May 23, 2011

Ask Yourself This

Whenever I reread the list of cognitive distortions, I re-notice how they pepper my everyday thoughts. If you've started noticing your own distorted automatic thoughts, you may be wondering what you're supposed to do once you've identified them.

Here are three questions that will help you evaluate and alter your thoughts. NB: the point isn't to change our thoughts to think positively; rather, the point is to think realistically because realistic thoughts create helpful emotions and promote behaviour change.

1) What is the evidence for and against this thought? This exercise requires you to play devil's advocate with yourself, using objective facts. Say you're overtired and you lose your temper and yell at your daughter for knocking over her cup of milk. Your automatic thought might be "I'm a bad parent." Your supporting evidence might include things like you were so tired that you didn't read to her before bed even once this week, and you didn't put any vegetables in her lunch today. But if you look for evidence that contradicts your thought, you'll remember things like that you stood in line for two hours last weekend to register her in a good summer camp, and that your daughter's teacher recently told you that she seems overall happy and well adjusted. Considering the evidence will allow you to adjust your thought from "I'm a bad parent" to "I'm short-tempered when I'm tired but I'm a good parent in general."

Another example: You're having lunch alone at a cafe, feeling lonely. Looking out the window, everyone who walks by seems to be with family or friends and you automatically think "I'm the only person who's alone." That all the passersby are in groups supports your thought, but if you look for evidence against the thought, you might notice that there are four other people in the cafe who are reading or working alone. This direct and concrete contradictory evidence will help you adjust your thought from "I'm the only person who's alone" to "I'd rather be with a friend or partner right now, but I'm not the only one who's alone."

2) Is there an alternative explanation? This one is especially good for automatic thoughts about others' behaviour. If you're talking to someone you just met at a social event and he keeps looking away during the conversation, your automatic thought might be "I'm boring and socially awkward." But if you try to generate alternative explanations for his behaviour, you might come up with "He's keeping an eye out for a friend who hasn't arrived yet" or "He's shy and socially awkward." Second example: You don't get the grant you applied for and you automatically think "My application sucked." Generating alternative explanations, you'll come up with possibilities like "There were more applicants than usual this year" and "The funding body had a smaller budget his year." 

Final example: After your interview on Monday, your potential employer says she'll call by Thursday at the latest. By Thursday she hasn't called and you automatically think, "I didn't get the job." Alternative explanations for her behaviour include "She hasn't decided yet" and "Something  came up and she didn't have a chance to call." It doesn't mean you did get the job, but it allows you to change your thought from "I didn't get the job" to the more realistic "I don't know yet if I got the job."

3) And if it were true--is it that bad? If all the evidence supports your negative thought and you can't find alternative explanations, maybe it's true. If so, ask yourself: Is it that bad? The answer to this question works in two ways. First, it can help you realize that even if your automatic thought reflects reality, it's not the end of the world. For me, it's been the most useful for the thought that someone is upset with me. I'm prone to friendship paranoia (my own coined term, not a DSM diagnosis!) and have been known to interpret the slightest lack of warmth as a sign that my friendship is at risk. Recently, though, I've learned to consider that even if a friend is irritated or angry with me, it's not the end of the world. It's uncomfortable, but it's also normal, and most relationships can withstand a bit of conflict. Realizing this helps me calm down enough to apologize if necessary and otherwise, to let it go.

The second way that "and if it were true--is it that bad?" works is that when the answer is yes, it is that bad, it can motivate you to change. If all evidence indicates that your grant application did suck, you are the only person who is alone, or that you are socially boring or awkward--and these things bother you--maybe you'll get someone to edit your next grant application, try speed dating, or work on your social skills. This is the behavioural part of cognitive-behavioural therapy, where you actually change the way you behave (in turn changing your thoughts and emotions).

Up next: shorter blog posts.


  1. Oh, I like your second exemple for the alternatives point ;-)

  2. Love it, SER, you are such a great writer... Big hugs!