May 16, 2011

Don't Believe Everything You Think

News Flash: Just because you think something doesn't mean it's true.

A lot of our thoughts are distorted or irrational and directly promote depression, anxiety, and anger, among other mental health scourges. Cognitive-behavioural therapists use the non-exhaustive list below to point out the things and ways we think that are unrealistic, distorted, and just plain false.

1) All-or-nothing thinking: You see things in black and white, as all good or all bad. You say things like "Everything sucks," and "That was a complete waste of time." The hallmarks of all-or-nothing thinking are words like complete, total, everything, and everyone.

2) Overgeneralization: You see a single negative event as part of a never-ending pattern of defeat. If you don't get a call back after your job interview, you think "I always screw up." If you plan a barbeque and it rains, you think "Nothing ever works out for me." Words like always and never figure prominently.

3) Labeling: This is an extreme form of overgeneralization. Instead of naming your own or someone else's specific behaviour, you attach a global negative label. Rather than say " I lost my temper and yelled at my son," you say "I'm a bad parent." Instead of saying, "My boss gave me an unfair evaluation, you say "My boss is an asshole."

4) Negative filter: You pick out negative details and dwell on them exclusively, not letting in any positive information. You focus on the one rainy day in the sunny week or the one snag in a project or relationship that is otherwise going quite well, darkening your overall perception until you see the whole world through a lens of negativity.

5) Disqualifying the positive: You reject positive experiences by insisting that they're trivial or somehow don't count, maintaining a negative perspective that's incongruent with reality. You say things like "I only got the job because no one else applied," and "Sure I finally completed my PhD--but most of my friends finished school a decade ago!"

6) Mind Reading: Without sufficient evidence, you arbitrarily conclude that someone is reacting negatively to you. You think things like, "Now that she knows I'm single, she thinks I'm a loser, "and "He didn't come over and say hi right away; he's wishing he hadn't invited me."

7) Fortune Telling: You predict failure and negative outcomes. You anticipate that things will turn out badly and are convinced that your prediction is already an established fact. You think things like "There's no way I'll win that competition," and "I'll never meet someone I'll love as much as I loved my ex."

8) Catastrophizing: You believe that what happened or might happen will be so awful and unbearable that you won't be able to stand it. In this case, it's not that you misperceive what happened or might happen--it's that you exaggerate the consequences and minimize your ability to deal with it. You believe things like "If he broke up with me, I'd fall apart," and "There's no way I can handle moving again this year."

9) Emotional reasoning: This one is neatly captured by "I feel it, therefore it must be true." You assume that your negative emotions are a reflection of reality and think things like, "Because I feel intimidated by him, he must be smarter than me," and "Because I'm scared of flying, it must be dangerous."

10) Should statements: You have rigid standards or expectations and you use them to judge yourself, others, and the world. You think things like "It shouldn't be this hard for me to stick to my diet," "I should have been able to handle that on my own," and "These people should treat me with more respect."

11) Personalizing: You assume total responsibility for negative events and arbitrarily conclude that they are your fault or reflect your inadequacy. You think things like, "If I were a better therapist, my client would do her homework," and "If I were a better mother, my daughter would have more friends."

Cognitive-behavioural therapists love this list and use any excuse to whip it out. It's been given to me by countless professors, supervisors, and workshop leaders, and by more than one therapist. I've in turn given it to my own friends and clients.

Next up: what to do once you've identified your distortions.

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