I used to have a bumper sticker on my car that read Don't Believe Everything You Think. Someone rear ended me on the freeway. The sticker didn't fare well. The bumper actually took the impact well. Go Subaru! I'd never had a bumper sticker on my car prior to slapping this one on. It was a great reminder to me to challenge my thoughts. They're not always true. Thoughts are often our interpretation (story) of something that's happened (fact). Take being rear-ended for example. My first thought- "I bet he was looking down at his cell phone." I didn't know this of course. It was just a WAG (wild *ss guess), and how I chose to make meaning of the incident in the moment. Never did ask why he didn't stop in time. It really didn't matter to me. The fact was- his car hit my car. Interestingly enough, his first words to me where "Why did you stop?!" I had to stop myself from laughing. I managed a compassionate smile instead. "I stopped because the cars in front of me had stopped." I replied. "Oh", he said, looking at the ground.
Oh, to be human! Blessed with our prefrontal cortex, responsible for executive functioning, we do tend to look for reasons why things happen. It's as if it's the thing we can't not do (not make meaning). I think it's important to look for meaning in our experiences. However, there are certain types of thinking that can be unhelpful. Especially in the realm of relationships to self and others. The following, commonly called distorted thinking, are ways we humans can be found to make meaning of experiences and events in our lives that typically don't contribute to our well-being-
- All or Nothing Thinking: Also called black and white thinking, consists of thoughts such as "We either we do it my way or not at all." or "If we don't go this year, we'll never be able to go."
- Over Generalizing: Seeing a pattern based upon a single event, or being overly broad in the conclusions we draw. Examples of this are- "I always screw things up." or "I'm never on time."
- Mental Filter: Simply paying attention to certain types of evidence, also referred to as the "confirmation bias". This also occurs as noticing our failures but not seeing our successes.
- Disqualifying the Positive: Discounting the good things that have happened or that we have done for some reason or another- "That doesn’t count. Anyone could have done it."
- Jumping to Conclusions: There are two key types of jumping to conclusions- Mind Reading (imagining we know what others are thinking) and Fortune Telling (predicting the future).
- Magnification (catastrophising & minimization): Blowing things out of proportion (catastrophising), or inappropriately shrinking something to make it seem less important (like disqualifying the positive).
- Emotional Reasoning: Assuming that because we feel a certain way what we think must be true- "I feel embarrassed, so I must be an idiot." or "I feel guilty, but I can't help myself."
- "Shoulding": Using critical words like ‘should’, ‘must’, 'had better', or ‘ought’ can lead to feeling shame, guilt, or blame. "Shoulding" on other people can often result in and from frustration.
- Labeling: Assigning labels to ourselves or other people- "I’m a loser." or "I’m totally useless." "He's such an _________."
- Personalization: Blaming yourself or taking responsibility for something that wasn’t completely your fault. Also, blaming other people for something that was your fault.
I don't know anyone who can't claim at least one of these thinking styles at one time or another. It's when distorted thinking becomes habitual we can cause ourselves and others suffering. It takes awareness, intention, courage, and practice to challenge our thinking. Challenging the thinking of those in our lives we desire to have meaningful relationships with takes all that plus compassion, commitment, and agreement (on both sides). Our beliefs are agreements we have made. We choose or decide what we believe. Below is an introduction to a small book I've found useful-
We can put distorted ways of thinking behind us. If we don't, we let negative beliefs and behaviors of the past dictate our present, and we end up creating a similar future. I've found that practicing the four agreements- not making assumptions, speaking with integrity, not taking things personally (my most challenging), and always doing my best- has made a big difference in my life. You may want to grab a copy of the book. If you do, post the agreements where you'll see them. Practice for a month. See what happens. Not really your style? Good thing there are teachers everywhere we look! Brene Brown is another of my faves, especially when she reads her own books. Here she is chattin' with Oprah about false stories-
I challenge you (and myself, of course!) to challenge distorted thinking, and to take responsibility (the ability to respond) for thoughts and actions that aren't beneficial. How will we know? Distorted thinking tends to turn into a persistent complaint about something or someone or a fixed way of being. Both are reactions to a real or imagined threat. Is holding onto that story worth losing affinity, well-being, and satisfaction? In other words, is needing to win, be right, justified, or dominant more important than love, vitality, and fulfillment? Inclined toward avoidance or a propensity to consider yourself wrong? Are you really willing to give up self-expression and aliveness?
In recognizing our distorted thinking we're taking the first step to creating and inviting new ways of being. From there we can imagine something different. Unlimited possibilities abound! Imagine a life you want to live into. Practice, practice, practice showing up in ways that touch, inspire and move you toward that possibility! Another technique to play around with is Byron Katie's "The Work". Her book Loving What Is elaborates how to turn around distorted thinking. If you're up for a challenge, get started at thework.com. Oh, and please be compassionate in all your practices!