Dr. David Burns has identified ten common thought distortions that, unless carefully guarded against, can become ingrained in our way of thinking and lead to undue worry, anxiety, and difficulties managing work and personal lives.
Do any of these sound familiar in your life?
1.) All-or-Nothing Thinking (a.k.a. black-and-white thinking): Seeing only in absolute terms. Life’s shades of gray are ignored, people and events are polarized into good or bad categories, and certain outcomes are seen as forgone conclusions because that’s what “always” or “never” happens.
2.) Overgeneralization: Isolated cases or outcomes are used to make wide generalizations, and evidence of different outcomes is discounted or unnoticed.
3.) Mental Filter: Focus is placed on what are usually negative or upsetting aspects of something or someone while ignoring other, more positive aspects. Imagine you have a “Paper Nazi” sergeant constantly kicking back reports for minor corrections. This annoys you, and dominates your opinion of the supervisor as “bad” while discounting she is also supportive, knowledgeable, and willing to shield her people from departmental politics (all typically considered “good” traits in a boss).
4.) Disqualifying the Positive: Minimizing or disqualifying positive experiences that should offer a counterbalance to your negative outlook. By so adamantly holding to the belief “my life/job/world sucks” challenges to that perception are discounted as “not counting” because, well, life just sucks!
5.) Jumping to Conclusions: Assuming something negative in a situation even when no evidence supports the negativity, or assuming the worst without considering evidence to the contrary.
6.) Magnification and Minimization: Negative experiences are magnified in scope and significance, and understating positive experiences are minimized or seen as rare one-offs with no meaning and offering no hope.
7.) Emotional Reasoning: Making decisions and arguments based on how you feel, rather than making decisions on objective reality. Seek to consider a reasoned balance of all factors, including hard truths that would be obvious to the cooler, more-analytical mind.
8.) Should-ing: Concentrating on what you think “should” happen or ought to be, rather than accepting and reacting to the situation actually before you. Becoming stuck in what your agency should be doing, how your spouse should act, or all the good things that should be happening in your world becomes stressful and disappointing, leading to further thought disorders and depression over the unfairness of it all.
9.) Labeling and Mislabeling: Explaining the source of your frustration or worry by naming it or yourself. For instance, your aforementioned “Paper Nazi” boss has once again kicked back a report covered in red ink and you decide to label her a _______ for her unyielding standards, yourself an idiot for never seeming to meet them, or both. The label puts her and you in absolute and unalterable negative terms, which distorts the reality of her as a boss, you as a cop, and both of you as individuals.
10.) Personalization and Blame: Called “the mother of guilt” by Burns, personalization occurs when you hold yourself personally responsible for an event that may be minimally, if at all, under your control. Personalization leads to guilt, shame, and feelings of inadequacy. The other side of personalization is blame where personal responsibility is abdicated in favor of laying responsibility for problems on other people, regardless of their culpability.