Lessons in CBT #1 – Thinking Errors

The first lesson in our Cognitive Behavioural Therapy session is all about thinking errors.

Previously: Lessons in CBT #0 – What Is Cognitive Behavioural Therapy?

This week’s lesson has many new methods and techniques that can help you become a healthier thinker, there’s quite a bit to go through so I have tried to be as concise as possible. New terms and parts I consider important to consider and think about are bolded.

Today’s lesson is about learning the mistakes we make when thinking about, ourselves, the people and the world around us, and how we can correct these mistakes to put ourselves on a happier path.

The thoughts and attitudes of our minds play a huge role in how we view the world around us, and how we feel about ourselves. Our mood can have a large impact on how we think, so if we feel negative, we’re more than likely going to think negatively too.

Thinking errors are the main component of today’s lesson, and there are plenty of them that we make daily, sometimes completely unaware that we do so. These errors or mistakes stop us from accurately understanding what’s going on and lead us to often interpret situations incorrectly. There are many ways we can stop these errors when we catch them, and eventually prevent ourselves from having them all together.

These errors largely come down to how we were thinking and feeling at the time of the situation. There are many things I felt stupid or embarrassed about when they were happening, but upon reflection days, months, even years, later, I can laugh about it, or it doesn’t bother me anymore. However, at the very moment of the stupid thing happening, I thought it was the end of the world. This brings us to our first thinking error.

Catastrophising is just like that old saying, making a mountain out of a molehill. You’ve turned a small negative experience into a big one, and as a result, you’re thinking up all types of disasters because of this bad moment. Just because you fell over at a party and everyone saw it, doesn’t mean everyone thinks you’re an idiot. Some people might have laughed, it doesn’t mean they don’t care that you might have been hurt. Anxiety sufferers might have trouble not catastrophising every single social mistake they make every day, but if you can realise that these thoughts are often based on feelings and not facts, you can begin to rationalise the situation and calm yourself. They’re just thoughts, and you can cast them aside once you realise that.

So, what can you do when you spot yourself overreacting to a negative experience:

  • Create some perspective. You are not the only person to have ever fallen over in front of other people. Look for the people who want to help you and make sure you’re okay. Everyone else will have likely forgotten about it by the time you wake up the next morning.
  • Think about more rational explanations for situations. The person you like hasn’t messaged you back? It’s not because they’ve lost all interest in you, they’re likely having a busy day and haven’t had the chance to see and respond. Don’t let your feelings dictate your thoughts, always wait for an explanation before you get caught up in your emotions.
  • Weigh up the pros and cons and consider the evidence you have. Level out your good and bad thoughts, but allow the facts to create an explanation, not fiction. An unanswered text is more than likely because the other person is busy, not because they don’t like you anymore.
  • Allow yourself to find the people and resources that can help you. Maybe another friend knows if the person you’ve messaged is extremely busy today.

Remember to tell yourself, it’s never as bad as you first think it is. As humans, we tend to overreact and then let our emotions from that reaction to take control. But the sun will still rise tomorrow, and you’ll still be alive, even if you did hurt your bum falling over yesterday. Give yourself some credit, you survived another embarrassing or anxious day, and that’s worthy of praise and self-love. Once you’ve given yourself a pat on the back, we’ll move on to the next thinking error: black-or-white thinking.

If it’s not obvious, black-or-white thinking is when you only think in extremes, good or bad, love or hate, happy or sad. This type of thinking is very binary and eliminates the space in between those extremes, the huge grey area that exists and we live through.

This thinking error tends to occur when something doesn’t go your way, such as failing a test or upsetting a friend. But just because you failed a test, doesn’t mean you have failed the entire course. Or just because you upset a friend, it doesn’t mean they want to cut you out of their life completely. A good way of mentally projecting this thinking is by imagining a thermometer. Your thinking goes up and down in various stages, there isn’t just one hot extreme and one cold extreme but instead, you live on a large, variable scale.

When you realise you’re experiencing this thinking, there’s a couple of things you can do to combat it:

  • Be honest and realistic with yourself. Remind yourself of your long-term goals, whatever they may be, and don’t sweat it when you fumble over. If you’re struggling to reach your goal, change the strategy, not the goal itself.
  • A substitute for black-and-white thinking is called both-and-reasoning. It’s a hard concept to learn and teach yourself, but the idea is you allow two opposing ideas to exist at the same time. It’s possible to acknowledge you have flaws that you can work on but also know you are a good person and live your life with the best intentions. You are not just one thing or the other.

We often drop our ambitions completely when we mess up or experience the first sign of failure. We have to allow ourselves to make mistakes in order to learn and grow as individuals, whether they’re career failings, educational failings, or personal failings. The world around us is not binary, we can make mistakes and still achieve what we set out to do. Don’t beat yourself up because you let your feelings guide you to think of the worst, instead of using facts to guide you to success. Which leads me to our next error: fortune-telling.

A lot of our negative thoughts stem from our assumptions and expectations when in reality our negative predictions are often unfounded and wrong. We don’t have the ability to predict the future, so we should stop trying to. Let the future play out without these negative assumptions and you might start to feel better, if not at least you’ll erase the negative thoughts from your mind, which is a good starting place for a healthier attitude. It’s natural to feel anxious about interviews or meetings or meeting someone new, but if you enter that situation with a negative thought process, you’re likely to make it one when it doesn’t need to be. Assumptions lead to self-fulfilling prophecies, so what can you do to deter this thinking:

  • If in doubt, put these assumptions to the test. Don’t think you’re going to enjoy that party? Well, you won’t know until you go. The worst thing that could happen is that your assumption was true, and you leave, not bothered by the situation. On the other hand, you might end up enjoying yourself and talking to people about things you’re interested in.
  • Embrace those risks. Yes, it’s daunting, yes it’s terrifying, yes it could all go wrong. Great things very rarely come from a comfort zone. Take those risks, ask that person out, try that new food. Otherwise, what’s the point? (Let’s not get nihilistic just yet).
  • Remember that because it happened once before in the past, it doesn’t mean it’s going to happen the exact same way again. Again, take those risks, and you might end up surprising yourself.

We tend to think of ourselves as mind readers when we’re just projecting our own thoughts and fears into the minds of others. We’ll never truly know what other people are thinking, so don’t spend so much time and energy trying. As mentioned earlier, we tend to use our feelings to dictate our actions, when really, we should rely on the facts. This is called emotional reasoning. 

Be doubtful about how much of your feelings are based in reality, they often stem from past experiences or perhaps deeper issues like depression and anxiety. When you notice you’ve entered an emotional state, you don’t need to snap yourself right out of it, but just allow the facts to take over:

  • If you’re in an emotional state, you probably don’t have the best grasp on reality at that very moment. The first step is realising this.
  • The next step is figuring out how you’d react to the situation if you were in a calmer and more rational state of mind.
  • Allow your feelings to settle and allow yourself to realise that the conclusions you’re coming to are likely a result of those feelings, instead of the result of reality.

When you’re in this emotional state, you tend to make another thinking error, overgeneralising. This is where you apply the conclusions we’ve made at the moment to be true for the rest of the world, such as thinking that everyone is laughing at you when in fact it’s just one person. These “global statements” are unhealthy and often include words like “never”, “everyone”, and “always”. There are very few situations that can accurately have global conclusions attached to them, so try the following to stop yourself from overgeneralising:

  • Allow yourself to expand your perspective. The situation you’re in is one that many other people have found themselves in, and they survived and found a way out. You will too.
  • Try not to apply judgement to everyone you encounter, you are likely only going to make yourself more emotional and worsen your condition.

You shouldn’t revile yourself just because you made a mistake, or because you had an outburst at someone. That doesn’t make you a bad person and condemning yourself on the basis of one action makes no more sense than thinking your 100% perfect because of another action. Allow yourself to make mistakes, to recognise that you can be a good person and forgive yourself, and finally to acknowledge that you have the power to change and become healthier. Don’t label yourself (another thinking error) or others because of a singular action, recognise the fact that people and the world are ever-changing. Seek out and remember the evidence that challenges your labels. You can’t be an “idiot” if you’re studying at university, you can’t be a “failure” if you’re there for your friends. Accept your good and your bad and you’ll be on the path to self-improvement.

Demands are a huge part of our emotional issues, specifically the demands we place upon ourselves. Attitudes and thoughts that include words such as “must”, “should”, “have to”, and “need to” are troublesome because they are extreme. Because of these extremities, we place undue stress and issues upon ourselves. Consider the following common examples:

  • You think you need to have the approval of your friends and the people you meet and speak to.
  • You think that because you’re nice to others, they must be nice towards you.
  • You think you can never let your friends down and you can’t put yourself first and you must look out for the rest of the world.

These inflexible attitudes would be nice in a perfect world, but other people have other priorities and they often don’t align with your own. It is therefore acceptable to put yourself first and allow these attitudes to become flexible about yourself, others, and the world around you. Consider these alternatives:

  • Instead of “must”, “should”, and “need”, use “wish”, “prefer”, and “want” instead.
  • As much as you can, change your need for approval for a preference for approval. You’ll develop a healthier state of mind when you accept the fact that you will not and do not have to get along with everyone.
  • Allow yourself to have ideals and preferences and throw away your ideas on how the rest of the world has to be. Treat people as you would want to be treated, and start as you intend to finish, but don’t become sad about things not being the way you think they have to be.

The next thinking error is something that almost the entire human population does but becomes exaggerated in the minds of those who suffer from a mental illness. Disqualifying the positive is when we refuse to accept the positive aspects of life and instead applying confirmation bias and only accept the negative. Do you relate to any of the following:

  • Convincing yourself you’re worthless and a failure. Downplaying your achievements by thinking that anyone else could have done what you have done.
  • Thinking that a friend is only complimenting you and telling you all the good things about yourself because you’re currently in a low mood and they feel sorry for you.

To overcome this error, try writing down things you know you are good at, or things that you consider to be your good points. Remind yourself of them when you’re feeling low. Accept positive feedback and compliments by just saying “thank you”. By saying “thank you”, you acknowledge the compliment you were presented with, and you can think about why they said that later, but for the moment you just accept it as it is. A compliment. Try to think of yourself in court, and the evidence being presented. It is far more likely to be in your favour than to be against you.

Our final thinking error is personalising, where we present ourselves to be the problem to everything that happens around us. This puts a lot of unnecessary guilt on ourselves and creates an unhealthy thinking environment to live in. Examples of personalising include:

  • Feeling guilty because you can’t help a friend who is upset or in distress. You think that if you were really a good friend, you’d be able to resolve their situation and make them feel better.
  • Feeling hurt when someone doesn’t respond to you or ignores you, believing they don’t like you or want to talk to you anymore.

To challenge these thoughts, think about the following:

  • There are often external factors that you cannot change to help your friend, which you are assuming responsibility for. You can only ever offer your own support and kindness, don’t let the burden of outside factors weigh you down.
  • Consider other possibilities before arriving at your own conclusion. Perhaps that person is busy or has had a bad day and didn’t want to talk to anyone, not specific to you.

As much as it is hard to accept, we are not the centre of the universe! Look for outside reasons that don’t involve yourself and accept that you don’t need to carry the weight of the world on your shoulders.

No step in CBT is easy, but figuring out what thinking errors you continually make and how you can deal with them is a great first step to developing a healthier mind and outlook towards the rest of the world. I find the easiest way to recognise the patterns is to write them down as you notice them, challenge them, and then remember that for the next time they occur. You may also notice that these errors crop up during certain situations or events that trigger bad thoughts. As you start to notice them, you can start to focus on the areas where you need to improve the most.

Our next lesson will be tackling negative and dysfunctional thoughts.

Let’s get better.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s