You wouldn’t believe how much of our thoughts are actually responsible for our misery. When I look around at my own life, at my friends and clients, I can’t help but notice a pattern: most of our problems in life are created by our mind. Not by external situations, not because of other people – because of how our mind works. Have you noticed?
I’m really fascinated by how the mind work, and I consistently use myself as a case study to practice the various therapeutic tools I use with my clients. I’ve been questioning the story my mind creates for quite a while now, and I’m quite proud to be able to spot them and question them most of the time.
However last week something funny happened. I received an email from a co-worker about our next meeting, and the tone of the email was quite dry. I immediately felt anxious and replied to the email, monitoring my answer to stay in the adult ego-state (in TA terms) and avoid being defensive.
Thanks to the mindfulness meditation I’ve been practising, I was quite happy to be able to respond and not react. Until I got their answer back.
It turned out, I completely misread their email. So here I was, quite proud of having been so mindful in spotting my patterns, monitoring my emotions and stay grounded in my response ; where it turned out, I had made a complete story in my head within milliseconds of reading that email, and I DIDN’T EVEN NOTICE!! Such a good lesson in humility. Such a good reminder to never let the guard down and always stay vigilant in keeping the awareness and the practice.
The more I practice CBT the more I become aware of how much stories we indeed create in our lives over and over again. The minute we are lacking data about a situation, our mind jumps in and fills in the gap by making assumptions and suppositions.
I have talked quite a lot about that mechanism in previous posts, and today I wanted to explore the structure behind it: How our mind actually constructs those stories.
In CBT, we call those patterns thinking distortions. It gives us quite a comprehensive list on what our mind does when it creates those assumptions. Beginning to notice the patterns in your own thinking and recognise them over time may help us undo those assumptions and question the reality of our thoughts. As a result we might notice a sensitive reduction in our level of negative emotions and improve communications with others.
So here is what those evil thought patterns look like: 🙂
- Magnification and Minimization: Exaggerating or minimizing the importance of events. One might believe their own achievements are unimportant, or that their mistakes are excessively important.
- Catastrophizing: Seeing only the worst possible outcomes of a situation.
- Overgeneralization: Making broad interpretations from a single or few events. “I felt awkward during my first job interview. I am always so awkward.”
- Magical thinking: The belief that acts will influence unrelated situations. “I am a good person—Bad things shouldn’t happen to me.”
- Personalization: The belief that one is responsible for events outside of their own control. “My mother is always upset. It must be because I have not done enough to help her.”
- Jumping to conclusions: Interpreting the meaning of a situation with little or no evidence.
- Mind reading: Interpreting the thoughts and beliefs of others without adequate evidence. “She would not go on a date with me. She must think I am ugly.”
- Fortune telling: The expectation that a situation will turn out badly without adequate evidence. “I know he’s going to leave me”
- Emotional reasoning: The assumption that emotions reflect the way things really are. “I feel like a bad friend, therefore I must be a bad friend.”
- Disqualifying the positive: Recognizing only negative aspects of a situation while ignoring the positive. One might receive many compliments on an evaluation but focus on the single piece of negative feedback.
- Should statements: The belief that things should be a certain way. “I should always be friendly.”
- All-or-nothing thinking: Thinking in absolutes such as “always”, “never”, or “every”. “I never do a good job on my work.”
Like everything else, those patterns are learnt and well rehearsed. But as a result, because it is possible to rewire our brains, they also are quite easy to change.
The first step is to go on a self analysis journey and start to identify which ones of those distortions are your most common. You could also ask your coach to point them out to you during your sessions.
Once you’ve developed an acute awareness of your patterns, you may want to explore what impact they have on you. How they affect your emotional states, what consequences they create in your interactions with others.
And finally you can learn to change them for a more balanced emotional life. Once more, your coach might help you on that journey and suggest how to practice the new patterns so that they become automatic.
I find that consistently questioning my stories and catching my distortions has hugely changed the way I experience life. There is much less stress or worries, and communication is much easier, as I don’t assume – I ask.
I hope you improve your life as well with those small tips! And feel free to ask for support if you need to!