There are many unhealthy patterns of thinking that we learn over the course of our lives. These unhealthy ways of thinking are called cognitive distortions- or “stinkin’ thinkin’ ”. Often times, cognitive distortions will emerge during conflict in a marriage or relationship, or during periods of emotional difficulty, such as struggles with depression, anxiety, or loss. There are a number of ways that your thoughts can become distorted. Recognizing and refuting these distorted thoughts can often alleviate unhappiness in any given situation and open new avenues of change. It is essential for individuals to recognize and work on distorted thought patterns to make significant and life long changes, or else the same patterns in relationships will emerge over and over.
The most common cognitive distortions are:
- All or nothing thinking: We engage in all-or-nothing thinking when we accept automatic thoughts, which describe events in black-and-white categories with no shades of gray. Things are viewed as either all or nothing, always or never, “good” or “bad”. This kind of thinking leads to defining everything short of 100% success as a failure. For example, viewing your job, marriage/relationship, spouse or significant other as either “good” or “bad”, with an inability to see anything in between during times of conflict or crisis. This kind of thinking is what drives perfectionism. It also is the kind of thinking that unknowingly sets most people up to fail, since there is rarely, if ever, such a thing as perfection.
- Disqualifying the positive: Filtering out all of the positive evidence about our performance or situation, and only seeing the negative. This is all-or-nothing thinking, without the “all”. For example, having a period of time in a relationship where things are rocky and there is a lot of conflict, but not being able to see or remember anything good or positive about your spouse or the relationship, despite the facts. “We never get along.” “He/she never says anything nice to me.” “He is always distrustful of me.”
- Overgeneralization: One single, negative event is viewed as an endless pattern of defeat. Often times several painful or negative events are viewed in the same way. For example, if you plan a surprise date for your significant other, and it turns out that they don’t enjoy it, you conclude “I am terrible at planning special dates. My spouse doesn’t appreciate any of the dates I plan in our relationship”. I am generalizing from one or two experiences of a certain kind to all experiences of a certain kind.
- Mental Filter: You pick out a single negative detail and dwell on it exclusively so that your vision of all reality becomes darkened, like the drop of ink that discolors the entire beaker of water. When this happens in relationships by one partner, it can have the potential to set the relationship up to be a lose/lose situation, because it doesn’t give the relationship a chance to heal and grow.
- Jumping to Conclusions: You make negative interpretations even though there are no definite facts that convincingly support your conclusion. This can occur in three different forms:
- Mind Reading: You determine that you know what other people think of you, automatically conclude that someone is reacting negatively to you, and/or determine how they are feeling about a situation, without asking for clarification of the truth directly from that person. “He thinks I’m stupid and a terrible person.” “I’m boring and uninteresting to her—I’m sure she’d rather be somewhere else.” Fortune Telling: When we assume what is going to happen in the future before it happens. This usually includes making negative predictions about the outcome of an event, and being certain that those negative outcomes must be destined to come true. “I know I’m going to fail this test.” “Why even try to initiate intimacy—He/she will just reject me.” “If I ask her to go out with my buddies, she will just get mad, and she’ll never let me go without picking a fight.” (Often times, Fortune Telling goes hand in hand with Mind Reading, which is a double whammy!) Emotional Reasoning: When you assume that negative emotions necessarily reflect the way things really are: “I feel it, therefore it must be true.” People who allow themselves to get caught up in emotional reasoning can become completely blinded to the difference between feelings and facts. For example, if I feel afraid that my partner is going to leave the relationship, then conclude in my thoughts “He/she is abandoning me.”
- Magnification (Catastrophizing) or Minimization: Seeing the positive results of your actions (or others actions) as smaller than they really are, and the negative results of your actions (or others actions) as bigger than they really are. Magnification is also termed “Catastrophizing”, because it is making “a mountain out of a molehill.” For example: Thinking that a dinner party is going to be a disaster because everyone didn’t show up; After an argument, thinking “Our marriage is a failure and it’s not going to get better” (Magnification). “I guess her affair wasn’t really that bad. I don’t even know why I’m so angry- it was only an online relationship” (Minimizing feelings of self and others). ” So what that I got the kitchen clean. The rest of the house is a mess. I didn’t get anything done today” (Minimizing accomplishments).
- Should Statements (Shoulding Yourself, Shoulding Others): When you try to motivate yourself with “should” and “shouldn’t”, as if you had to be whipped and punished before you could be expected to do anything. “Musts” and “oughts” are also offenders. The emotional consequences are guilt and shame. When you direct “should” statements toward others, most likely the person will feel anger, frustration, and resentment.
- Labeling and Mislabeling: This is an extreme form of generalization. Instead of describing your error, you attach a negative label to yourself. “I’m a loser.” When someone else’s behavior rubs you the wrong way, you attach a negative label to him. “He’s a selfish jerk.” Mislabeling involves describing an event with language that is highly colored, emotionally loaded, and very painful for the recipient and damaging to a relationship (whether you do this to yourself or other people).
- Personalization and Blame: When I personalize, I assume guilt for things that go wrong outside of my control. It is when you see yourself as the cause of some external event, of which you were not primarily responsible for. For example, if your significant other comes home from work angry and silent, and your first thought is “I must have done something wrong to make him angry.” Personalization can go hand in hand with “Mind Reading”. Blame is the same cognitive distortion, operating in reverse. Instead of taking responsibility for myself, I shift it onto someone else—particularly blaming others for how you are feeling. Behind both of these distortions is the assumption that if anything goes wrong, it must be someone’s fault. There are no mistakes, only crimes, and the “criminals” must be found and punished. Negative self-talk perpetuates feelings of despair and low self-esteem. The good news is that you can overcome this undesirable habit by:
- Training yourself to recognize these self-critical thoughts and recording them in a Daily Record of Cognitive Distortions.
- Identifying and recording the cognitive distortion.
- Developing and recording a more objective thought, negating the "bad" thought and nurturing a more realistic system for self-evaluation.
Working on changing patterns of thinking is difficult, yet will be extremely rewarding for you, as well as those you are in relationships with. If you recognize cognitive distortions happening in your life, give us a call. Counseling can help change that “stinkin’ thinkin’ ”, which will help you get on with a healthier and happier life!