We tend not to think too hard about the way that we think, the manner in which we process information, but there are a number of ways in which poor thinking patterns can result in our experiencing negative emotions. These are ways in which we distort or ignore evidence that result in our coming to the wrong conclusions.
Fortune telling is thinking we can predict the future, often in an inaccurate and negative way; it’s often used as a way of talking ourselves out of doing something.
- Someone invites you to a party but you predict you won’t enjoy it and so stay at home, feeling miserable.
- You think you'll fail the exam
- You would love to do a bungee jump (or to have done a bungee jump!) but you predict that you wouldn’t be able to do it, or that something would go wrong.
- You fancy someone you’ve met but predict that it will all end in tears and so don’t let them know or ask them out.
One problem with fortune telling is that because it stops us from doing something, we don’t get to see the evidence that our prediction is wrong. Even if we do the activity, we don’t notice how our prediction was wrong.
Mind reading is assuming that we know what someone else is thinking.
- Your boss calls you into his office and you assume that you have done something wrong and are in trouble.
- You’re talking to someone at a party and you think they think you’re being boring.
- You pass a neighbour on the street, smile at them but get no smile in return, and you assume that they are cross with you for the slightly noisy barbecue you had last week.
Even when someone tells you something explicitly, it’s still possible to mishear what they said or what they meant. And if they don’t say anything, there’s no way that you can know what they’re thinking. Don’t make assumptions.
Personalizing is assuming that events are related to you personally and overlooking all other factors.
- You’re driving home and someone cuts in front of you, and you think the other driver did it specifically to you and it was intentional.
- A neighbour passes you in the street without saying hello and you assume that you must have done something that has made them angry with you.
- You are the last to hear something at work and think that the others had deliberately not told you.
- A relationship ends and you assume it was all your fault.
- You’re a bus driver and the kids upstairs are ringing the bell repeatedly to wind you up – they may be winding the driver up, but not specifically you personally.
This assumption that it is all about you leads to extreme emotions – in the examples above, angry at the other driver, social anxiety with the neighbour, paranoia and anxiety at work, and depression and loss of self-esteem at the ending of the relationship.
All or nothing thinking
This is also called black and white thinking and is seeing everything in absolute terms, “always”, “every” or “never”. People either love you or hate you, something is entirely your fault or you are completely blameless, something is perfect or a disaster.
- You’re trying to get fit and lose some weight but you miss going to the gym for a week and as a result give up going altogether.
- You’re studying and get a poor mark for a piece of work, so you conclude that you’re stupid, not going to be able to do the course, and so stop going.
There are very few absolutes in life; that you’re doing the course at all is evidence that you are not stupid. If you make a fair comparison with others on the course, you’re probably somewhere in the middle, and even the people who appear to be smart won’t be top at every subject. Think in shades of grey (or even better, in colour) rather than the absolute black and white terms.
Just because we feel something to be true, doesn’t make it so. Relying too heavily on our feelings can lead us to make mistakes. Feelings are not evidence, not facts.
- Your partner says something to you and you feel you are being criticized, that you are being judged and found wanting.
- You start feeling guilty out of the blue and conclude that you must have done something wrong about which you should feel guilty.
- You feel angry and reason that because you feel angry, then someone else must have behaved hurtfully towards you.
- You feel anxious and reason that you should put off whatever it was that you were about to do
Emotions are a result of thinking.
This is thinking in stereotypes about yourself and other people; if you label the world as being “unsafe”, you will be too anxious to go out into it; if you label other people as useless, you may become angry with them.
- You get a poor mark for an essay and you label yourself as “a failure”.
- You leave your umbrella on the bus and label yourself as “stupid”.
- You make assumptions about people based on their sex or race.
- You think you make all these cognitive mistakes and therefore you can never be happy.
Labelling yourself is especially dangerous because it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy – if you label yourself as being stupid or a failure, you might then avoid situations where the label might be shown to be true, and you don’t get to test whether the label is accurate.
This is the process of seeing one negative event as a never ending pattern of “always” or “never”.
- Your car doesn’t start one morning and you think “this is always happening, nothing ever goes right”.
- You’re in a supermarket checkout queue and the person in front is taking ages to pack their goods, you think “this is typical, people are so incompetent”.
- You snap at one of your children, then feel guilty and think you’re a dreadful parent.
If you catch yourself generalizing from a single bit of evidence, the this is over-generalizing and the thought can be challenged by looking at all the times the opposite happens.
This is selecting the evidence that matches your belief about how you are and the world is, and not looking for evidence that disconfirms your beliefs.
- You think you’re a failure so focus on the things you have done badly, while ignoring those that you have done well.
- You think that you can be boring so become very self aware whenever you’re talking, and perhaps try to talk less.
If you find yourself making comparisons of yourself to others, then are you comparing yourself to the average or unfavourably comparing yourself to the best, smartest, prettiest or youngest?
Disqualifying the positive
This is another biased way of processing information so that events that should be interpreted positively are actually interpreted negatively.
- You are anxious about doing something and have been putting it off, but when you have done it, instead of patting yourself on the back, you run yourself down by saying that it wasn’t difficult at all, what was all the fuss about.
- Your boss tells you that they’re pleased at some work you’ve done but you counter this by thinking that “he’s just saying that, they want me to work harder”.
- Someone says something nice to you and you just wonder what they’re after.
If you find it hard to accept compliments from others, then you probably also find it hard to accept compliments from yourself. If you do brush off compliments from others, they might stop making them.
Any time you find yourself using words such as “should”, “must”, “ought to”, “need to”, “have to” or “got to” you are making inflexible demands on how you or somebody else has to be.
- You think you must have the approval of all your friends and colleagues (and that it would be awful not to).
- You think that because you are kind and considerate to other people, then they must be as kind as considerate in return (and that it is dreadful when they aren’t).
- You think you must never let people down by being late, and so waste your time by always being early.
- It’s rude not to have your money ready to pay in the supermarket queue (because they must).
If you make demands of other people, then it is certain that other people will break your rules, and you will be making yourself angry. If you make demands of yourself, and you break your rules, you might be angry with yourself, or depressed, or anxious. And if you or others do meet your demands, it is quite likely that you will just raise the bar and make it even harder.
This is taking a relatively minor event and building a mountain from the molehill, imagining the worst possible scenario. Whatever it is you’re catastrophizing about, it is the worst possible thing and it is too awful to contemplate.
- You’re waiting for your partner to come home from work, they’re ten minutes later and you imagine all sorts of catastrophes that might have happened – they’ve had a car crash or become ill and been rushed to hospital.
- You’re on a date and your partner is a bit offhand, you immediately assume that they are about to dump you.
- You’re at a party and you knock over a glass of wine, you immediately leave to go home and assume that everyone saw and thinks you are inept and clumsy.
- Your boss calls you into his office and you imagine that you are in trouble, that you’re going to be fired, that you won’t be able to get another job, that you’ll lose your house. This is stringing catastrophic thoughts together.
It would be better to have a more realistic view of the event based on the evidence – it is possible that your partner has had an accident but unlikely, and remember that you thought this way yesterday when they were late and that this is just a pattern of thinking.
Low frustration tolerance
This is the error of assuming that because something is difficult to tolerate that it is “intolerable” and so long term benefits are sacrificed to short term comfort. This often manifests itself as “it’s too hard” or by rationalizations and justifications why coping can be put off.
- You’d like to get fit and lose some weight but every time you think about going to the gym or going for a run, it’s easy to put off the discomfort by telling yourself that you’ll do it tomorrow. Or if you do go for the run intending to go round the park twice, you give up after one circuit.
- You have a task to do but put it off till the last minute and so do a less than adequate job, or even don’t do it at all
The best way of fighting this tendency is to develop the alternative attitude of high frustration tolerance: note what the long term goal is (getting something done perhaps) and getting on and doing it, putting up with any discomfort. Afterwards, make sure you pat yourself on the back for having achieved your goal and noticing both that it wasn’t as hard as you thought it would be and that you can tolerate any discomfort.
You may do all of these, and you may do some of them often. In some situations you may fall into more than one of these traps at the same time: mind reading and fortune telling are often seen together in that you might be assuming how someone else will behave in a given situation, and mental filtering with disqualifying the positive are an evil combination.
They are all fairly extreme ways of thinking and they are so much a part of us that we don’t notice them in ourselves. However, now you know about them, you will find you see them from time to time in other people, and partnering with someone and discussing your and your friend’s thinking patterns can be very helpful.
The good news is that once you have spotted a pattern as it happens, awareness of what you are doing can be enough to stop you doing it, or at least, of suffering the emotional consequences.