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How to Recognize and Change Distorted Thinking Patterns

Updated on June 4, 2018
denise.w.anderson profile image

Denise has struggled with mental illness most of her life. She also has family members with mental illness. She speaks from experience.

Thought patterns can be distorted, just like this picture. When that happens, relationships with others are adversely affected.
Thought patterns can be distorted, just like this picture. When that happens, relationships with others are adversely affected. | Source

What You Think Determines What You Feel

We all have times in life when we stop ourselves and think, "Now why did I do that!" We make mistakes and do things that hurt ourselves and others, sometimes without even realizing what is happening. Someone winces after a comment we make, and then they turn away, or we brush off a child that was in need of love and attention, thinking that they deserved it because of their disobedience earlier in the day.

These moments are often the result of distorted thinking patterns we develop. The negative feelings that follow affect our ability to relate to others in positive ways. They include, but are not limited to exaggeration, black and white thinking, jumping to conclusions, assumptions, "what if" questions, comparisons, helplessness and dependency, and power and control.

Read through the following table to gain an understanding of these distorted thought patterns and see examples of how they are manifested. As you do so, think about the ones you use, then answer the question in the poll.

Distorted thought pattern
What it is
Example
Exaggeration
Focusing on a single negative detail taken out of context.
"I can't believe I misspelled that word! The boss must think I'm a stupid idiot!"
Black & White Thinking
Everything is extreme, either totally good or totally bad.
"These kids are terrible! They cannot be quiet even for a few minutes!"
Jumping to Conclusions
Extending negative feelings by reading other things into it.
"No one talked to me at the party today. They all hate me."
Making Assumptions
Making decisions based on what we perceive others are thinking.
"He left right after the performance without even saying good-by. I must have offended him and he doesn't ever want to see me again."
"What if" Questions
Thinking about what might happen to the point that decisions are made based upon it.
"What if they don't like me?! I'll never have any friends!"
Comparison
Measuring individual weaknesses by other's strengths.
"She looks like she just stepped out of a fashion magazine. I must look like a slob!"
Helplessness and Dependency
Everything we do is dependent upon someone else.
"If those other drivers would just watch out where they are going, I would be safe."
Power and Control
The world revolves around us and we affect everyone and everything.
"He will do it if I hound him enough! He is just lazy."

Which distorted thought pattern do you think that you use the most?

See results

Distorted thought patterns feed off of each other

Once we start using a distorted thought pattern, we usually end up having another and another, until our entire thought processes are colored by negativity. It is easy for depression, rage, anxiety, guilt and other negative self esteems to grow and flourish in this kind of environment.

If we can recognize the one that we use the most, we can work on that first. The positive habits developed will affect our ability to recognize and change others as well. Changing our thoughts is a step by step process. We have to:

  1. Recognize the thought pattern
  2. Red flag the words that make it irrational or distorted
  3. Replace these words with ones that will change the thought to a rational one
  4. Practice doing it over and over

Do you have so many negative thinking patterns that you cannot choose the one that you use the most?

See results

In order to change feelings, we have to change thought patterns

Once we recognize the thought patterns that are giving us issues, we can pinpoint the words that are used in the thought patterns that make them irrational. Read the examples below. The words in bold are what makes the thought irrational. It is followed by changes to make the thought a rational one.

Black and White Thinking

Distorted Thought: "These kids are terrible! They cannot be quiet even for a few minutes!"

We are putting the children at the far end of the spectrum of disobedience for the small infraction of being noisy momentarily.

Rational Thought: "These kids are being really noisy right now. What can I do to help them quiet down?"

Keep descriptions to specific, measurable and observable terms to avoid putting your thoughts at the far ends of the black and white spectrum.

Exaggeration

Distorted thought: "I can't believe I misspelled that word! The boss must think I'm a stupid idiot!"

We are making more of the situation by taking a small thing, a simple word, and blowing it out of proportion to equal an entire reputation at the company (what the boss thinks).

Rational thought: "I can't believe I misspelled that word! Next time, I'll be sure to use the spell checker before handing it in."

Making both sides of the equation equal (word = spell checker), keeps exaggeration at a minimum.

Making Assumptions

Distorted Thought: "He left right after the performance without even saying good-by. I must have offended him and he doesn't ever want to see me again!"

We are deciding that we know how he feels based on our perception of his thoughts.

Rational Thought: "He left right after the performance without saying good-bye. I'll talk to him later to see what is happening."

If we don't know what is happening, we need to check it out before making a decision about it.

Jumping to Conclusions

Distorted Thought: "No one talked to me at the party today. They all hate me!"

We have decided that not being talked to equals hate, an illogical conclusion.

Rational Thought: "That's funny, usually these people are more talkative. I wonder what is happening."

A simple observation of what is happening is all that is necessary. That way, we don't have to make any conclusions. Instead, we are gathering information.

Comparison

Distorted Thought: "She looks like she just stepped out of a fashion magazine. I must look like a slob!"

We are comparing her strength to our perceived weakness.

Rational Thought: "Wow, she looks great! I like the way she put those colors together in that outfit. I'm going to try that!"

Allowing ourselves to look at someone else's talent and ability and take ideas from it rather than comparing, keeps our feelings of self-confidence strong and allows ideas for future improvement based on what is learned.

"What If" Questions

Distorted Thought: "What if they don't like me?! I'll never have any friends!"

Any time a thought begins with the words "What if?" we are worrying about something that most likely will not happen. These types of thoughts usually have words such as "never" and "always" in them.

Rational Thought: "I don't know these people. It may take some time, but I'll find friends."

Leave off the "what if" and get to the real problem. That way, thoughts are not projected to an unknown future before decisions are made, and hope is left intact.

Power and Control

Distorted Thought: "He will do it if I hound him enough! He is just lazy!"

The responsibility is on us to make sure that everyone else does what they are supposed to. We become overworked and stressed by all that needs to be done.

Rational Thought: "He seems to be waiting for me to do something before he will act. It looks like we need to discuss our expectations."

Spreading the responsibility to all involved gives everyone power to act. The responsibility belongs to both to get the job done and a joint plan of action is needed.

Helplessness and Dependency

Distorted Thought: "If those other drivers would just watch out where they are going, I would be safe."

Any time we put the responsibility on someone else to determine our actions, we are becoming helpless and dependent. Our options are limited to what we see others do.

Rational Thought: "I had better be careful, this is a difficult stretch of road."

When we take responsibility for our own actions, we are free to make those choices that keep us safe and happy. Options remain open and we are able to make wise choices for our own benefit and the benefit of others.


Changing distorted thought patterns changes our feelings

As we grow in our ability to recognize and change distorted thought patterns, we grow in our ability to keep our self-esteem strong and our feelings positive. It may take some time initially, but it is well worth the effort in the long run.

Once we change distorted thought patterns, we feel better about ourselves, and our relationships with others are more enjoyable.
Once we change distorted thought patterns, we feel better about ourselves, and our relationships with others are more enjoyable. | Source

© 2011 Denise W Anderson

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    • denise.w.anderson profile imageAUTHOR

      Denise W Anderson 

      3 years ago from Bismarck, North Dakota

      I'm glad that they were helpful for you, Ariesgirls. Like you, I found that when I was able to get the information I needed to help myself, I wanted to share it with others. Take care!

    • Ariesgirls profile image

      Heidi Johnson 

      3 years ago from Vinton, Ohio

      Excellent! I can use this with some of my clients at work (and myself- but you know that's the last person we ever want to help). Actually, you have a LOT of hubs that can be useful. You're so positive! Thanks for sharing your knowledge!

    • denise.w.anderson profile imageAUTHOR

      Denise W Anderson 

      3 years ago from Bismarck, North Dakota

      Thanks, Marilyn! I appreciate your feedback. Distorted thinking tends to be an issue that I battle with regularly. The techniques talked about here have been helpful for me and I had hoped that they would would be for others as well.

    • Marilyn Fritz profile image

      Marilyn 

      3 years ago from Nevada

      Hi Denise. I am impressed with your Hub, and all the information you provide. I can agree that recognizing distorted thinking patterns is half the battle, and I believe it is a continuing process throughout life. Knowing what to do to overcome helps, and you provide great information that people can use in a positive manner.

    • denise.w.anderson profile imageAUTHOR

      Denise W Anderson 

      5 years ago from Bismarck, North Dakota

      Thanks for reading and commenting, Purpose Embraced. Recognizing these distorted thinking patterns is half the battle, and you are doing well to get that far! The rest comes with practice. We get better at it the more we do it. As much as I have been through training and counseling, I still find myself falling back into old habits and have to go through the process again to get back on track. Best wishes to you!

    • Purpose Embraced profile image

      Yvette Stupart PhD 

      5 years ago from Jamaica

      Hi Denise, thanks for sharing a great hub. I really believe that distorted thinking has an adverse effect on our lives. How we think affects not only how we feel, but also how we behave.

      I sometimes fall prey to exaggeration. For example, something happens, and I tend to beat up myself thinking, "How could I make this happen?" But I'm learning to let go, and consider the many times I got it right.

    • denise.w.anderson profile imageAUTHOR

      Denise W Anderson 

      5 years ago from Bismarck, North Dakota

      I re-worked this hub with additional information.

    • denise.w.anderson profile imageAUTHOR

      Denise W Anderson 

      6 years ago from Bismarck, North Dakota

      Awareness is a big part of changing the thinking patterns that we have. A person who is not aware can cause themselves a great deal of emotional pain without realizing what they are doing. I did not realize that I had these types of issues until it affected me to the point of needing hospitalization.

    • Seeker7 profile image

      Helen Murphy Howell 

      6 years ago from Fife, Scotland

      I really enjoyed this excellent hub. I didn't even realise that we had thought patterns like this until it was pointed out in your article. I wonder then how much of the negative thinking we do is in part due to the fact we're not even aware of it?

      A fascinating hub + voted up + shared.

    • denise.w.anderson profile imageAUTHOR

      Denise W Anderson 

      7 years ago from Bismarck, North Dakota

      Thanks for the positive feedback!

    • BetteMachete profile image

      BetteMachete 

      7 years ago

      I think your hub is nicely formatted, and the pictures amused me. Rated you up! Very informative.

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