thinking distortions

This is the first in a two-part series on Thinking Distortions by Teresa Colon of WoundedBirdsMinistry.  In this post, we’ll look at what Thinking Distortions are and cover three common ones. In the second post, we’ll cover how to challenge and overcome Thinking Distortions.

Our minds are amazing things. They coordinate multiple functions every day, making sure our hearts beat, our lungs breathe, our eyes see, and they make sense of our surroundings. Our minds do this automatically; I don’t have to say, “hey, brain, it’s time to move my right index finger three inches to the left so I can touch my phone.”

These automatic thoughts are hugely helpful to us. If we had to think every time we wanted to move a hand or take a step, we wouldn’t get very far, and our fight-flight-freeze response would default to “freeze” in every threatening situation. Not helpful.

Our minds take these automatic thoughts one step further, as well: they help us make sense of the world around us. They evaluate social situations by identifying facial and verbal cues and evaluating a proper response to the situation around us. Over time, we develop “shortcuts” in our thinking, creating default responses to situations.

What exactly is a shortcut?

“Shortcuts” simply mean that our brain created a specific path in our mind for a given situation or trigger. An example of a shortcut would be my kid asking me for a piece of cake for breakfast. I don’t even have to think or evaluate the request; the word “no” just pops right out of my mouth. It’s a shortcut in my brain.

We form shortcuts based on our experiences. The more times a certain situation occurs and we use our default response, the more ingrained the shortcut becomes in our brain. That might look something like this:

[clickToTweet tweet=”We form shortcuts based on our experiences.- Teresa Colon @teresamcolon, @theNicole Akers” quote=”We form shortcuts based on our experiences.- Teresa Colon @teresamcolon, @theNicoleAkers” theme=”style3″]

Cake for Breakfast

The first time my daughter asks me for a slice of cake for breakfast, I laugh at her audacity. Then I stop and think my way through the variables. Is it worth indulging her this one time? What has her behavior been like? What is the likelihood she will ask this question again? After going through all the scenarios, I tell her “no,” laying down the first path for the shortcut. Kids are persistent, though, and she asks me again. This time, I don’t need to evaluate; I say “no” again. That groove gets worn into my mind a little deeper. The next three times she asks, I continue to say “no,” each time a little more reflexively. That groove gets deeper with each iteration.

It really gets reinforced, though, when a month later she asks me again. It takes me a moment, and again I say “no;” that groove gets deeper and deeper with each iteration. Each time this situation happens, the response becomes a little more automatic, a little more reflexive.

This is not a bad shortcut. My brain saves me a lot of trouble and energy in evaluating the situation. My ears hear “cake” and “breakfast” and sends the word “no” right out of my mouth. Sweet! Easy parenting!

Not Good Enough

Let’s look at another type of shortcut, this one not quite so positive. Let’s say I’m a kid at school, and I’m consistently picked last to join a team in gym class (not that I would know what that’s like). The first time, I might feel a little sad, but it’s not a big deal. It continues to happen, though, and I start to feel rejected by my classmates. “I’m not good enough,” might be the thought that pops into my head, or “they don’t like me.” Every time it happens, these thoughts are reinforced until they have a deep groove, and the next time I’m not invited to a party or I hear a comment that could be construed as a rejection, these are the thoughts that come straight to mind.

Not all of these shortcuts happen because of other people, either. Every time I go on a diet and “fail,” it potentially creates an “I’m a failure” shortcut in my mind. If I go to the gym every day for a few weeks and then stop, that “failure” thought gets triggered, and after enough of these experiences, my mind may add an “I don’t even know why I bother to try.”

These negative shortcuts are commonly called “thinking distortions” or “thinking traps” because they don’t give you accurate feedback on the situation.  They are especially dangerous because we accept them as “truth,” when in reality they are simply automatic thoughts and may not reflect the actual situation.

While there are many thinking distortions, let’s take a look at three common ones, and then we’ll talk about the good news: We can change these thoughts in just six steps.

Three Common Thinking Distortions 

1. Overgeneralization

There’s no research I can find on this, but anecdotally it seems Overgeneralization is the most common thinking distortion. When we overgeneralize, we look at a particular situation and decide it applies to every similar situation, or that it’s part of a pattern and therefore inherently “true.”

When we challenge an Overgeneralization, we look particularly at the “always” or “never” component. “I never get anything done” is inherently untrue: Did you wake up this morning? Did you take a shower? Congratulations, you got something done. (I recognize that these may seem petty responses, but they’re true.)

How to identify: The words “never,” “always,” “everyone,” “no one,” and similar words are in the thought.

Example thoughts: “I don’t know why I bother trying to lose weight. I never stick with it.” “I always say something stupid at a party. There’s no point in even going.” “No one likes me; they only pretend to laugh at my jokes.”

More realistic thoughts: “I’ve struggled with dieting in the past. At least I know that I keep trying.” “Sometimes I have a slip of the tongue. So does everyone. And it makes me endearing!” “I have a good sense of humor. It may not be to everyone’s taste, but I know my friends/family get it.”

2. Perfectionism

Perfectionism is an insidious thinking distortion, mostly because it seems so good. We should always strive to do everything right…right? I agree; we should strive to do our best at everything we do. “Best,” however does not mean “perfect.” Perfect is an unrealistic standard, and we drive ourselves batty trying to achieve it. It doesn’t allow for us to develop and become better at what we do or want to become. Eventually, perfectionist becomes defeatist.

[clickToTweet tweet=”Eventually, perfectionist becomes defeatist.-Teresa Colon @teresamcolon, @theNicoleAkers” quote=”Eventually, perfectionist becomes defeatist.-Teresa Colon @teresamcolon, @theNicoleAkers” theme=”style3″]

When we challenge Perfectionism, it can be helpful to look back on the ways we’ve already grown and improved. It helps us put our abilities today into perspective, and can provide comfort that tomorrow, we will be even better. For today, we’re good enough.

How to identify: The words “should,” “ought,” and “must” commonly show up in perfectionist thinking.

Example thoughts: “I shouldn’t get mad at him. No matter how many times he’s late, I ought to keep to keep my temper.” “I must not have dessert at the birthday party. If I do, I’ll ruin the entire diet.” “My website stinks. I will never get it right.”

More realistic thoughts: “He’s late again and I’m angry. It’s time to talk with him and set some clearer boundaries.” “I’d rather not have dessert at the birthday party. I’m doing so well with my weigh loss goal!” “When I think about my website at the beginning, it was truly terrible! It’s better now. As trends change, so will the website.”

3. Mind Reading

There’s a trope in American culture that men are expected to read women’s minds. “I don’t understand why she’s so cranky all the time!” he may say, while the wife is thinking, “Doesn’t he know I need help with the kids’ bedtime?”

These are examples that we often laugh off or address in couples’ counseling. “Mary, you need to be clearer with asking for what you need.” “George, you need to listen to Mary. Are her requests unreasonable?” While Mind Reading can be useful (“Mary looks tired; I bet she could use some extra help tonight with bedtime”), when we don’t validate our assumptions through clear communication, it can become a deep and dangerous trap we fall into.

Although it’s fairly easy to spot mind-reading in an interpersonal interaction, it can be less so when it all happens inside our mind. Regardless, the principles are the same. When we challenge Mind Reading, we want to focus on the assumptions and identify alternative explanations.

How to identify: Mind Reading occurs every time we make an assumption based on a reading of someone else’s words or actions (or non-actions). Often, we are misinterpreting the situation and assigning motives that may not exist.

Example thoughts:

–  “Why didn’t she wave back? What did I do wrong?”

–  “Sheila hasn’t returned my text. Why aren’t we friends anymore?”

– “My boss didn’t praise me after my last presentation. What did I mess up?”

More realistic thoughts:

– She didn’t see you

– She’s been busy and hasn’t answered anyone’s texts for several days.

– Your work is so consistently at a high level that your boss assumes you already know you did a good job.

Final Thoughts

One thing I find interesting about Thinking Distortions is that they are helpful in small doses. If I sense tension with Susan, I’m Mind Reading. If I address it with Susan directly (“Susan, maybe it’s just me, but I feel like there’s an awkwardness or a barrier between us. Do you feel it, too?”), then it’s helpful and useful in maintaining healthy relationships.  It’s similar with Perfectionism: It’s OK to push to be the best in an area of our life; it’s when we start to expect ourselves to be perfect and perform perfectly most or all of the time that it becomes problematic. If the situation causes us stress and we feel like we can’t control it, those are good signs that the shortcut isn’t a healthy one.

One way we know that these Thinking Distortions are taking root in our minds is in how they impact our emotions and our bodies. For example, when I am living with a Perfectionist thought, I feel irritable, rushed, and overwhelmed. These emotions and these thoughts also show up in my body: My shoulders get tight and high; I have headaches; I often feel nauseous and have trouble sleeping.

Good News

The good news about these Thinking Distortions is that we can change them! As we walk through the six steps for identifying and changing a thinking distortion, keep in mind that we are working to change or create a groove in our brain; we are working to develop a new shortcut in our mind. These shortcuts happen over periods of time; changing them takes time as well.

Are you excited yet? Good. Don’t miss part 2. Get the next installment straight to your inbox.

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About the Author

Teresa ColonTeresa Colon founded Wounded Birds Ministry to compassionately educate, encourage, and support those who live with a mental illness. Driven by her own experiences with bipolar disorder and related traumas, she loves to share the hope, knowledge, and skills she learned along her own journey to health. Teresa is also a contributor to The Mighty.

Want to know more about challenging and destroying thinking distortions? Get the free workbook at her website! Covering 14 Common Thinking Distortions, it also includes a detailed worksheet that walks you through the steps outlined here, along with a link to a video that walks you through two examples.


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