Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Thinking Errors

In my fist class yesterday, I found out my English teacher wants to keep my final research paper for an example to use for future classes. As I walked to my next class, I felt like I was on top of the world and couldn't stop smiling at random people (who probably thought I was crazy). The sun was shining and life was good.

In my second class, however, I had a lab exam that I had spent hours studying for, but ended up getting a not-so-good grade. Before I even turned the exam in, I knew it was not my best work and the self critical thoughts immediately out numbered my "I feel smart" thoughts from the class before. As I got in my car to drive home, the need for my afternoon nap hit me pretty hard. I immediately crawled into my bed when I got home and let myself drown in the negatives.

The most frustrating thing is, I knew exactly what I was doing. In that moment, I was allowing a thinking error to dictate my mood. After years of therapy, I am finally realizing when I am engaging in a few of the most common thinking errors.

Thinking errors, also known as cognitive distortions, are extremely common in people who suffer from anxiety or depression; which are typically underlying issues for an eating disorder. By engaging in thinking errors, I am allowing myself to believe something that isn't even true. Once I start going along with these thinking errors, I begin that downward mental spiral that I always refer to in my posts. 

Sadly, after many years of engaging in thinking errors, I have become very good at believing they are true. The first step in changing this problem is to recognize them when they happen; so I made a list (from an old worksheet I was given in treatment) of some of the most common thinking errors:

Mental Filter:
Mental filtering is when we focus exclusively on the most negative and upsetting features of a situation, filtering out all of the more positive aspects. For example, my day yesterday; I received a huge compliment on my research paper, but completely forgot about it after bombing my lab exam.

"All-or-nothing" Thinking:
“All or nothing” thinking is when we see things purely in “black-or-white”. These types of thoughts are characterized by terms such as “always”, “never” or “every”. Everything is seen as “good or bad”, “successes or failures” and it is generally the negative perspective that is more readily endorsed, ignoring the shades of gray that lie in between. An example of this, would be me feeling guilty for not getting 100% on a test and thinking of myself as a failure (which also happened yesterday).

Someone thinking in an over generalizing way will often see a single unpleasant incident or event as evidence of “everything being negative”. If something bad happens then it will be seen as part of a never-ending pattern of negativity and defeat. A bad job interview or a bad date, for example, might lead someone to believe they will never get a job or fall in love. 

Jumping to Conclusions:
An individual who ‘jumps to conclusions’ will often make a negative interpretation or prediction even though there is no evidence to support their conclusion. This type of thinking is often made when thinking about how others feel towards us and is often divided into two categories: 
        -Mind Reading: Assuming the thoughts and intentions of others.
       - Fortune-telling: Anticipating the worse and taking that as fact.

Thinking in a magnifying or minimizing manner is when we exaggerate the importance of negative events and minimize or down-play the importance of positive events. In depressed individuals, it is often the positive characteristics of other people that are exaggerated and negatives understated.

A person engaging in personalization will automatically assume responsibility and blame for the cause of negative events that are not under their control.  

"Shoulds" & "Oughts" 
Individuals thinking in “shoulds”, ‘oughts” or “musts” have an ironclad view of how they and others ‘should’ and ‘ought’ to be. These rigid views or rules can generate feels of anger, frustration, resentment, disappointment and guilt if not followed.

Emotional Reasoning:
Emotional reasoning is when we assume feelings reflect fact regardless of the evidence– “I feel it, therefore it must be true”. “If I feel ugly and stupid, then I must actually be ugly and stupid” or “I feel guilty, therefore I must have done something bad and be a bad person”.

By taking the time to recognize these thinking errors, I am also giving myself an opportunity to change the way I react to them. In yesterday's situation, I could have reminded myself of the nearly perfect grade I received on my English paper and focused on that instead. Our brains are extremely powerful tools, but it's also important to remember that not everything we believe is true.

Next time something like this happens, I will do my best to recognize my thinking errors and move on with my day. Sounds simple enough, right?



  1. Congratulations on your research paper first! I usually use the term, "my thinking is distorted", but the same as "thinking error". It is distorted for either good or bad. When I can feel good, it says, "no, no, no..." When I actually should accept a mistake, I manipulate it because I don't want to feel guilty. Tricky... Recovery definitely help us to see this distortion and start to see the reality as it is. If there is nothing good/bad or right/wrong, everything becomes facts. They just happen. And, feeling good about ourselves become real. But, I think it is still awesome that your paper got a compliment! xoxo

    1. It is weird how our brains trick us into thinking that feeling good is somehow wrong. Tricky is a perfect word for how all of this works. It is a nice change to see these distortions and figure out how to learn from them. It's a long, long process, but totally worth it! And thank you :) xoxo

  2. What an excellent blog post! You have created a great article on 'thinking errors'. Ever thought of printing it elsewhere again, such as Ezine articles or guest blogging somewhere? I plan to link back to this article sometime soon, it is so well written.
    As far as personally slaying these dragons, here is what works for me. It is a two part solution. You have conquered the first part and that is recognizing the wrong thought.
    The second part is equally important and that is STOPPING right there on the spot. Stop the thought. Then speak back to it. Correct it. Tell it off! Replace it with a true thought, of course a better thought and speak that thought to yourself over and over and over and over until you can't even remember what the wrong thought was.
    It is a constant battle but better fought than letting it continue its attack.

    1. Thanks so much, Wendy! I have not thought of printing it elsewhere. I wouldn't even know how to begin that process (haha). But I will definitely keep that in mind! :)
      I love your idea of how to stop it- Recognizing and then acting on it. I still need to work on the acting/stopping part of the process, but I am confident I will get there.
      Thanks for such a lovely comment! <3