Correcting Thinking Errors

Dr. Larry Cohen (856) 352-5428

One of the great pleasures I have as a life coach is teaching my clients about thinking errors, or ‘cognitive distortions’.  Pointing out a thinking error, and having a client see and understand the error, is like watching a child gaze at snow for the first time.

Thinking errors lead us to see and understand reality incorrectly. How can that be possible? Reality is reality, after all. Not so fast. How we understand and interpret life events is based on our perspective. For example, let’s say you are taking a night course, and your final exam is in the morning. Your partner is out of town, and doesn’t call to wish you good luck on the exam. You believe she’s inconsiderate, too busy, out having fun with friends, and forgot all about you and the exam. How inconsiderate – she’s never there for me. I’m so anxious about this exam, but she doesn’t care. You don’t call her, being passive-aggressive, and you’re so peeved that you can’t sleep. The next morning, after the exam is over, you get a loving, congratulatory phone call from her. “Why didn’t you call to wish me good luck last night? Were you too busy with your friends?” “No, I didn’t want to bother you while you were studying. I was nervous for you, and said a prayer for you before I went to bed.” Hmmm. This is called ‘jumping to conclusions’. You negatively interpreted the situation even though there were no definitive facts to support your conclusion. A classic example of this is ‘mind-reading’ - for example, you arbitrarily conclude that someone doesn’t like you, but you don’t bother to find out if it's really true. Or, you can make what's called a ‘fortune-teller’ error - anticipating that things will turn out badly, and feeling convinced that your prediction is already an established fact.

The big shockers come when a client discovers that something they believed their entire life, for example, that their father was never proud of them, turns out to be untrue. Evidence is discovered (usually during coaching work) that proves this belief to be clearly false. Shock! This realization may change a person's life dramatically. They suddenly realize that deep-seated feelings of shame they’ve felt about themselves for most of their life - that began in childhood when they believed their father was not proud of them, and that they could never live up to his expectations – was fiction - a thinking error that lead to years of personal pain, and likely impeded their life successes. Imagine how this type of realization can affect you. You can begin working on unraveling all of the shame you've felt for so long. Truly a life changing opportunity.

Thinking errors often occur when you feel down, or after you’ve failed at something. Thinking errors also create relationship problems – mind-reading is a popular sport, and I suggest you ask your partner if what you believe is happening is really happening. For example, you might be convinced that an unexpected cancellation of date night means that your partner doesn’t care anymore. Later, you discover that your partner cancelled because his paycheck didn’t arrive on time, and he couldn’t afford to go. Sometimes we don’t see reality clearly, and this can have a huge impact on our thinking, our feelings, and how we live our lives.

10 of the most common thinking errors (cognitive distortions) are:

1.      All-or-nothing thinking: you see things in black and white. For example, if you don’t do things perfectly, you see yourself as a total failure.

2.      Overgeneralization: you see a single negative event as a never-ending pattern of defeat. “I was passed over for the promotion I had hoped to get. I’ll never get a promotion.”

3.      Mental filter: you pick out a single negative detail and dwell on it exclusively so that your vision of all reality goes black.

4.      Disqualifying the positive: you reject positive experiences by insisting they “don’t count” for some reason or other. You stay stuck in a negative belief that is contradicted by your everyday experiences.

5.      Jumping to conclusions: you make a negative interpretation even though there are no definite facts that convincingly support your conclusion. This includes: a) mind-reading - when you arbitrarily conclude that someone is reacting negatively to you and you don’t take the time to investigate if it's really true. And b) fortune-telling. This is when you anticipate that things will turn out badly, and you are convinced that your prediction is already an established fact.

6.      Magnification (catastrophizing) or minimization: you exaggerate the importance of things (“I missed watching ‘The Bachelor’ tonight. I think I'm going to die"), or you inappropriately make light of something important or dire.

7.      Emotional reasoning: you assume that your negative emotions reflect the way things really are – “I feel it, so it must be true”.

8.      Should statements: you try to motivate yourself with should and shouldn’ts, not taking responsibility for doing what is expected of you. The emotional consequence is guilt, and sometimes shame (I’m no good, I never get anything done).

9.      Labeling and mislabeling: this is an extreme form of overgeneralization. Instead of describing your error, you attach a negative label to yourself: “I’m a loser”. When someone else’s behavior upsets you, you attach a negative label to him, “He’s a jerk”. Mislabeling involves describing an event with language that is overly colorful and emotionally loaded.

10.   Personalization: you see yourself as the cause of some negative external event for which, in fact, you were not primarily responsible.

Thinking errors are so common, I work with my coaching clients on them in almost every session. I can't stress enough the importance of correcting your thinking errors. Remember: thoughts lead to emotions, and emotions lead to behaviors. If your thoughts are off-base, in error, or skewed, your emotional life and your subsequent behaviors will be based on a tainted view of reality. You will misunderstand the behavior of others, and you will not have a clear understanding of who you are and what you are capable of achieving.