Everyone experiences problematic thinking, it’s part of being human. Our job is to just be aware of how our train of thought may warp to create negative mindsets which distort how we perceive reality. We may develop automatic reactions, instinctive tendencies toward problematic thoughts without realizing. It’s incredibly easy not to notice we’re falling into these traps.
Self awareness is a duty to ourselves and the people around us. Paying attention to how and why we think certain things will give us opportunities to change our patterns, say ‘no’ and disprove our cognitive distortions. This is easier said than done but with time noticing these habits will be more natural and you’ll want to think differently. You’ll want to explore other options. Practicing self awareness means being given choices: choose to continue to think something you know is distorted or choose to fight back. Cognitive distortions aren’t our fault and are completely normal to experience, but they can become excessive and make us miserable.
Studying these thought patterns will be an aid in bettering your mental health, communication skills, and empathy. This is by no means a complete collection of problematic thought patterns but these are some of the most common and are a good starting point.
There is no grey zone in this thinking. ‘Always’, ‘every’, and ‘never’ pop up frequently. It’s impossible to see the middle ground and concepts are described in absolutes. This is also known as ‘polarized thinking’ and is similar if not the same as overgeneralized conclusions. We refuse to pay attention to nuances or details.
‘If the situation isn’t perfect then it must be horrible, if they don’t love me then they must hate me, if I’m not the best then I’m the worst. There’s no such thing as a minor mistake. If I relapse I might as well go on a bender. You never talk to me. You always ignore me. You do this every time.’ With dichotomous thought patterns we work in extremes, creating unnecessary binaries that hinder us.
Another dichotomy that includes overgeneralization is ‘magnification/minimization’, where a mild problem escalates in our mind into a catastrophe, or a great success gets diminished by our insecurity. We use a ‘mental filter’ to pick and choose what we wish to focus on without seeing the big picture. ‘My partner is annoyed with me, they’re going to get mad at me, we are going to have a big fight, they’re going to hate me, we’re going to break up, I’ll never find someone, I’ll die alone.’ Something small becomes something huge. We don’t see all the other variables in the situation or the contexts, we filter out everything that doesn’t conform to our assumptions.
In the case of something positive becoming small and insignificant, it can be known as ‘discounting the positive’ when we brush aside achievements because we feel we’re unworthy. We focus on the negative. If we receive ten compliments and one criticism, we fixate on the criticism. This dichotomy of ‘big’ and ‘small’ never allows a situation to be complicated and takes an extreme stance on what is often a mild situation. The mental filter within us chooses to torture us rather than let us see the entire situation.
We create shame in either shaming others or ourselves. Everything exists with extra pressure created by an unrealistic belief in how life works, we filter out what doesn’t align with our all or nothing mentality and focus only on what feeds the distortion. Adding complexity allows you to get a wider view. Being able to look at a situation from all angles is an important part of life.
First we’ll address ‘critical’ words in our vocabulary. It’s unavoidable that ‘should, must, need to, have to’ will enter into our internal dialogue but all they do is put unnecessary pressure, they’re words that are easy and simple to use but they don’t describe the truth accurately. What they replace are the desires that want to manifest. An awareness of the productive and healthy course of action becomes a foot stomping down on you. Options go out the window, forgetting that what these words express is an option, usually the one that deep down you want to choose anyway. Saying you must do it will not convince you, only scare you, and will only scare other people you use it with. What critical words do is create tunnel vision that leaves you forgetting why you ‘need’ to do these things in the first place, and avoids other ways of going about achieving what you ‘need’ to do. You don’t need to eat— you want to eat because you’re hungry and your body uses sustenance to keep you functioning. You don’t need to clean— you want to exist in a comfortable and functional space.
Labelling with critical words easily leads to labelling yourself with negative connotations: lazy, failure, stupid, etc. By reducing concepts and actions to pressurized simplicity, we do the same to ourselves. Berating is unproductive and extremely damaging to our psyche and can easily lead to us labelling other people the same way we do yourself. If you would not call someone else a failure then don’t call yourself one, or in a decade you may find it slipping from your mouth to disparage someone. These patterns never exist isolated within. They will make their way out into the rest of your life.
We are constantly reasoning out reality, trying to understand why circumstances happen. One distortion that affects how we perceive reality is ‘emotional reasoning’. With this, we rely solely on how we feel to determine the truth. Emotions should never be ignored or invalidated but they can be extremely unreliable. Anxieties, trauma, insecurities, these can warp our perception. With emotional reasoning we believe the lies our fears tell us and don’t question them. We create self fulfilling prophecies leading to yet more cognitive distortions. You may feel like you’re a bad person because of trauma and not be one at all, but through emotional reasoning you believe you truly are a terrible person. Being so entirely bought by your fears, almost nothing can convince you otherwise and eventually you’ll become comfortable with the idea and begin acting in line with your beliefs about yourself. The concept of ‘bad’ becomes skewed in your mind. Falsely attributing unquestionable truth to emotional reasoning is yet another way we remove options.
Another form of reasoning is personalization or self blame, in which we use this emotional reasoning to assign ourselves responsibility for situations far beyond our control. Your friend is sullen because of a family situation but you blame yourself for their mood because you seem unable to cheer them up. Economic crisis is causing a business you work for to go bankrupt but you blame yourself for not being a better worker. People who have been criticized throughout their childhood will find it natural to feel responsible for any negative situation. We will always encounter situations beyond our control, such is life, and getting through them is difficult enough without also berating ourselves.
Coming to conclusions is a part of our deductive reasoning skills, but subtle magical thinking easily pervades our everyday monologues. Jumping to conclusions without adequate evidence almost always involves the prior cognitive dysfunction ‘emotional reasoning’. We make assumptions based on our insecurities. The first way we make conclusions is in ‘mind reading’ where we believe we can infer what another person thinks without any proper basis for our assumptions. This can happen in interpersonal relationships or even when walking down the street, self conscious and thinking to ourselves that everyone thinks we walk funny. Maybe in a conversation you have something to say but you keep your mouth shut because you think the other people don’t care about your opinions. Remembering that these critical thoughts are projections is key, that this negativity arises within you from your own anxiety. If someone is actually thinking these things about you then that’s their own cognitive distortion and a reflection of their poor values, and the likelihood of it is rare and can’t be confirmed by instincts.
The other way we jump to conclusions is ‘fortune telling’. We’ve all been guilty of trying to predict the future based on anxiety. This is a powerful form of self fulfilling prophecy as our pessimistic thoughts manifest in giving up on hope or options to sway the course of fate in our favour. ‘I’ll be sad forever.’ Giving up on trying to be happy condemns you to your beliefs. It will never be too late to change how we think, though, because your beliefs are subject to change.
No one is doomed. Cognitive distortions can’t be avoided but they can be reasoned with. We can learn to decatastrophize. We can unlearn ingrained patterns. The more we reflect, introspection, explore, the more we create a safer mind to exist in. We become happier. Lighter, freer, we can notice problematic thoughts and release them.