Tackling negative thinking: Part 1
or, identifying unhelpful thoughts to change the way you feel
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One of my greatest assets as a coach is my training as a therapist. Not only does it give me a deeper understanding of human behavior and motivation, but I also have a much broader toolbox and range of techniques that I can use with clients. Though I’m not performing therapy as a coach, I do help clients identify and confront their limiting beliefs, cultivate insight into why they take certain actions, and get to the core issue at play—instead of just working on the surface and finding bandaid solutions.
Today I want to talk about identifying cognitive distortions (a type of limiting belief). According to cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), there are ten common cognitive distortions—another term for negative thought patterns—that people frequently engage in. The premise of CBT is that by noticing these unhelpful automatic thoughts and recognizing them as such, we can begin to create more balanced and adaptive perspectives when we’re distressed. In a nutshell, when we change the way we think, we change the way we feel.
Though I don’t ask clients to list out which cognitive distortions they use or request that they complete thought records—the way that a cognitive behavioral therapist might—I do sometimes talk to them more broadly about unhelpful thoughts and ways to reframe them. Today’s newsletter is going to focus on identifying these unhelpful thought patterns (drawn from David Burns’ seminal work The Feeling Good Handbook). Next week, I will focus on ways to overcome them.
Common cognitive distortions
Also called “all or nothing” thinking, people using polarized thinking see situations as black and white, where anything short of complete success constitutes failure. The problem with this type of thinking is that it’s incomplete. When we only focus on extremes, we’re not allowing for the nuance of reality. To illustrate, let’s say you’re passed over for a promotion and suddenly fear that you’re going to be fired. This line of reasoning excludes the much more likely possibility that you’re doing well at work but that the company found someone who was a better fit for the new role.
We overgeneralize when we take a single negative event and anticipate future (negative) outcomes based on this isolated data, creating a never-ending pattern of defeat. This type of thinking is often characterized by the use of language like “always”, “never”, “forever”, “entire”, etc. For example, when your boss gives you an urgent, last-minute project, you think to yourself, “she always does this to me”. Or your spouse drops the ball on picking up another gallon of milk at the store and you think “He never helps out at home”. This type of thinking often leads people to feel victimized or like they’re in an unending cycle of defeat.
When engaging in mental filtering, a person focuses solely on negative aspects of a situation and filters out positive aspects. The negative aspect thus becomes magnified and compromises the person’s ability to see the situation clearly.
To illustrate, suppose that you just pitched a major project to a client. The vast majority of feedback you received was positive, and the client decided to move forward with the project. However, one member of the client team offered mild criticisms and suggested some changes. If you engage in mental filtering, you begin ruminating on her critiques and essentially ignore all of the positive feedback you received.
Discounting the positive
We discount the positive when we reject positive feedback, insisting that it “doesn’t count”. This can look like comments such as “you’re only saying nice things because you’re my friend”. Over time, this way of thinking can lead to chronic feelings of inadequacy or unhappiness.
Jumping to conclusions
As its name suggests, we jump to conclusions when we draw assumptions without any facts or data. There are two ways we do this. The first is by mind reading, or believing we know what someone else is thinking. For example, when your boss seems distracted, you assume that she’s mad at you. In reality, it’s much more likely she’s preoccupied with some other issue. The other type is fortune-telling, or forecasting that things will turn out badly. For example, being convinced that you’re going to blow a job interview before it happens. Both ways of thinking lead to inaccurate (and unhelpful) interpretations of events.
Magnification is the over-exaggeration of a negative thought. This often happens when we’re in a situation with several unknowns that are out of our control. This sense of unease leads us to catastrophize and believe that the worst possible outcome will occur. Psychologists sometimes analogize that engaging in catastrophic thinking is akin to pouring gasoline on a fire—we make our anxiety much worse when we magnify the worst-case scenario.
Emotional reasoning leads us to believe that our negative emotions reflect reality. In other words, we believe that if we feel it, it must be true. For example, if we feel like an imposter at our job, it must be because we’re inferior. Or if we feel overwhelmed as a parent, it must be because we’re incompetent. Accepting the emotion as fact blocks out more logical reasoning and can lead to feelings of panic.
When we make statements about what we “should”, “shouldn't”, or “must” do, we place a lot of unnecessary pressure on ourselves. For example, telling yourself that you must make partner by 40 or that you should be farther up the ladder than you current are. Failure to meet self-imposed expectations, leads to feelings of disappointment, anger, frustration, or shame.
Labeling is a more extreme form of overgeneralization, in which we assign judgement or permanent characteristics to ourselves or others based on a single event. For example, when you make a mistake, you think “I’m a failure”. We can also apply labeling to others. For example, when a colleague interrupts you, you may think “he’s such an asshole”. This type of thinking leads to feelings of anger or hopelessness.
Personalization and blame
When we personalize, we hold ourselves accountable for events that are not wholly under our control. To illustrate, let’s say one of your employees is underperforming. If you were to personalize this situation, you would blame yourself for his performance, assuming it must mean you’re a terrible boss. This way of thinking not only puts undue pressure on you, but it also can prevent others from (more rightfully) taking accountability.
One final word…
Everyone engages in the above cognitive distortions sometimes (so, truly, no judgement). The issue is the frequency and degree of distress these thinking errors are causing. Next week we’re going to dive deeper into ways to challenge these unhelpful thinking patterns. See you then 👋
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