A few weeks ago, I wrote a blog called Thinking Your Way To Happiness, which reviewed 10 of the most common thinking errors we all make that generally tend to leave us feeling depressed, anxious, angry, and overall wound up.
Today’s post is a follow-up to that article. We’re human. We all make thinking errors. Thinking errors (or cognitive distortions) leave us feeling distressed. Well…great. What do we do about that?
The following are 10 strategies that, with practice, can help to counteract the 10 thinking errors. Certain thinking strategies correspond more exactly to certain thinking errors, but they are all applicable.
1. Identify the thinking error. Before you can be expected to correct an error, you’ve got to know when you’re making one. When you start feeling overwhelmed, anxious, or notice yourself getting angry, stop and ask yourself: “Am I catastrophizing right now? Could I be jumping to conclusions? Am I taking on the blame for something that isn’t my fault?”
2. Examine the evidence. Instead of assuming that your negative thought is true, check the facts. See if there is any actual evidence for it. Your best friend friend hasn’t returned your text and it’s been 4 hours, therefore she must be mad at you. That’s an assumption, one with little supporting evidence at this stage (the only thing you know for sure is that she hasn’t returned your text) but also one that easily verified. You can send a follow-up text to make sure she got the first, consult other friends to find out if she’s angry with you, or straight-out ask her yourself. Check the facts before you make an assumption that leaves you feeling anxious, angry, or down.
3. Talk to yourself the way you would to a friend. We tend to be our own worst critics. While we accept our friends, flaws and all, we expect ourselves to be perfect and “talk” to ourselves accordingly. If you’re going through something, you need compassion, not condemnation. Try talking to yourself the way you would to a close friend. If you’re being too hard on yourself, ask yourself, “Would I say this to a friend?”
4. Test it out. Before you lock yourself into a negative thought or belief, design an experiment and test it out. For e.g., before you adhere to the rigid belief that “I’m a failure”, come up with some opportunities for you to try your hand at succeeding at something.
5. Think in shades of gray. Things in life are rarely black-and-white, all-or-nothing. Rather than evaluating life in terms of extremes - perfection vs. failure, beautiful vs. ugly, worthy vs. worthless - try looking at things in terms of “sometimes”, “a little bit”, “more or less”, or on a scale of 1-100.
6. Get a reality check. If you’re really not sure if you’re off-base, survey the opinions of those around you whose opinions you trust and value. It’s helpful to know you’re not alone.
7. Define terms. Before you call yourself a name, ask yourself what that name really means and if it is really an appropriate label for you. For e.g., are you really an “idiot”? What is an “idiot”, exactly? Does forgetting one article of clothing at the laundromat make you an idiot?
8. Change the language. This is especially useful for “should statements”. Try changing rigid words such as “shoulds”, “musts”, and “oughts” into more flexible language such as “prefers”, “would rathers”, and “would likes”. This places less pressure on you, others, and the universe to be a certain way and leaves you feeling less disappointed, depressed, or angry when things don’t go “the way they should”. For e.g., change “I shouldn’t have made that mistake” to “I would rather have not made that mistake.”
9. Portion out the responsibility. Before you go to “it’s all my fault”, take a look at all the possible factors that may have contributed to an event and portion out the responsibility accordingly. You may have played a role - even a large role - but that still doesn’t make it all your fault, so don’t say it if it’s not true.
10. Make a pros and cons list. If all else fails, ask yourself if the thought is helping you or hurting you. Is it helping me or hurting me that I think everybody should like me? Not sure? Make a pros and cons list. If it’s not working for you, drop it entirely or revise it to make it work for you.
List of CBT interventions, with some editing by this writer, provided by: