Our thoughts can heavily influence our feelings and behaviors. If you have participated in, learned about or heard of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, you may know about the thought-feeling-behavior triangle. What we don’t often consider, is how our perceptions and beliefs also shape our thoughts, which then create our feelings and behaviors.
Consider this: You walk into a room half full of other adults and as you do so, you happen to catch the eyes of 5 adults whose head popped up when you walked through the door. You may think nothing of it, just a coincidence or perhaps they were merely wondering who walked in the room, but your anxious mind may think this: “Why are they looking at me? There must be something wrong with me. I shouldn’t have come; this is useless; I’m useless. I’ll never be able to sit in here with all of these other people.” Very quickly, you have gone from a simple step into a room, to catastrophic thinking, should/must statements, overgeneralizing and labeling. And how do you feel about yourself now? Probably not very good.
Few of us are familiar with unhelpful thought types. My goal is to introduce to you the most common types of irrational thoughts that occur in some way, for everyone. If any or all of these are familiar to you, know you are not alone. I will share with you some common thought patterns, and then a few simple questions you can start to ask yourself or journal out in order to help challenge these unhelpful thoughts. Therefore, allowing yourself space to think differently, which will influence changes in how you feel and behave with practice and time.
Common unhelpful thoughts:
All or Nothing/Black & White: Thinking in absolutes, not allowing yourself a gray area or middle ground. Example – “I have to finish all my tasks today otherwise it’s not even worth it to start them; I’ll be a failure.” “I always need to do get A’s; I never can make a mistake.”
Overgeneralizing: Making a single summary based on one or only a few events. Example – “Bad things always happen to me.” “I am always so stupid!” “I am never going to be good enough.”
Mental Filter: Seeing things through rose colored, grey colored, or other colored glasses. Example – “Everything will always be bad; the doom and gloom follows me like a black cloud.” “Everything will always be okay no matter what, just think positive and nothing bad will ever happen!”
Disqualifying the Positive: Only paying attention to the negative parts of a situation versus the positive and negatives. Example – “I only got 3 of my 6 goals done this week so it doesn’t count.” “I can’t do it right because I need to ask for help.”
Jumping to Conclusions: Using little/no evidence to justify a meaning of something
Mind Reading: Coming up with the thoughts/beliefs of others without evidence to support the realization. Example – “They didn’t invite me to their party, they must think I’m a loser.”
Fortune Telling: Thinking that something will turn out poorly automatically. Example – “It’s cloudy and raining today, it’s going to be a bad day.” “I didn’t get the first two jobs I applied for, I should just quit because I won’t get the next one either.”
Magnification & Minimization: Ever heard of the quote, “making mountains out of mole hills?” This type of thinking supports making things in life extremely important or extremely insignificant resulting in poor decision making. Example – “I stubbed my toe, dropped my coffee, hit traffic going into work, it’s the worst day ever!” or “I am only using alcohol 1x per week instead of 7x per week now, so it’s okay. I deserve the reward of drinking this week.”
Emotional Reasoning: Identifying with our emotions; making our emotions always factual, as opposed to recognizing that our emotions do not have control over us. “I feel bad, so it must mean I’m bad.” “I am embarrassed, so I must be stupid.” “They are angry, so it must be my fault.”
Should/Must Statements: The idea that things should or should not be certain without evidence to support such ideas. Example – “I should have known better.” “They should know what I’m thinking.” “I must get everything done today.” “She must move out of my way; She should know what I need without me asking.”
Labeling: Calling yourself names that are conducive to a positive outlook on yourself. Example – “I am so stupid. I am an idiot.” “He is the worst person.” “She is so ugly.”
Personalization: The idea that we are responsible for things outside of our control. Example – “If only I was there ____ wouldn’t have happened.” “My husband would be happier if only I did more for him.” “My wife would never be upset if I just didn’t share how I felt with her.”
Now that you are aware of what the most common unhelpful thoughts are, you can challenge them!
Identify an unhelpful thought: Example: “I’m never going to be good enough.”
Complete the following questions:
Is this thought true? Is there evidence for this thought? Against it?
No. Not necessarily.
Evidence for: My ex-boyfriend used to tell me I’d never be good enough for anyone, I didn’t make the team.
Evidence against: I got an A on my paper in school, my boss liked my presentation, my spouse liked the dinner I cooked, I am a good mom, I am a good friend and kind. Notice how much more evidence there is against the unhelpful thought?
What would my best friend or family member say about this thought? How might they react to this thought?
She would be surprised I thought this about myself. She would remind me of all the times I have shown my worth and what really represents my worth.
If that same person were having this thought, what would I tell them?
I would tell her that she doesn’t need to prove anything to anyone, that she is worthy and good enough no matter what
Am I worrying about something that is not within my control? Is there any point to worrying about this? Will it matter 5 minutes, 5 months or 5 years from now?
Well, I guess. If other people think I’m not good enough, that’s on them. There’s no point to this type of worry because other people’s thoughts about me don’t shape who I am as a person.
What is the thought doing for you today? What feeling is it creating within you? Is it helpful, is it kind, or is it just unhelpful in some way?
It doesn’t do anything; it makes me feel sad. It’s just distressful.
What could you have more of in your life if you give up this thought? How would life be different or perhaps better, if you didn’t believe in this thought?
Wow; I would have more self-confidence, be empowered. I probably would be able to do so much more in my life if I gave up this thought because I would not longer be worried about what other people think!
If this thought were true, what is the worst part about it; what could happen? Is it as bad as you think? (If this is a grief related/loss thought please consult with a therapist as some answers relating in this area can cause further grief).
Well, even if someone thought I was not good enough, and I was not good enough, I could either choose to not listen to them, or I could take constructive criticism and enhance my skills at the thing I wasn’t good at. Either way, I guess it’s not the end of the world.
Finally, since you’ve now learned how to do this, you can apply it to your day to day life. Take one thought each day that stands out to you, and practice identifying the trigger (reason for the thought to have started), the unhelpful thought, and reframe it with something new! I have attached a simple worksheet from therapistaid.com to assist you.