One of the marvels of the mind is that once we learn to do complex tasks, they can become automatic and unconscious. For example, when you first learn to drive a car, learning to steer, brake, and judge various driving situations requires all of your attention. Eventually, however, driving becomes so automatic that you need pay little conscious attention to the many tasks involved. Even though you are making decisions every minute, you are unaware of most of them. Instead, you listen to the radio or talk to the passengers, giving driving only a casual thought.
Similarly, while growing up, we need to learn which activities are safe and dangerous, what our role is in society, how to achieve the things we want, and how to interact with others. By the time we are adults, most of this learning has become unconscious habit patterns. Most of our emotions are triggered by our interpretations of events. The thinking processes that produce these interpretations—as well as the actions we take – are mostly automatic and unconscious, like those involved in driving.
Since these automatic thinking patterns are developed in childhood, some of the reasoning behind them is faulty. But because they become automatic we are mostly unaware of them as we enter adulthood. Thus, everyone uses some faulty reasoning from time to time. Whenever you use a faulty pattern, you misinterpret and, hence, distort the events you are experiencing. Distorted thinking, then, can be defined as any reasoning process that distorts generally accepted reality. Distorted thinking is also a common source of inappropriate anger. Learning to reduce the amount of distorted thinking you use is therefore a good way to reduce the amount of inappropriate anger you experience.
The first step in reducing your distorted thinking is to become aware of when you are using it. Most of our nonconscious thoughts take the form of silent conversations in the mind called self-talk. Thus, you can identify the various forms of distorted thinking you use by noticing that specific words or phrases are present in your thoughts or speech.
While different types of distorted thinking sometimes overlap, memorizing specific labels for each form is very useful. The reason this approach is effective is due to what could be called the ‘new car’ principle: When you first buy a new car, you suddenly notice cars of the same make as yours wherever you go. It’s as if suddenly hundreds of them are everywhere, when prior to your purchase there were none. Actually they were always there—you simply didn’t notice them before. But because you put so much time, thought and effort into selecting this particular car, your mind now tends to notice this type of car wherever you go. A similar phenomenon happens when you identify different forms of distorted thinking. Taking time to memorize their labels and definitions helps you become aware of when you are using them, which in turn allows you to challenge them and replace them with more rational and realistic thoughts. As you become skilled at doing this, you will find it a powerful tool for reducing this common source of inappropriate anger.
Common Forms of Distorted Thinking
Should/Must Thinking: The transformation of personal choices, wants, or preferences into universal absolutes. This is usually done by thinking in words and phrases such as ‘should’, ‘must’, ‘ought’, and ‘have to’.
Examples: “I have to get an A.” “People should be fair.” “I have to be on time.” Should/must thinking also can be expressed indirectly through:
Circular questioning: The repeated asking of questions that are irrelevant or have an answer you already know but are unwilling to accept.
Common examples include “Why am I like this?” “Why can’t I change?” “How could he/she do that?” and “How could that happen?”
Circular questions are the result of hidden should/must rules: “Why am I like this?” = “I shouldn’t be like this, Why can’t I change?” = “I should change” “How could he/she do that?” = “S/he shouldn’t do that” “How could that happen” = “That shouldn’t happen”
Can’t thinking: The use of the word ‘can’t’ to describe a need, want, decision, or choice.
Examples: “I can’t give presentations” = “I don’t like to give presentations” “I can’t control myself” = “I don’t want to control myself”
All-Or-Nothing Thinking: The tendency to evaluate personal qualities and events in extreme, black-and-white categories. This is often expressed with the words ‘right’, ‘wrong’. ‘good’, and ‘bad’.
Examples: A child breaks something and a parent says “Why are you so bad?” A friend disagrees with you and you think “It’s not right to think that way”
Overgeneralization: The transformation of a single negative event into a never-ending pattern of defeat or misfortune. Often this is done by using words like ‘never’, ‘always’, and ‘every’.
Examples: “Why does this always happen to me?” “I’m never going to get it right.” “I always seem to screw-up”
Labeling: The use of simplistic and usually negative labels to define yourself or your behavior that exaggerates the importance of shortcomings or mistakes. “I’m so stupid.” “I’m such a loser.” “What a geek.”
Magnification/Minimization: Magnification includes two types of exaggerations: catastrophizing, the exaggeration of personal flaws, small negative experiences, and mistakes; and the exaggeration of the abilities of others.
Examples: “How awful.” “Jim is so much better than I am at this. (When this is not true)” “I can’t stand it.”
Minimization, sometimes called discounting, also comes in two forms: the depreciation of personal strengths, abilities, or achievements; and the depreciation of mistakes and imperfections in others.
Personalization: The act of assuming responsibility for a negative event when there is no basis for doing so.
Examples: “I should have known that would have happened.” “If only I would have done things differently (when something you have no control over happens)”
Mind Reading: Assuming what other people are thinking or feeling with little or no evidence to support the assumption and no attempt to confirm or deny the assumption.
Examples: “John must think I’m stupid.” “They’re all thinking I’m making a fool of myself.” “Everyone thinks I’m a jerk.”
Fortune Telling: Making a prediction and then convincing yourself it is an already established fact.
Examples: “I know I’ll blow this interview. (When a person is prepared but nervous)” “This relationship will never last (When there is no evidence of this)”
Accepting Questionable Sources as Authoritative: Accepting as reliable an opinion or advice colored by vested interest, ignorance, lack of experience, or prejudice.
Examples: “I guess Sara is right (When Sara knows nothing about this issue)”
Emotional Reasoning: The use of emotions as the primary or only means for evaluating a situation, event, or beliefs.
Examples: “I feel so out of place. I guess I really don’t belong.” “I feel so crazy. I must be insane.” “I feel like such a fool. I guess I’m a real nobody.”
Journal Examples Illustrating How to Challenge Distorted Thinking
My girls were playing in the front room on a rainy Saturday afternoon. I walked in and saw one balancing on one foot on a chair trying to reach something high on a bookshelf.
Look at what she’s doing, she’s going to pull all the books off the shelf, spill them on the floor and ruin them. Then she’s going to fall down and break her neck. These children don’t have any sense at all. I’ve got to watch them day and night.
Look at what she’s doing, she’s going to pull all the books off the shelf, spill them on the floor and ruin them. Then she’s going to fall down and break her neck. — This is catastrophizing. While she may damage something and hurt herself, she’s got more ability than I often giver her credit for. What really triggered my exaggerated reaction was my fear because there was a small but real danger in what she was doing.
These children don’t have any sense at all. — This is negative labeling and minimizing. Actually, both girls are very smart. However, they’re just children and don’t know all of the things I sometimes expect them to know. Times like these are an opportunity to teach them how to do things more safely.
I’ve got to watch them day and night. — This is another magnification based on my fears. I don’t have to watch them every minute. In fact, I’ve left them on their own lots of times and they do well. While the way in which she was trying to get the book was dangerous, the truth is that she probably would have been fine. I probably wouldn’t have even known what she did if I hadn’t walked in at that moment.
I’m going to talk with my girls about how to get things and what is and is not safe.
I was at my parent’s house with my brothers helping with yard-work and doing some minor repairs. I made a mistake and my brothers made fun of me.
I can’t stand it when they do this. Why don’t they leave me alone. Everyone’s always picking on me. They just wait for me to fall on my face so they can stand there and laugh at me. It just isn’t fair.
I can’t stand it when they do this. — This is magnification. I can stand it when this happens. In fact I have “stood it” very well. I just didn’t like it. What was happening was I was embarrassed.
Why won’t they leave me alone. — This is one of those disguised “should/Must” rules = They should leave me alone and not embarrass me. While it would be nice if everyone treated everyone else with kindness and respect that does not always happen in the real world.
Everyone’s always picking on me. They just wait for me to fall on my face so they can stand there and laugh at me. — First of all, this is a magnification. “Everyone” isn’t always picking on me. This is a pattern that is primarily between me and my brothers. While it is true that we do a lot of kidding that can sometimes be pretty mean, we wouldn’t want anything bad to happen to any one of us. In fact, we’d be the first to help and defend each other. They’re really on my side. This is just a negative pattern from when we were kids.
It isn’t fair. — This is a true statement. Life isn’t fair. My statement in this case was simply a wishing for things to be different.
I need to remind myself that my brothers will probably kid me like we did when we were kids before I see them. I can also remind myself to focus on what I’m going to do rather than focusing on how unfair something is. If I don’t like what they’re saying, I can change the subject and remind myself of the things I’ve written above.
So what does all of this mean to a clinician doing counseling. The first thing it means is that the counselor must come to terms with his or her own habituated and distorted thinking. Undoubtedly, we all have these habituated thoughts and we need to discover what they are. One of the first places we can look is toward those things that distress us. If we know that we have certain triggers to our emotions, we may assume that there are some habituated thoughts of which we are not aware. Getting a handle on these is a process that is outlined in the first three Cognitive Behavior Techniques published by Home & Community Services. Since you will be utilizing these techniques with clients, you can practice first on yourself. One caution, analyzing these distorted thoughts requires a formal process, like a detective or scientist. Our confirmation bias will cause us to dismiss evidence that disputes our present beliefs and that will need to be overcome. Another helpful process is to make it public – share these thoughts with someone you trust and let them help you analyze them.
Once you have identified your own distortions, you will want to practice a ‘mindfulness’ of them, noting anytime such distortions come up and setting them aside.
So if I really hate dirt and grime and my client is dirty and grime and being around it is distressful, this is probably because I have distorted thoughts about dirt and grime. If my client is dirty and grimy, I need to be able to place my personal feelings aside and deal with the purpose of my interventions without distortion.
If you cannot overcome you own distortions, the next best professional expectation is to refuse cases in which your own distortions play a part. But understand, this is an avoidance technique – and we often don’t allow our clients to take advantage of similar needs.
This should give you as sense of the degree of expectation we have for professionals in counseling roles.
Adapted in large part from an article in 1999 by Reneau Peurifoy, MA