According to cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors all influence one another. If we reach out to a friend and she doesn’t call back by the end of the day, we might react in a few different ways. If we think, “She’s not calling me because she hates me,” we are likely to feel sad, embarrassed, maybe even angry, and that feeling could compel us to give her the cold shoulder and cut her off. If instead we think, “She’s probably just busy,” we might instead feel calm, and we might decide to stay connected by calling again tomorrow. So something as simple as a thought can have a lot of power over how we see ourselves, how we engage with others, and how we experience the world.
One of the pitfalls we sometimes fall into is giving our thoughts too much power. We have a tendency to take our thoughts at face value and treat them as facts. Aaron Beck, the father of CBT, noticed that many of the people he worked with exhibited consistent patterns of distorted thinking, which contributed to feelings of depression (and behaviors that maintained depressed mood). Beck’s theory, which has since been backed by a substantial research base, suggests that if we can identify and change our maladaptive thoughts, shifts in our feelings and behavior will follow.
The following are a few of the most common thinking traps people experience. As you read the list, try to think back over the past week or two to see if you may have fallen prey to any of these thinking patterns…
Also known as black-or-white thinking. Where we mistakenly think of situations as binary and overlook the gray area in between.
- If I don’t get 100% on my science test, it’s basically the same as failing.
- If my boss doesn’t give me a promotion, he hates me and will probably fire me.
Drawing broad conclusions from a single event (without enough evidence).
- I got a bad grade on my science test today. I might as well drop the class because I’m so bad at science.
- I can’t believe I got passed over for that promotion. I’m always overlooked at work.
Predicting the Future.
Also known as fortune-telling. Assuming what will happen in the future (usually bad things!) without considering all of the options (even ones that are objectively more likely to occur).
- I got a bad grade on my science test today. I’m definitely going to fail the class.
- I got passed over for that promotion. I’m never going to climb the ladder.
Putting high demands on ourselves or others regardless of the situation (and overestimating how bad it would be if these expectations aren’t met). The word “should” puts a lot of pressure on us!
- I know I had a lot going on this week, but I should have done better on that test.
- I should have done more to get that promotion.
Disqualifying the Positive.
Telling yourself that positive experiences “don’t count” or explaining them in a way that takes credit away from yourself.
- I only did well on that test because I got lucky. I’m really not good at science.
- My boss only promoted me out of pity. I’m not good at my job.
Giving greater weight to bad things than may be warranted.
- I got a bad grade on my test. This is the worst thing that ever happened to me!
- Jane got that promotion instead of me. I’m completely worthless.
Treating your emotions as facts.
- I didn’t do well on that test. I feel stupid, therefore I am stupid.
- I didn’t get that promotion. I feel worthless, therefore I am worthless.
If any of those thinking patterns sounded familiar, you’re already on your way to changing them. Pick one thinking trap that you often fall into and spend the next few days observing it whenever it pops up (“Ooh, that was all-or-nothing thinking!” or “Ah, I’ve got a case of the ‘shoulds’!”).
Once you’ve trained your brain to notice it when it happens, you can start to work on talking back to it – take a step back and look at the facts of the situation. Think about it from someone else’s perspective (better yet, think about what you would say if your best friend were in your shoes… we often think much more kindly towards others than we do towards ourselves!).
The last step is to practice new, more objective thoughts! If you’re working on predicting the future, it might look like this… “I had a thought that I’m going to fail my science class because I got a bad grade on my test today. That’s predicting the future! Let me examine the evidence… Before this test, my average in that class was a B. I also had two other tests this week and was pretty busy, so I didn’t have as much time to study as I wanted to. I’ve never failed a class before, and it’s pretty unlikely I’d fail it this time. Plus, if I’m having trouble understanding the material, I can go to the teacher and ask for extra help. That will probably help me keep my grades up. So, taking it all together, I didn’t do well on this test today, but if I keep working hard and try to get some extra help, I will probably be able to keep my grade to at least a B.”
By going through the motions of catching the distortion and considering all the facts, you are likely to find yourself getting the upper hand over those pesky thinking traps. Be patient with yourself and the process, and remember – thoughts are not facts. If they’re not serving you, thoughts, feelings, and behaviors can all be changed!