8 Thought Distortions that Hurt Relationships
You are Responsible for Your Thoughts
I want to think the way the apostle Paul advised the Philippians, “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable — if anything is excellent or praiseworthy — think about such things and the God of peace will be with you” Philippians 4:8
How do I do that?
Everyone experiences thought distortions to some degree, but extreme forms can be harmful. When I was struggling with PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) I couldn’t see any beauty. All my thoughts were negative.
I needed a therapist to help me see that my thoughts were getting distorted. She recommended I read The Feeling Good Handbook by David D. Burns, M.D. and do the exercises to identify how irrational thoughts were influencing my emotions.
Doing that helped me recognize how the negative thoughts about myself and others were feeding my emotions, in turn making it hard for me to find things that true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable.
If you find Paul’s word to the Philippians challenging, I invite you to consider whether one or more of the following ten thought distortions could be influencing how you see the world.
8 Thought Distortions
Distortion #1: All-or-nothing thinking
You see things in black-or-white categories. You think in absolutes such as “always”, “never”, or “every”. If a situation falls short of perfect, you see it as a total failure. Example: “I never do a good enough job on anything.”
Labeling – An extreme form of all-or-nothing thinking is assigning labels to yourself or others. The label is an abstraction that leads you to see yourself or the other person as all good or all bad. Instead of saying “I made a mistake,” you attach a negative label to yourself like, “I’m a loser.”
You might label someone an idiot, a failure or a jerk. Labeling is irrational because you are not the same as what you do. Labeling leads to focusing the problem on the person’s character or essence instead of with her thinking or behavior. This leads toward low self-esteem, hostility and hopeless about improving things and leaves very little room for constructive communication.
Distortion #2: Magnification or Minimization
You exaggerate the importance of your mistakes, problems and shortcomings, or you minimize your achievements and the importance of your desirable qualities. This is also called the “binocular trick.”
- Over Generalization – You make broad interpretations from a single or few events. You see a single negative event as a never-ending pattern of defeat by using words such as “always” or “never” when you think about it.
- Catastrophizing – Seeing only the worst possible outcomes of a situation.
Distortion #3: Mental Filter
You pick out a single negative detail and dwell on it exclusively, so that your vision of reality becomes darkened, like the drop of ink that discolors a beaker of water. Example: You receive many positive comments and one that’s mildly critical. You obsess about the negative reaction for days and ignore all the positive feedback.
Distortion #4: Disqualify the Positive
You reject positive experiences by insisting that they “don’t count.” When you do a good job, you tell yourself that it wasn’t good enough or you find a reason to remove positive events from consideration.
Distortion #5: Jumping to Conclusions
You interpret the meaning of a situation with little or no facts to support your conclusion.
- Mind Reading – Interpreting the actions and thoughts of others without checking it out. Example: You arbitrarily conclude that someone is behaving negatively toward you.
- Fortune-telling – You predict that things will turn out badly without any evidence. You tell yourself things like, “This isn’t going to work.” or “I’m gonna blow this.”
Distortion #6: Emotional Reasoning
You assume that your emotions reflect the way things really are. Examples: “I’m terrified of going on airplanes. It must be dangerous to fly.”
Or, “I feel guilty. I must be a rotten person.” Or, “I feel angry, which proves that I’m being treated unfairly.” Or, “I feel so inferior. I am a second rate person.” Or, “I feel hopeless. I must really be hopeless.” “I feel like a bad husband, so I must be a bad husband.”
Distortion #7: Magical Thinking
The belief that acts will influence unrelated situations. “I am a good person—bad things shouldn’t happen to me.”
“Should” statements are a form of magical thinking is telling yourself that things should be the way you hoped or expected them to be. Must, ought, and have to are similar offenders. Married people often exclaim, “A good relationship shouldn’t be so hard.”
Should statements that are directed against yourself lead to guilt and frustration. “I should always be nice.” Should statements that are directed against other people or the world in general, lead to anger and frustration: “He shouldn’t be so stubborn and argumentative!”
Many people try to motivate themselves with should’s and shouldn’ts. It’s like they were delinquents who had to be punished before they could be expected to do anything. “I shouldn’t eat that doughnut.” This usually doesn’t work because all these shoulds and musts make you feel rebellious and you get the urge to do just the opposite.
Distortion #8: Personalization and Blame
Personalization comes when you hold yourself personally responsible for an event that isn’t entirely under your control. Personalization leads to guilt, shame, and feelings of inadequacy.
Some people do the opposite. They blame other people or their circumstances for their problems. They overlook ways they might be contributing to the problem. Example: “The reason my marriage is so lousy is because my spouse is totally unreasonable.” Or, “My wife is always upset. She would be fine if I did more to help her.”
When I started to recognize the unhealthy thoughts that I entertained, I was able to work on replacing them with thoughts that were true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable excellent and praiseworthy.
Changing these thoughts helped me to be a happier person and to have a better relationship with my husband.
Burns, David D. The feeling good handbook. New York: Plume, 1999.
Cognitive Distortions © 2012 Therapist Aid LLC Provided by TherapistAid.com
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