In our previous post, we gave a brief outline on the concept of negative thinking traps and how they have a nasty habit of taking us away from the present moment, exacerbating our negative emotions and distorting reality. These thoughts tend to just pop into our heads but are prone to stay within our thinking process if we buy into them.
Now, it is completely normal to have thoughts like these because in some way they serve a purpose. Whether it is to give us an answer to something, or helps us categorize and sort a situation, it makes sense how these thoughts are often the first cross our mind during stressful moments. The more you engage in bringing awareness to your thoughts, the more you will be able to determine which thoughts are productive, and which lead us into a negative thinking cycle.
The purpose for this blog is to specify strategies in relation to certain distorted thinking categories. These include all-or-nothing thinking, overgeneralization, mental filter, disqualifying the positive, and labeling (or mislabeling). For a refresher, check out the previous post to grasp the ideas of these thinking traps. https://chicagocounselingcenter.com/negative-thinking-traps/
We will begin with what is also known as black-and-white thinking. Take note overlapping themes these negative thinking styles tend to employ as ultimately they hinder motivation, and skew our perceptions of progress. This distortion attempts to eliminate the middle ground in our experience forcing us to think in extremes.
An example of an automatic thought in this category:
“I did not reach my goal of going to the gym three times this week, I have failed.”
What do you think? If your friend came to you with this same sentiment, would you agree that they failed? A more supportive thought you may offer is that they still were able to make it to the gym this week despite maybe not hitting their preferred target of three. By inviting thoughts in a greyer area, you leave room for constructive dialogue that can continue to cultivate motivation. All-or-nothing attempts to make concrete of what is abstract at the detriment of reality.
Positive Reframe: “I may not have reached the goal I set, but I know what is working and where I can improve. I am making progress.”
In a similar vein, overgeneralization is our brain’s way to simplify our experiences as we feel them. Words such as never, always, every time, only, can be indicators that a thought may be skewing what is actually reality.
An example between two friends:
“You’re always late! You are never considering my time or feelings!
This example between two individuals has a good chance of escalating into a friend rendition of a court room. The person who showed up late may be desperate to seek examples tardiness or contrary points like the times they were early. An overgeneralization can quickly take away from someone’s overall point such as in the example. The friend may have been simply trying to communicate that they were feeling hurt that their time was not being respected.
A new approach instead can be identifying when the words are used, and then refocus on the emotion behind it. Especially in a dialogue with another person, if using overgeneralizations, your main point may be overshadowed by the idea of the cognitive distortion itself.
Positive Reframe: “I feel unappreciated when I here on time by myself. How can we work on this together?”
Moving along to mental filter. These distortions also attempt to shape reality to our emotional experience. For our example here, I am going to call on a situation where perhaps you have seen the latest summer blockbuster. Contrary to the majority, you despised the film, it simply wasn’t your cup of tea. However, after the movie, you get into a heated debate with friends on the quality of film, and in order to find support, you seek out critics who also negatively reviewed the film.
A mental filter can be like that. Thoughts are filtered to only reflect on view point as opposed to a total depiction of everything going on. It can be difficult to weigh contrary views in our mind, so on a mental level, it can be easier to seek and sort thoughts that are in line with our views. Since mental filtering is more of an omission of thoughts, it can be important to ask if there is another perspective you can see the situation in.
Disqualifying the Positive
Disqualifying the positive is very similar, but as opposed to a mental filter, it is of an overt dismissal.
An example: “Sure, I got most of the questions right, but I missed the easiest ones. I think I’m starting to fall behind.”
When trying to fit a certain narrative, our brain’s can begin to easily invalidate evidence against what we think and feel. In this example, the person moved past the fact that he had actually answered the majority of questions right and started to scrutinize their performance. This led to the quick assumption that they were failing behind as opposed to other ideas, such as maybe they rushed through the test. Did they consider that if they missed the easy questions, then they correctly answered the difficult ones?
Positive Reframe: “It’s great that I am able to correctly answer the challenging questions, let’s see what I can do to continue to improve.”
Another all-too-common thought we might have is labeling or mislabeling. When we make a mistake and call ourselves stupid, or when we label others as perfect, it can really diminish our self-compassion for being able to make mistakes. Labeling is a very easy thing to do. It is a simple thought, that again tries to simplify situations for us at the cost of our overall perspective.
An example: This test is too hard for me, I’m not smart enough to get it.
Labeling can be such a quick thing to do, but it can just as easy be turned around into something positive with a little practice. The reframe in this example involves a problem solving and a reminder that it is ok for things to take time, promoting understanding in a broader sense that keeps the individual grounded in reality and compassion.
Positive reframe: “It takes time and repetition to learn new things. I can either try to study more, or find some extra help understanding it.”
There are additional distortions out there to cover but overall an automatic thought or many automatic thoughts can always be challenged and reflected upon. Comment below your favorite ways to reframe automatic thoughts!