Fixating on that one day & beating self up for it. Another example is getting lots of positive feedback and one area for improvement. Discounting all the positives and only focusing on the criticism.
Statements that we say to ourselves about what we "should", "shouldn't" or "must" do. This can create a lot of pressure and often the expectations are unrealistic and unlikely to be met. The focus is on what you believe you should be, rather than what is.
e.g. "I should be over this by now", "This shouldn't be happening to me", "I must do it perfectly every time."
Generalizing an impression based on a single event or a few instances. Incorrectly concluding or assuming that all similar events in the future will result in the same negative experience.
e.g. Reacting to a store leads to thinking that all similar stores are dangerous and need to be avoided. Another example is having a difficult experience with someone and assuming that all future experiences with that person are also going to be difficult.
Expecting the absolute worst case scenario to happen, regardless of how unlikely that actually is. Can also include minimization of positive experiences or possibilities.
e.g. Having a reaction to something and assuming the reaction is never going to go away and you will never recover, while totally disregarding all the times you've had a reaction and recovered.
Jumping to Conclusions - Mind reading & Predicting the Future
Mind reading is assuming you know what other people are thinking. Assumptions tend to occur without any evidence to support what your position. Predicting the future (also known as Fortune Telling) involves making conclusions and predictions with no evidence. This can lead to a negative outcome as a result of our expectations.
e.g. "If I go on that walk, I'll be in bed for the rest of the day." Being shy in a group and assuming people are judging you and don't like you.
Blaming ourselves for things that are outside of our control or blaming others to avoid taking responsibility for our choices and actions.
e.g. "I should have known this would happen", "It's their fault I'm anxious."
Taking something that doesn't have anything to do with us and making it about us, and then reacting to it. Assuming we have been intentionally targeted or excluded.
e.g. A store clerk is rude to you. "They don't like me because I am..." rather than "They must be having a bad day."
Believing any feeling as being true. Emotions are accepted as fact and logical reasoning is blocked out. Inaccurately assuming the negative feeling is the only truth.
e.g. Feeling hurt by a relationship breakup or breakdown and concluding "I am unlovable. I will be alone forever." Or when your limbic system reacts negatively to redirecting it, "I can't do this. My brain works differently than others."
External control fallacy is the belief that life is completely controlled by external factors. Leads to a feeling of helplessness. Internal control fallacy is the belief that one has full control over themselves and their surroundings. Leads to over-responsibility for other's pain or happiness, and being very hard on self if things don't go according to plan.
Judging yourself or others based on one incident. Instead of recognizing that you or another made a mistake or had an off moment (because we are all human), you attach a label that is exaggerated and beat yourself up or be harsh to another based on that label.
e.g. Having a day where you have trouble focusing on the brain retraining or a meditation, and concluding that you have ADHD and are totally incapable of doing it. Or someone is short with you and you decide they are a bad person.
Always being right
Internalizing our opinions as facts and going to great lengths to prove our beliefs are correct.
Fallacy of Change
Believing that others should change to suit your interests and pressuring them to do so. Being convinced that your happiness is entirely dependent on the other person changing (rather than you taking responsibility for your own happiness).
If we are having trouble identifying the ones that apply to us, sometimes it can be helpful to ask the people closest to us. We can share this list with them and ask them which ones they notice in us. This helps us to cultivate our awareness, as we all have blind spots, things about ourselves that we don't always see. One cautionary note about doing this: please pick people that you trust and that are willing to be honest with you but at the same time won't hold these things over your head. You may have to widen your circle to find someone who fits that description, but ideally we want someone who knows you well or has observed how you deal with stressors.
Another way to start becoming more familiar with those unhelpful thoughts is through monitoring or noticing our emotional state. When we find ourselves in a negative emotion, we can ask, "What was I just thinking?" This can give us some good insights into the automatic negative thoughts that show up.
Once we're more familiar with the possible thoughts that show up for us, we want to cultivate our curious observer (see previous blog post about this if you want more guidance in this area). We can also recruit trusted people in our lives to gently point out to us the negative thoughts that we verbalize, in the moment when it happens. Sometimes this added piece of having others help bring our awareness to our inner landscape can really elevate our capacity to observe ourselves and catch ourselves in the moment more fully. Remember, we can't change what we aren't aware of, so cultivating awareness is key.
To be continued next week!