Our thoughts impact our feelings and behaviors. In other words, our feelings (and behaviors) are not caused by people or events or situations but rather by how we interpret those things. It is the meaning we ascribe to them; it is what we tell ourselves that contributes to our distress. Often what we tell ourselves is not only negative and self-defeating, but irrational. For instance, where is written that we “must” get good grades, that significant others “must” accept and approve of us? Likewise, many situations are highly unpleasant but very few things are “awful” or “terrible.” We need not accept every automatic thought that pops into our heads. Rather, we can identify, evaluate, and even reframe thoughts. We can look for alternative perspectives that are more positive, realistic, and rational. The goal is not to “believe” a different thought. The goal is to become more flexible in our thinking. If, for instance, you fail a math test, it does not logically follow that you are not cut out for the rigors of college life and that you are doomed to never succeed in life. All it means is you failed one test in one class. It doesn’t define you, and while it would have been preferable to have performed better, it’s not a catastrophe that you didn’t. Pay attention to your self-talk. It is often helpful to track your thoughts and to become more aware of how they contribute to negative feelings and unhealthy behaviors.
Our thoughts are often distorted
- All-or-nothing thinking: You see things in black and white categories. If your performance falls short of perfect, you see yourself as a total failure.
- Overgeneralization: You see a single negative event as a never-ending pattern of defeat.
- Mental filter: You pick out a single negative detail and dwell on it exclusively so that your vision of all reality becomes darkened, like the drop of ink that discolors the entire beaker of water.
- Disqualifying the positive: You reject positive experiences by insisting they "don't count" for some reason or other. You maintain a negative belief that is contradicted by your everyday experiences.
- Jumping to conclusions: You make a negative interpretation even though there are no definite facts that convincingly support your conclusion.
Mind reading: You arbitrarily conclude that someone is reacting negatively to you and don't bother to check it out.
The Fortune Teller Error: You anticipate that things will turn out badly and feel convinced that your prediction is an already-established fact.
- Magnification (catastrophizing) or minimization: You exaggerate the importance of things (such as your goof-up or someone else's achievement), or you inappropriately shrink things until they appear tiny (your own desirable qualities or the other fellow's imperfections). This is also called the "binocular trick."
- Emotional reasoning: You assume that your negative emotions necessarily reflect the way things really are: "I feel it, therefore it must be true."
- Should statements: You try to motivate yourself with shoulds and shouldn'ts, as if you had to be whipped and punished before you could be expected to do anything. "Musts" and "oughts" are also offenders. The emotional consequence is guilt. When you direct should statements toward others, you feel anger, frustration, and resentment.
- Labeling and mislabeling: This is an extreme form of overgeneralization. Instead of describing your error, you attach a negative label to yourself: "I'm a loser." When someone else's behavior rubs you the wrong way, you attach a negative label to him, "He's a damn louse." Mislabeling involves describing an event with language that is highly colored and emotionally loaded.
- Personalization: You see yourself as the cause of some negative external event for which, in fact, you were not primarily responsible.
Lee M. Stillerman, PhD