Errors in Thinking: Recognize, Challenge, and Reframe

Our thoughts can be very powerful as they influence how we feel, behave, and experience each and every situation we come across.  As such, it can be extremely valuable to be able to identify, recognize, and reframe our thought patterns when they are working against us and the experiences we want to obtain.  There has been extensive literature on common thought patterns that are associated with depression, anxiety, guilt, anger, and fear and understanding what they are is the first step in bringing awareness to how we may be contributing to our own unhappiness so that we can challenge and reframe these negative thought processes.  Learn more about some of these common errors in thinking:

Black and white or all-or-nothing thinking
This thought pattern involves viewing aspects at extremes, whether it is all good or all bad or right or wrong and does not involve any consideration of gray areas.  When we think or verbalize our thoughts by using “always” or “never”, we are limiting ourselves to thinking about situations in absolute terms, which can be unrealistic.  One helpful technique that works to challenge this thought pattern is to look for exceptions to the situation.

This cognitive distortion involves applying our thoughts, feelings, or a particular outcome in one specific situation to other areas of our lives.  An example is when we fail one test and think “I am bad at taking all tests.”  In order to challenge this thought pattern, look for situations that may discredit this, like thinking about any time you did not fail a test.

We engage in filtering when we ignore or focus on a specific situation or feeling that is not accurate or realistic of our overall experience.  This usually involves us filtering out the good and instead focusing on the bad.  For example, we could receive positive feedback from 9 out of 10 people about our work performance however we ignore those comments and instead focus on the one negative comment and use that to decide how we feel about things.  In order to combat this cognitive distortion, focus on the facts and be realistic, which can promote a more balanced way of thinking. 

Catastrophizing occurs when we engage in worst-case-scenario-type thinking, especially if there are no realistic reasons that indicate that we should be thinking in this way. For example, not being hired after being interviewed for a job may translate to “I am never going to get hired by anyone and then I won’t be able to pay my bills and will lose everything I have.” One way to challenge this negative type of thinking is to remind yourself that there are always other possible outcomes that may result in what you want.   

This type of error in thinking is all about assuming what other people are thinking or feeling.  Since we can never be 100% accurate about knowing exactly what is going on with someone else, this thought pattern can get us into trouble because it results in us thinking and behaving in ways that are not always based on reality.  This line of reasoning can be challenged by reminding ourselves about the real possibility that people may think and feel differently than how you may assume they do, even if you know someone well.

This type of thought process involves the assumption that the world revolves around me and entails taking situations personal, even if it is not realistic.  An example is believing that a family member is upset with me because they did not call me back.  Similar to black or white or all-or-nothing thinking, this error in thinking can be challenged by reminding yourself that there may be other reasons for something happening and that it may have nothing to do with you.

Emotional Reasoning
When we feel emotional, we often think about situations and make decisions that are not always in our best interests because we believe we are being rational when oftentimes our emotions may not be based in reality. Therefore, it is always a good idea to reality check your emotions since they are not always based on facts before reacting or making any important decisions.

These are just a few examples of the types of errors in thinking or cognitive distortions we can find ourselves engaging in, so take a minute to consider whether you have noticed yourself falling into any of these thought patterns. If you are able to recognize your negative thought tendencies, try to begin to challenge your thoughts by actively seeking exceptions or times when your thinking was more positive and reality based.  Once you get into the habit of being aware of and challenging your thoughts, you will find it easier to replace them with reality-based perceptions.  Like most skills, this takes time, practice, and patience but you will find your ability to have more positive and realistic experiences to be very rewarding. 

~Cory Stege, M.S., LMFT