People with psychological problems often make errors in their thinking. By understanding these distortions, we can learn to break the emotional link between a distressing event and our typical reaction to it. Therapy teaches us to evaluate the validity and usefulness of our thoughts, values and beliefs, and identify which thoughts and behaviours need to be changed to improve our moods.
For this, we first need to identify, or become aware, of specific automatic thoughts in specific situations. Everyone has automatic thoughts. These are thoughts that just seem to pop into our heads. Because we’re not deliberatly trying to think about them, we call them automatic. Because they enter our minds really quickly, we generally notice the associated feelings or emotions much more than the thought itself. Often, the thoughts are distorted in some way, yet we believe they are true and react to them as if they were.
Thought: “I always mess things up” — Feeling: “Sad”
Although some automatic thoughts can be true, many are either untrue or only partially true. Here are some examples:
All-or-nothing thinking (black-and-white thinking): You see a situation in only two categories, rather than on a continuum.
If I don’t get it done perfectly, I’ll fail.
Catastrophizing: You predict the future negatively and don’t consider other, more likely outcomes:
It’s going to be horrible.
Discounting the positives: You tell yourself that positive experiences or qualities do not count.
(after receiving a compliment) “He’s only saying that to be nice”
Mind reading: You believe you know what someone else is thinking about you.
I’m sure they all thought I was stupid.
“Shoulds” or “Musts”: You have a precise idea of how how they and others ‘should’ and ‘ought’ to be.
I should have got an A on my exam.
Once we have identified an automatic thought that distresses us, the next step is to evaluate it. We examine it, test its validity or utility, and develop a more adaptive response.
Questions we can ask ourselves are:
“What is the evidence (for and against) this thought?”
“Is there an alternative view/explanation?”
“What is the best/worst that could happen?”
“What is a realistic outcome?”
“What is the effect of my believing this thought?”
“If I thought differently, how would I feel?”
“What would I tell a friend in the same situation?”