The primary cause of unhappiness is never the situation, but your thoughts about it. Be aware of the thoughts you are thinking.
Ever had a thought that you know is probably not based in fact, but is just so hard to shake?
Maybe it’s an exaggerated reaction to something that’s happened.
Or a belief about what will happen in the future.
You’re not trying to think it. You just… do.
Also known as “cognitive distortions” or “thinking errors”, these are types of thinking that don’t necessarily align with what’s really going on around us.
What makes them tricky to recognize is that these types of thinking can occur so rapidly, they often feel automatic or outside our control.
We all engage in these types of thinking from time to time.
For some of us, however, they’re a constant part of our daily lives…
And left uninterrupted, they can keep us feeling stuck in a negative “loop” of thoughts, emotions, and behaviors.
Let’s say you have a negative thought about yourself (e.g., “I always say the wrong thing“).
This then affects the emotions you feel about yourself (e.g., sadness, frustration, shame)…
…and the sensations you feel in your body (e.g., muscle tension, nervous stomach)…
…which cause you to behave in certain ways (e.g., isolating yourself, avoiding situations in which you might embarrass yourself)
…that will increase the likelihood that you form another negative thought about yourself (e.g., “I have no social life,” “No one wants to be around me”).
See how easy it can be to get stuck in that loop?
Fortunately, there’s good news:
It’s also possible to break out of the loop.
With some focused effort and practice (a therapist can help you get started), you can learn to spot these types of thinking as they occur, challenge them with evidence, and replace them with more balanced and productive thoughts.
But, the first step is to recognize them.
Today we’re highlighting 10 types of thinking that may be getting in your way:
1. All-or-Nothing Thinking
One of the most common types of thinking, this is sometimes called “black and white” thinking.
It’s characterized by extremes:
Everything and everyone in the world can be sorted into polarized categories, like “good / bad”, “success / failure”, “always / never”.
It leaves little to no room for the gray areas in life. For balance or imperfection or growth or learning.
- “I never impress my boss.”
- “I have a bad time at parties.”
Of the many types of thinking, this one feels the most automatic to many of us.
We take one incident, interaction, or fact, and generalize it to the rest of our life.
- “I can’t believe she said that to me. Everyone from this town is rude.”
- “How could I let my son break his arm? I’m a terrible parent.”
3. Filtering out the Positive
Perfectionists of the world:
This one will be all too familiar to you.
Filtering out the positive means that no matter how many positive things happen, the negative ones will generally occupy most of our focus, attention, and energy.
Over time, this can cause us to actually devalue the positive aspects of our life.
- “Sure, I got mostly high ratings, but I can’t stop thinking about that one low score.”
- “I know plenty of people raved about my brownies and asked for the recipe, but why didn’t that one guest even try one?”
We all dabble is a little guesswork when it comes to interpreting the behaviors of others.
After all, unless we ask, we can never know what someone else may be thinking… right?
But, when it comes to this type of thinking, we’re all psychic. Assuming the thoughts, feelings, and intentions of those around us without stopping to collect any evidence.
- “I saw how he looked at me. He thinks I’m an idiot.”
- “Everyone’s laughing at me, I just know it.”
One of the types of thinking that mean just what they sound like, catastrophizing involves taking what we know about a situation and rapidly morphing it into an epic catastrophe.
- “I made a late payment. I’m going to end up bankrupt one day.”
- “We had a fight last night. I honestly don’t think we’re gonna make it as a couple.”
6. Emotional Reasoning
Basing our decisions around our emotions is not always helpful, however.
Especially when those emotions don’t match the reality of our situation.
- “I’m feeling nervous about the event. I’m calling to cancel.”
- “I’m still angry about what she said. I think I should just end the relationship.”
Ever seen a young child point to objects and people around them, naming what they are?
That’s an important way we first learn to interact with the world around us.
Unfortunately, we sometimes revert to slapping simplistic labels on people, places, and situations even when we’re capable of thinking much more complexly than that.
- “Her report had errors? She’s useless.”
- “I forgot their anniversary. I’m so selfish.”
It’s natural to feel curious about what the future holds.
Especially when we’re nervous or excited.
But, when we start assuming we know what will happen, it can set us up for negative thoughts, emotions, and hasty decision-making.
- “Why even try? I know I’m going to screw it up.”
- “My team’s gonna lose tomorrow, just watch…”
When you close your eyes, does that mean everyone else on earth is in the dark, too?
Of course not.
And yet that’s what this type of thinking assumes: That the world revolves around us.
- “She didn’t return my call. It must be something I said.”
- “He was so grumpy today. Maybe he hates me.”
10. Unreal Ideal
One tip for spotting this type of thinking?
It’s often accompanied by words like “ought to”, “have to”, “should” and “shouldn’t”.
It involves making comparisons about ourselves and others that are unfair, unrealistic, or even impossible.
- “I ought to have dinner on the table on time like a good parent.”
- “I should have been able to finish that race.”
Any of these sound familiar to you? See how many examples you can spot in your own life today.
And stay tuned for a future post on how to start challenging unhelpful thoughts!
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Ready to learn more about thinking errors and how to start challenging them?