Often people fall into the trap of believing that everything that they think is true. Just because we think a thought does not make it a fact. Unfortunately however our mind will respond to thoughts as if they are facts, and this can result in a very negative mind and negative behaviours. Falling into a negative thought pattern can contribute to elements such as shame, guilt, depression and anxiety. It is not the situation itself that directly influences our emotions, but rather it is the thoughts that we have about the situation that dictates how we feel about it. Together our thoughts and emotions then affect our behaviour. Negative thinking patterns can ultimately hold us back in life, contributing to stress, anxiety and poor self perception.
When evaluating certain events in our lives, the reality of the situation is often distorted by the way we think about it. Outlined below are some common thought distortions that can influence our perception of certain events and prevent us from thinking logically and rationally about the situation.
This involves assuming things without evaluating all of the available evidence. For example, if a close friend is rude or abrupt in conversation, before assuming that it is personal and they are annoyed at you, simply ask them if they are upset with you.
All or Nothing Thinking
All or nothing thinking involves jumping from one extreme to the other, without any reasonable middle ground. An example of all or nothing thinking is “If I don’t get a perfect score on this exam then I am a failure”. All or nothing thinking serves to distort your perception of reality as it does not acknowledge the variations between “perfection” and “failure”. Subscribing to an all or nothing thinking pattern will diminish your self-worth and lead you to feel unsatisfied, miserable and incapable.
Overlooking the Positive
This involves ruminating on negative factors of a situation, rather than appreciating and recognising the positive. Most situations in life are a complex combination of both positive and negative elements. Through only paying attention to the negativity, your sense of reality will become negatively skewed. For example, during a work performance review, your employer outlines six examples where your work is outstanding and two aspects that you really need to improve upon. Overlooking the positive would mean that you become anxious and worried about the two areas of improvement, without appreciating all of the positive feedback you received.
Shoulds (musts/oughts) are the expectations that we place upon ourselves. Often these expectations are unrealistic, with little room for error. For example “I should have known better” and “I must not make mistakes”.
Believing Everything Your Thoughts Tell You
This involves believing that your thoughts are a direct reflection of reality. For example:
* I feel bad, therefore I am bad.
* I feel embarrassed, I must be a failure.
* I am nervous about this, that means I am incapable.
Striving for Perfection
This involves believing that the world should be a certain way rather than accepting the way it is. People who strive for perfection place a lot of importance on their idea of how they think things should be, often failing to accept things as they actually are. This perpetuates a cycle of helplessness and disappointment.
Overgeneralising involves believing that negative experiences describe you or your life completely. For example, if you have made a mistake, an overgeneralisation would be the thought “I always ruin everything”.
Labelling involves integrating part of a negative experience or situation into your identity. This includes thoughts such as “I am stupid”, “I am reckless”. Although you may sometimes behave recklessly, that behaviour does not define you. Instead, you should try labelling your thoughts. Instead of saying to yourself “I am stupid”, tell yourself “I am having the thought that I am stupid”.
Mental disputation is a technique used to challenge negative thoughts. These thoughts are often unrealistic, may demonstrate some of the distortions above. Mental disputation involves asking a series of questions to guide yourself away from thinking irrational beliefs, and towards more realistic and healthy thought patterns.
Mental disputation is not meant to completely suppress all negative thoughts. Emotions (both positive and negative) are integral to the human experience and brings meaning to our lives. To constantly maintain positive emotional thoughts such as excitement, euphoria, and joy is unsustainable. Healthy negative emotional states such as sadness, frustration, regret, boredom, disappointment, and apprehension are uncomfortable but normal states, and motivate us to change undesirable situations. Unhealthy negative emotional states such as depression, intense anxiety, rage, and guilt are often much more overwhelming and tend to impede our ability to live our best life and live up to our potential. It is these more burdensome negative thoughts that mental disputation aims to counteract. If we are able to increase our mindfulness of our thoughts and emotions, and begin to recognise when they are not based in reality, we can then begin to use the process of mental disputation to make changes in the way we view and relate to the world.
Facts vs Stories
Much of our stress and worry emerges from misinterpretation and uninformed judgments. We invent much of our lives through a narrative, and sometimes they can be overwhelmingly negative. For example, you may have heard your name mentioned whilst two colleagues were having a conversation. You may have interpreted this as something bad – they’re gossiping about you, or pointing out your inadequacies. However, the only concrete fact you have is that your name was mentioned. Perhaps they were discussing who to ask for advice on a project, or admiring how you handled a task, or recommended you as the person who knows the best weekend getaways. Once you have separated the facts from the story, you may find that much of your stress came from your interpretation of the event. Be aware of the stories you create to surround the facts in your life. Make your stories empowering – not disempowering – and you will experience more positivity.