When we feel strong emotions like depression or anxiety, it’s usually preceded by negative self-talk and unhelpful thoughts. These come in the form of predictable patterns of unhelpful thinking styles.
We tend to take our emotions as being evidence for the truth. Another example would be to suddenly feel anxious and then assume it’s a sign that something bad is about to happen. Rather than looking at the actual evidence in front of us, we assume the stance “I feel it, therefore it must be true”.
We are wise to remember: Feelings are not facts.
In therapy we teach people to change their language from, for eg: "He was totally unfair and a bastard" to "I felt it was unfair and I was hurt by what he said". The latter allows us to take responsibility for our reactions and interpretations and helps us avoid being the victim. It also allows us to be open to another person's perspective and to check out if our thinking and feeling is accurate.
Can you think of any recent examples of when you applied Emotional Reasoning and then were proven wrong?
We tend to take our emotions as being evidence for the truth. Another example would be to suddenly feel anxious and then assume it’s a sign that something bad is about to happen.
1. Emotional Reasoning
This thinking style involves basing our view of situations or ourselves on the way we are feeling.
When I'm working with client's they will often say things like, "He's so critical and selfish" or "She doesn't care about me" - both these statements are how things feel, not how they are. Emotional Reasoning is as the name suggests: we base our reasoning not on facts or reality, but on our subjective, prejudiced, biased emotions. We believe feelings are facts.
Have you ever felt depressed about something and thought, "I'm an idiot and no one likes me" and yet people continue being your friend, inviting you out and saying nice things about you? If you have, then you have been using emotional reasoning.
2. Over Generalising
This is another major one that I hear over and over in my consulting room. This is the tell-tale language associated with over-generalising:
“All men are…”
“All women are…”
“I can’t ever…”
“It’ll never happen…”
The dictionary defines ‘over-generalising’ as: “To draw a conclusion or make a statement about (something) that is more general than it is justified”. In psychology terms this is also the case.
When we over-generalise, we take one instance in the past or present, and impose it on all current or future situations. And this can quickly form the basis of one of our scripts. Because in our scripts you will find over-generalising words: eg “Others will always let me down”, “No one ever listens to me”, “I always have these issues at work”, “Nothing works out for me” and so on.
We need to be careful of this because:
1.) It’s not accurate – nothing and no one is ‘always’ or ‘never’ anything.
2.) We can inadvertently keep ourselves in the victim position, primed, ready and waiting for the next inevitable upset.
3.) We negate both our own and others’ more varied and complex life experiences.
4.) This thinking can exacerbate our anxiety and depress our mood.
Task and journaling reflection: Observe yourself over the coming days. Notice when your language is over-generalising. When does it come out? When and how was this belief formed? What is the affect of speaking in this extreme way? Is it justified? What are you missing?
When we over-generalise, we take one instance in the past or present, and impose it on all current or future situations. And this can quickly form the basis of one of our scripts.
Labelling, or global negative rating of the self or others, is a type of thinking when you or another person has failed to meet your standards or your goal: For eg "loser", "failure", "idiot", "stupid" and plenty of cruel and expletive-laden others. Rather than more objectively thinking about the behaviour, when we engage in labelling, we globally describe (and denigrate) the whole person.
Labels are unfairly harsh and critical, and therefore serve no function other than to put yourself or others down. If you label others, it exacerbates any angry feelings you may have towards them. If you down yourself, it only decreases your mood, making you feel disappointed in yourself, angry at yourself, depressed, increasingly anxious, guilty and ashamed.
And don’t forget, criticism activates our survival mode, which increases levels of cortisol and adrenaline. So we’re really shooting ourselves in the foot.
When we notice ourselves engaging in this cognitive distortion, try do this instead: objectively describe the behaviour: That person is late. I failed the test. He spoke to me brusquely. Remove the emotional reasoning. You will see fewer negative feelings are stirred by this more objective, more accurate language. Even better, problems that have felt unsolvable, or people who seem impossible, may become much more manageable.
Finally, this is also a moment where we have to meet ourselves and others with more compassion. Labelling is judgmental and reductive. How are we going to have healthy esteem if we are putting ourselves and others down in deeply unkind ways? Try to change your language and remove the labels.
Labels are unfairly harsh and critical, and therefore serve no function other than to put yourself or others down.
4. Jumping To Conclusions
Jumping to conclusions is not just when we assume we can read somebody’s mind and know what they are thinking, but we also think we can predict the future by applying those conclusions to an outcome we assume will happen.
A simple example is you are talking to somebody and they suddenly look at their watch. You instantly assume that they must be bored with your conversation and are about to make up some excuse about why they must leave. So you end the conversation before they do.
In a similar manner we also engage in predictive thinking when we jump to conclusions and make predictions about something that will occur at a future occasion. This is a classic way we hurt ourselves by increasing anxiety and stress because in most predictions we inflate the negative encounters or emotions we will experience.
Jumping to conclusions usually means we already start imagining the worst-case scenario, or we're in a slightly superior position of thinking we know best/what's going to happen at all times.
The answer to jumping to conclusions is humility. Accept we know very little a lot of the time. We can imagine certain things, but thinking we 'know' and then basing our emotional wellbeing on that is not healthy. Embracing humility, asking more questions than giving answers, allows us to stay in reality and the here-and-now.
This is a classic way we hurt ourselves by increasing anxiety and stress because in most predictions we inflate the negative encounters or emotions we will experience.
Magnification is very good to know, as is its opposite philosophy: minimisation.
With magnification, we may blow things way out of proportion when we perceive ourselves to have made a mistake, or something goes wrong (also known as Catastrophising). The most common catch phrase for catastrophising is, “You’re making a mountain out of a molehill”.
An example of this would be if you made a typo in a business email, or a miscalculation on a spreadsheet. You will think your boss is going to think you are incompetent, and your job may be in jeopardy. Or if you have an argument with a partner and they storm out. You automatically assume the worst - that they will never return and leave you forever.
As you can see, Magnification also includes other Unhelpful Thinking Styles too, like extreme thinking and jumping to conclusions.
Chest Pain = Heart Attack
Fight = Break Up
Mistake = Disaster
With minimising, magnification is turned on its head when we downplay our successes and achievements. We tend to use phrases like, “I just got lucky”, or “Oh, that doesn’t count”. Also, when receiving a compliment, we might simply shrug it off, assuming the person is only being polite.
Two distinct ways of thinking, two distinct set of rules, but one core issue… We are just too hard on ourselves.
With magnification, we may blow things way out of proportion when we perceive ourselves to have made a mistake, or something goes wrong (also known as Catastrophising).
6. Mental Filter
In my office I have figurines of two meerkats. I have them to illustrate how we can often be on the lookout, always searching, twitching, ready - primed - to notice the next negative thing. The next drama. The next criticism we're going to get. The next disappointment or let down. The next person to look at us funny. The next hurt.
This thinking style involves a ‘filtering in’ and ‘filtering out’ process. You could also think of it as tunnel vision or selective abstraction, where we will focus on one part of a situation or person, and ignore the rest. Usually this means focusing entirely on the negative aspects and ignoring the positive ones (sad, but true).
An example of this would be if you are out with your partner on a date. Everything goes great and it is panning out to be an amazing evening. Then at the end you two have a disagreement that escalates into a fight. All the way home in the car you are upset about this argument and by the time you are home, it is all you can remember and the rest of the evening that was wonderful and positive can no longer be seen.
This process is then repeated when we remember things. When we recall this evening, we will tend to only recall the fight and not all the wonderful laughs and love that was shared before.
Likewise, once someone has been late to meet us, that person is stored in our brain as 'always late'. Or we struggle with presentations that involve reading from a computer, so we think we 'don't do public speaking'.
We look at ourselves, others and the world through a filter. A filter that sieves out specific details and only allows in others. We need to be very mindful about *what* we are focusing on and letting into our heads and hearts.
You could also think of it as tunnel vision or selective abstraction, where we will focus on one part of a situation or person, and ignore the rest.
7. Disqualifying The Positive
Disqualifying the good things that happen or you have done.
This is an extreme form of all-or-nothing thinking in which we filter out all the positive evidence about our performance, and only attend to the negative.
An example of this would be a student who gets different forms of feedback from his classmates. In the first he is praised for his project and in the second a classmate trashes his project. His response is to then tear it up and start again.
In this example he chooses to ignore the positive feedback and polarise toward the negative.
This is the proverbial: If a crowded room is telling us how lovely we are, we will hear the one voice that says "they're not all that."
8. All Or Nothing Thinking
Also known as Black & White thinking. Many of us, more than we realise, tend to think in absolutes. Something either is or isn’t. It’s either perfect or it’s a mess, either it’s amazing or it's awful. This sort of thinking is more pervasive and destructive than we acknowledge.
It involves seeing only one extreme or the other. You are either wrong or right and good or bad. There are no in-betweens and certainly no shades of gray. When it comes to sports you may have heard it said, “There are no second places, there is only one winner and the rest are losers”, as if being second best in the world is nothing to be proud of. Or think of the student who doesn’t get straight A’s and thinks they are a failure.
Great examples of this that I see all the time when I'm working with couples is the other person becomes 'the bad guy'. Black or white thinking mostly comes from emotional responses to things. It’s our primal brains at work. We get angry or fearful and resort to absolutes.
Perhaps you have said something similar to yourself? “If my partner and I don’t agree on everything then we have a bad relationship”, or “If I am not the best at what I do, then I am worthless”.
Blaming ourselves or taking responsibility for something that wasn’t completely our fault.
This involves blaming ourselves for everything that goes wrong or could go wrong even though we may be only partly responsible or not even responsible at all. We even take 100% responsibility for external events that occur.
Our child makes a mistake in a test and we blame ourselves for not making them study harder. The toast gets burnt at breakfast and we blame ourselves and not the faulty toaster timer.
Without realising it we relate external negative events to something we have or have not done. Carrying 100% of the responsibility is a rather large burden to bear, and one that is likely to leave us feeling discouraged or overwhelmed.
10. Should / Must
Using critical words like ‘should’, ‘must’ or ‘ought’ can make us feel guilty or like we have already failed. If we apply ‘should’ to other people, the result is frustration. Sometimes by saying these words we can put unrealistic pressure on ourselves and others.
It is quite common in everyday language to hear people use these statements, but how do you think someone would feel after making these kinds of statements over and over again? Chances are they will feel quite guilty or disappointed in themselves most of the time.
A great way to free ourselves from this way of thinking is looking at how realistic those “should” and “must” statements are. Instead of “I should/must go to the gym every day” a more realistic statement would be “I have a goal of exercising each day”. Instead of “I should/must eat healthy all the time” a more realistic and kinder statement would be, “My goal is to eat healthy as much as possible”.
Whenever you catch yourself making a “should” or “must” statement, stop and analyse the product of that statement. Like in the two examples about, why is it important to you to go to the gym and be healthy?
Ask yourself if they are in line with your values. If they are, then acknowledge that these are things that you value and that you want to work towards but be realistic about it.
Instead of “shoulding” and “musting” be realistic and kind to yourself.