Challenging our Thinking Errors

I don’t find it helpful when people say, “stop feeling angry or sad”. Feelings don’t work like that. You can’t just stop feeling what you are feeling that easily. Feelings aren’t good or bad, they just are. I don’t find it helpful to add guilt to what I am already feeling. Our feelings are valid, there is a reason we are feeling them and we can learn from what we are feeling. Our thoughts and behaviors have an effect on our feelings. Our minds are always going and often we have negative self-talk or self-defeating beliefs. We can challenge our thoughts and beliefs and this can have a direct effect on our feelings. Cognitive distortions or thinking errors, are the different ways our mind convinces us of something when it isn’t really true. They are common ways our minds distort the reality of ourselves, others, and life events we experience. We use these thinking errors. It is normal to do so, and we can learn to be self-aware and address them - finding ways to reframe how we are looking at things.

Doing this matters because our thinking is connected to how we feel emotionally and how we behave. If we learn how to challenge our thinking we can positively alter our feelings, mood and behaviors. Cognitive distortions can negatively impact our self-esteem, mind, body, and sense of self. This doesn’t mean we can think away major depression and anxiety or other mental illness – though these can be tools to reduce negative symptoms.

Here are a few things we can do to challenge our thinking errors and reframe how we are seeing things:

  1. Notice how different thoughts result in different feelings, bodily sensations, and human behavior.

  2. Make a point in exploring what is and is not a thought distortion – look at how it impacts you – does it make you feel worse about yourself? Does it make you feel small? Does it feel fair? Does it feel loving? Does it feel motivating?

  3. Notice how powerful and impactful your thoughts are! Can you remove yourself from your thoughts to create distance from them, so you can watch them come and go without acting on them?

  4. Examine your beliefs & expectations by asking the following questions:

  • Are they unrealistic or irrational?

  • What is the evidence for my thought or beliefs?

  • What are other possible explanations for what happened?

  • What are the implications of my believing this way?

  • How useful is this thought or beliefs?

Examples of Common Cognitive Distortions:

  • Magnification & Minimization

  • Catastrophizing

  • Overgeneralization

  • Magical Thinking

  • Personalization

  • Jumping to Conclusions

  • Mind-Reading

  • Fortune-Telling

  • Emotional Reasoning

  • Disqualifying the Positives

  • “Should” Statements

  • All or Nothing Thinking

  • “Black & White” Thinking

  • Perfectionism

  • Self-Blame or Other-Blame

  • Blame the Victim

  • Denial

  • Labeling

Here is Example #1 on what a cognitive distortion might look like:

I am sad, depressed, anxious, or struggling. This is because I must have done something wrong and haven't done in enough to repent.

  • Cognitive Distortions: Overgeneralization, Jumping to Conclusions, Emotional Reasoning/Spiritual Reasoning, All or Nothing Thinking, Blaming

  • Rational Approach: My mental health is not an indication of spiritual and/or moral worthiness. As humans we all struggle and it doesn’t mean we have done something wrong. It’s normal to be sad occasionally. Anxiety and depression often have biological factors that contribute to a person experiencing them – they are real mental illnesses and they there is no evidence that support they originate due to sin.

Example 2:

We choose our trials / Everything happens for a reason. Therefore I brought these problems unto myself.

  • Cognitive Distortions: “Should” Statements, Personalization, Generalization, Catastrophizing, Magical Thinking

  • Rational Approach: We are meaning makers – we try to understand why difficult things happen to us – that is normal.

  • Each of us gets to tell our own story. We get to figure out what our own suffering means in our life. It may be hurtful for someone to tell us the reason for our pain when we are in the middle of it.

What are some ways you can use this information to start being aware of and challenge cognitive distortions in your life?

Jennifer White, CSW has extensive experience in helping clients with faith transitions, sexuality concerns, anger management, substance use disorders, domestic violence, and self-esteem. She has also taught psychology and social work classes as adjunct faculty at Utah Valley University.

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