Is Your Thinkin' Stinkin'? What Are Those Mental Stumbling Blocks to Success?
Looking at Life Through a Distorted Lens
Cognitive Distortions: Just a Fancy Name for Stinkin' Thinkin'
In 1972, Aaron T. Beck, M.D., a psychiatrist with no background in psychology, published the book, “Depression: Causes and Treatment.” Beck became dissatisfied with the conventional Freudian treatment of depression.
Working with depressed patients, he found that they experienced streams of negative thoughts that seemed to pop up spontaneously. Beck labeled these cognitions “automatic thoughts,” and discovered that their content fell into three categories. People had negative ideas about:
- The world and others
- Their future
When patients identified and evaluated these thoughts, they thought more realistically about the issue, which led them to feel better emotionally. In turn, they were able to function better. Regardless of any diagnosis, the efficacy of labeling cognitive distortions works well with:
- Eating disorders
- Personality disorders
Even for those that do not carry any disorders, there are Cognitive Distortions and Stinkin'Thinkin'. These are the thinking patterns that have developed over time that can cause a misrepresentation or falsehood about reality. These distortions cause you to interpret reality in a harmful way, towards either yourself or others.
Typically, they create negative evaluations and perceptions of life events and individuals, including yourself, that carry over into most areas or aspects of your life.
Making Information about Cognitive Distortions Available to Everyone
David D. Burns is an adjunct professor emeritus in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the Stanford University School of Medicine and the author of the best-selling book Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy.
Burns popularized cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) when his book became the best seller during the 1980s. Feeling Good grew out of dissatisfaction with conventional Freudian treatment of depression. Burns’ mentor, Dr. Aaron T. Beck, and Dr. Albert Ellis concluded that there was no empirical evidence for the success of Freudian psychoanalysis in treating depressed people.
The idea that negative feelings such as depression and anxiety are triggered by our thoughts or perceptions has a long history. Dating back to the Greek philosopher Epictetus, who said that people are disturbed not by things but by the way they think about them.
People in Recovery Supportive meetings often refer to these types of thinking errors as “stinkin thinkin”, while Zig Ziglar, a motivational speaker popularized the term in his often quoted statement: "We all need a daily check up from the neck up to avoid stinkin’ thinkin' that ultimately leads to hardening of the attitudes".
Types of Cognitive Distortions
- All or Nothing Thinking or Polarized Thinking
This kind of thinking does not take into account that people are neither “good” nor “bad.” They are sometimes good and sometimes bad. They do not ultimately succeed or fail. They usually are successful at certain things and not with others, or they have some success and some failures.
Polarized thinking is like standing at one end of the football field or the other. One pole is good, at the other bad; saint at one end and sinner at the other, when in reality, most people are between the poles.
This distortion creates a false picture of reality by taking one fact, event, situation, or comment and making a general rule out of it. Then you then do not bother to verify the truth of your thinking. From an isolated situation where you were not successful, you create the impression of yourself, for yourself, that you will always fail, or process it from loss and rejection and have self-pity. A better way, of thinking, would be:
“Sometimes I have not been successful” rather than, “I am never successful.”
“I’m the only person in school without a supportive family” is not valid but “Some of the people in school have supportive families” is.
This distortion works on both sides. Conversely, if one person tells you that they like your dress, you can decide that everyone is jealous because of your taste in clothing.
You will know that you are over-generalizing when you think in absolutes.
Personalization creates the illusion that everything has something to do with you. You are at the center of the universe. For instance, someone starts sharing about their life, and you jump right in with your examples of the same thing. Or you may have decided that you want to go out to dinner and then see a movie.
Your spouse does not wish to leave the house for any reason. You may decide, “Nobody ever wants to do what I want to do” is an example of over-generalization and personalization.
Assuming without Verifying
Without stopping to verify the reasons for your spouse’s decision you falsely decide it’s about you. However, if you explore the alternatives, you discover that:
- They are not feeling well
- They have an important breakfast meeting
- They need to get a good night’s sleep because they were restless the night before
All of these could be potential reasons for, not wanting to go out and not a one of them has anything to do with you. When friends or loved ones choose not to participate in an activity with you, it doesn't have to be about you, it can be about them.
- Global Labeling
Global Labeling creates stereotypes by labeling whole groups of people, behaviors, and experiences. These stereotypes are typically negative. Just as over-generalization is inaccurate, global labeling negates any positive aspects of either yourself or others.
- Examples of global labeling:
- I’m just an addict - as the only way you describe you
- A job as “the Treadmill.”
- Just a cashier
- I am stupid - when you do not understand one aspect of something, but are not “stupid” in others
- They are irresponsible - when referencing an entire group of people
It is better to be very specific, such as “I am an addict, as well as mother, educator, writer, and woman". Then I have given myself varied labels that do not all have a negative connotation.
Filtering only allows you to view your world through a negative assessment of facts, rejection, loss, or unfairness. There is a tendency to view your world only through the negative and discarding anything positive. For example, “I never get any compliments at work; my boss is super critical. It is always about the negative stuff I have done. If only I would be praised, just once, I would feel better about myself.”
There are several cognitive distortions in this statement—over-generalization, personalization, and filtering. Just a day before, this individual had been “praised” for a report they had submitted that others had struggled with previously.
The report was thorough, with only a few minor corrections. Instead of realizing that the work was 99% correct, they filtered and focused on the 1% that was incorrect. Filtering comes out in your conversations, returning to the subjects of loss, rejections and what ifs:
- “Why couldn’t it have been.”
- Discussions of everything and everyone that is missing in your life
- Statements like: “It’s unfair” are all clues to filtering
Learning to evaluate everything that people say to you can help with filtering. In the case of the boss and the worker, viewing it from, “My boss was critical about me being late for work, but did praise my report” puts this into a correct perspective.
Blaming Poles - It's Either All Their Responsibility or All Your Fault
Blaming others and making them responsible for how you feel, creates a false responsibility for your feelings and causes you to adopt a “victim posture”. It’s a victim stance because no one can “make you feel.” If that were the case, you wouldn’t have independent feelings; you’d be sitting around waiting for someone to stimulate your feelings, or something to happen to have a feeling.
But I Was Angry at Their Actions
Do you react to people’s actions? Yes. But rather than saying, "You made me mad," it is better to own your feelings. A better way of phrasing, this is, “When you said/did that, I felt mad." You have then told them how you felt about what they did, but the feelings were your own.
If you find that you have a lot of self-pity, look to see if there are any actions you can take to feel more in control of the situations. What do you need to do to establish healthy boundaries? Are people taking advantage of you? What is your part in these cases?
Blaming yourself for everything shows up when you say, “I’m sorry, it’s my fault,” even when you doubt the words. It may be part of a message from the past, when you were told that you were responsible for everything. These types of messages, especially from childhood, can foster this kind of cognitive distortion. Figure out whose “little red wagon” is this. If you have made a mistake, acknowledge it.
If you are simply sad about the outcome of someone's choices, you can state who is responsible but how you feel is a better way to handle this. For instance, “I am sad that you can’t go on your field trip because of your conduct in class, rather than, "If I were a better mother, you would act better and could go on your field trip."
Whose "Little Red Wagon" is it? Who is responsible and who is distorting their responsibility?
Jumping to Conclusions Has Two Types of Distortions
- Fortune Telling
With this distortion, you create the illusion that you somehow know the outcomes of situations before they occur. It is typically a negative result. Taken to extreme or predicting the most catastrophic outcome is called, “awfulizing.”
- You don't have a headache, you have a brain tumor.
- It's not a rough patch in your relationship, it's a pending divorce.
- Your friend doesn't like you anymore, they didn't return your call in 10 minutes.
One way to “better predict” outcomes is to look at your history or weigh the facts:
Are there stresses in your life that are contributing to the headache? Have you had your eyes examined? Do you need to seek professional help rather than a negative self-diagnosis?
Aren’t there healthy relationships amongst your friends where they have disagreements about some things?
Haven’t you been occupied and not gotten to return a phone call?
- Mind Reading
Mind Reading assumes that all of the rest of the world thinks, reacts, and feels like you do, which you falsely believe means that you can read their minds because it is just like yours. Mind reading creates assumptions about others based on your perceptions - not their thoughts, feelings, and ideas.
If you are mind reading or assuming, just ask someone exactly what he or she meant by what they said or did so you are clear about their intentions, not your best guess.
Which Cognitive Distortion Do You Use Most Frequently?
Although we use more than one Cognitive Ditortion as a rule, which one do you use the most?
- Emotional Reasoning
Emotional Reasoning means that you are making decisions based on how you feel rather than using your feelings and your thoughts to make decisions. For instance, someone criticizes your work in a meeting, and you feel trapped and embarrassed, and your inclination is to run away from these feelings.
You grab your belongings and leave, with no direction, nowhere to go, and a new baby on the way. However, you felt these things and had to get away from the feelings!
Stop and Think about the Potential Consequences of your Decisions
You did not once think about the bigger picture. You let your emotions dictate what action to take, and your emotions should not be the only criteria for making decisions—your thinking needs to be part of your decision-making as well.
Fearful situations can create Emotional Reasoning. You are anxious about a test, so you begin magnifying the anxiety with statements about how little you know about the subject matter. Compounding the stress, you label yourself as the dumbest one in the class, and project a poor grade. With this type of distorted thinking, your anxiety just soars through the roof.
Regroup – do you know the material? Let someone ask you questions, and as you answer him or her correctly, you may feel your anxiety lessen. Asking others for their input can help you put your opinions into perspective.
Did you find your typical cognitive distortion in this article? Was the information helpful to you to start changing this pattern of thinking?
Identify your Favorite Distortions and Then Change The Patterns
People have predictable distortions that they regularly use, just as they have a favorite color. Some people are automatically going to think using a predictable cognitive distortion in much the same way that they choose blue over red.
Identifying which of these cognitive distortions you tend to use means that you can make the effort to change your thinking.
Use a Stop Command to Change the Distortion
When you realize that you are processing from a distortion, think, “Stop, that’s a distortion” and then re-frame your thought. For a week, pay attention to which cognitive distortions you use and then practice countering or correcting the negative messages.
Learning to Have More Rational Thoughts
With practice and changing your cognitive distortions, you will find that you can recognize them and correct them with rational equalizing thoughts. Learning new ways to think and no longer using cognitive distortions will help you be more in touch with reality and probably lighten or lift your mood as well.