Antidotes to Distorted Thinking

  1. Pejorative Labeling: Be Specific and Accurate.

Pejorative labels are false because they reflect a global negative judgment focused only on a single characteristic or behavior that is exaggerated or distorted. Pejorative labels are presented in absolute terms as if they capture the core or substance of that which is labeled. No one is a “jerk” or a “loser.” We are human beings and sometimes we act foolishly and sometimes we loose competitions. In all fields of knowledge labels are employed to capture and signify pervasive, enduring and essential traits and qualities, and great care is exercised not to mistake the map for the territory.

  1. Minimization: Acknowledge Significance.

Minimization is a form of Denial that impairs our ability to recognize and work on our problems; or conversely, to appreciate the implications and gravity of the problems of someone else. Once we have identified a problem we need to be honest in weighing its significance in order to find the motivation to overcome it.

  1. Disqualifying the Positive: Uphold the Positive.

Going way beyond the virtues of modesty and humility to undermine self-esteem and self-respect. Learn to accept a compliment and pat yourself on the back for your better traits and a job well done.

  1. I’m Unique: Nobody is Special/Equality.

You are a human being just like all other human beings. You have the same physiological body systems and the same psychological structures. People understand you better than you think (and often better than you understand yourself). Give conventional wisdom a chance. Give programs and those in the helping profession a chance.

  1. Vagueness: Be Precise and Clear.

Vagueness is a way of being avoidant of commitment and of consequences. It can also represent laziness. The key to overcoming Vagueness is to calculate numerical values. Provide an exact number when asked how much you smoke. Give a definite date when asked when you stopped smoking. Name distinct emotions when asked how you feel. Review and clarify your responsibilities daily.

  1. Polarized Thinking: Think in Shades of Gray, Percentages.

Stop making black and white judgments. Stop thinking in “either/or” terms. People are neither good or bad, angry or serene, loving or rejecting, smart or stupid. They fall somewhere along a continuum. Human beings are too complex to be reduced to dichotomous judgments. Try not to fall into the trap of making these kinds of ratings; and when you do, think in terms of percentages. “He is selfish 40% of the time and generous 60% of the time.

  1. Filtering: Shift the Focus, No Need to Magnify.

Filtering constitutes a kind of mind set, or being stuck in a groove. Learn to shift the focus to the elements that you typically ignore. Rather than focusing on the things that anger you or frighten you, shift your attention to the things that meet your approval or that comfort you. When you are Filtering you tend to magnify your problems. Instead of thinking: “Crowds are scary and I can’t tolerate them”, focus on the aspects of crowds that provide safety and say, “I can cope”.

  1. Overgeneralization: Evidence for Conclusions – There Are No Absolutes.

Critically evaluate your evidence for your conclusions. If the conclusion is based on one or two instances, one small mistake, a single symptom, or one or two cases, then throw it out until you have more proof. Even a long pattern in the past does not necessarily predict the future. Just because your last three boyfriends cheated on you does not mean that this one will. He is a different person. A better indicator would be if he cheated on his last three girlfriends. Overgeneralizations are absolutes (e.g., all husbands cheat on their wives). Stop using words like “every”, “all”, “always”, “none”, “never”, “everyone”, and “nobody”. Instead use words like “may”, “sometimes”, and “often”.

  1. Mind Reading: Can You Really Know?

Mind reading is the tendency to make assumptions about how people feel and think, and what their motivations and intentions are. In the long run, you are probably better off making no inferences or assumptions about people at all. Either believe what they tell you or hold no belief at all until some conclusive evidence arises. Treat all your notions about other people as hypotheses to be checked out by asking them. Most importantly, recognize your inferences as your own projections, your own assumption-beliefs.

10. What Will People Think?: They’re Not Thinking about Me.

No one is so clairvoyant that they are able to discern if and what other people are thinking about them. This is really a fairly egocentric (childish) preoccupation. You are not the center of other people’s attention. In childhood and adolescence it is typical to be concerned what others might be thinking about you. By middle age most people do not really care if, or what, other people think of them. By old age people tend to recognize that other people were not thinking about them at all.

11. Catastrophizing: Can I take Action? Realistic Odds.

Catastrophizing is generating fear just for the sake of it. Fear does not help. Fear impairs your ability to think rationally and to act definitively. Fear also attracts: if you are afraid of the dog, it will harass you. However, it never hurts to be prepared for a rainy day. If you are Catastrophizing about an earthquake, you can store canned food, water, batteries, radio, crow bar, etc., learn how to turn off the water main and the gas main, and you can determine the best places to get under in the event of a quake. Always ask yourself if there is some action that you can take to prepare for that which you fear. If there is, then do it. If there is not, then reframe your thinking using this rational comeback. Also ask yourself what are the odds of the catastrophe that you fear actually taking place today, and arm yourself with statistics. In the San Francisco Bay area there have been two earthquakes in 89 years that resulted in the loss of life.

12. Worrying: Shift Your Focus – Take Action.

Wringing your hands is not a solution or help to any situation. Rather than worry about what you will do when your Unemployment runs out, take action and make constructive plans. Look for another job, get some training, go back to school. If you are worried because your son is late coming back with the car, engage yourself in something else. Find something positive to occupy your attention. If he is unusually late, call the police or call around to locate him.

13. Fear Rehearsal: Prepare For Success.

When you rehearse fear and failure, contemplate potential obstacles, constantly seek solutions, problem solve, and question your ability to cope, you decrease your chances of achieving your goals. Imagine and mentally rehearse success to improve your chances of getting what you rehearse.

14. What Ifs: Can I Take Action? Magnify To the Point Of Absurdity Realistic Odds.

As with Catastrophizing, always ask yourself if there is any constructive action that you could take in order to be prepared for a potential negative event. “What if it rains?” “I’ll bring an umbrella.” You can also magnify your “What Ifs” to the point of absurdity. “What if an octopus comes through the door and sucks my eyeballs out?” “What if the sky falls?” As with Catastrophizing, arm yourself with statistics. “What if the plane crashes?” You are safer in a plane then you are driving on a freeway. “What if the elevator gets stuck?” Elevators stick only once per 11,000 trips for an average of 11 minutes. And you can always ask yourself, “What if doesn’t?”

15. Personalization: Check it out.

Comparisons Are Subjective. If you have a tendency to personalize things, force yourself to prove the assumptions that you make by checking them out. Your boyfriend’s frustration, your boss’s frown, the quiet when you enter the room, or whatever it is, may have nothing to do with you. Check it out. Even if the other person tells you that their emotion is in response to you, there is no need to take it on and make it your problem. Comparing yourself to others is a highly opinionated endeavor. Unless you are simply measuring to see who is taller or counting to see has more freckles, there is no standard of accuracy. Beauty is in the eyes of the beholder. Your worth does not depend on your being better than others.

16. Blaming: I Am Responsible.

It is your responsibility to assert your needs, say no, and go elsewhere. The other person is not responsible for knowing or helping you meet your needs. No one else can really be at fault if you, a responsible adult, are distressed or unhappy. Focus on the choices you have made that created the situation. Examine what options you have now for coping with it. There is a difference between taking responsibility and turning the blame on yourself. Taking responsibility means accepting the consequences of your own choices. Blaming yourself means attacking your own self-esteem and labeling yourself bad if you make a mistake.

17. Control Fallacies: I Am Responsible – Each One is Responsible.

Aside from natural disasters and criminal victimization, you are responsible for what happens in your world. You make it happen. If you are unhappy there are specific choices you have made, and continue to make that have the byproduct of unhappiness. You usually achieve in life whatever your top priority is. For example, if security is your top priority, you may have it at the expense of passion and excitement. You may long for excitement but security was the top priority. Ask yourself, “What choices have I made that resulted in this situation? What decisions can I make now to change it?” The omnipotence fallacy is the other side of the coin from the external control fallacy. Instead of everyone else being responsible for your problems, you believe that you are responsible for everyone else’s problems. The key to overcoming the omnipotence fallacy is to recognize that each one is responsible for himself. There is a difference between generosity and slavish adherence to a conviction that you have to help everybody. Part of respecting others includes letting them live their own lives, suffer their own pain, and live their own lives.

18. Fallacy of Fairness: Preference vs. Fairness.

Outside of a court of law, the concept of fairness is too dangerous because it is too subjective (i.e., a matter of opinion). The word fair is a nice disguise for personal preferences and wants. What you want is fair, what the other person wants is bogus. Be honest with yourself and the other person. Say what you want or prefer without dressing it up in the fallacy of fairness. The world is not fair, has never been fair, and will likely never be fair. Consider this: less then a fraction of one percent of the population of the planet owns more then ninety percent of the wealth. If the world were fair then this couldn’t possibly happen.

19. ShouIds: Flexible Rules Everyone has a Different Set.

Re-examine and question any person rules or expectations that include the words should, ought, must, have to, or shouldn’t. Flexible rules and expectations don’t employ these words because there are always exceptions and special circumstances. Think of at least three exceptions to your rule, and then imagine all of the exceptions there must be that you cannot think of. Everyone has their own set of “shoulds” that are different from yours and equally valid (or invalid). Learn to respect diversity. Learn to communicate directly. Do not assume that because you cooked your guest should automatically jump up and wash the dishes without prompting, and then become resentful when this does not happen. Your guest may believe that the host should do everything. If you want your guest to wash the dishes, then ask them to.

20. Emotional Reasoning: Feelings Can Lie.

What you feel is entirely dependent upon what you think. If you have distorted thoughts, your feelings won’t have validity. Your feelings can lie to you. In fact, if you are feeling depressed or anxious all the time, it’s almost certain that they are lying to you. There is nothing sacred or automatically true about what you feel. If you feel unattractive or you feel foolish and embarrassed, you tend to believe yourself ugly or a fool. But stop a minute. Maybe it isn’t true and you are suffering for nothing. Be skeptical about your feelings and examine them as you would a used car.

21. Fallacy of Change: I Can’t Change Other People My Happiness is My Responsibility.

When you try to push people to change, you are asking them to be different so you can be happy. The assumption is that your happiness is in some way dependent on them and on how they behave. Your happiness depends on you and on each of the decisions you make. You have to decide whether to leave or to stay, say yes or no, stay with one job or find another. You cannot make another person change; and if they do change due to the pressure you exert, they are likely to resent you and to relapse to their old ways.

22. Being Right: Active Listening.

If you always have to be right, you don’t listen (or empathize) because listening might lead you to conclude that you are wrong sometimes. The key to overcoming being right is active listening. As an active listener you participate in communication by repeating what you think you heard in order to make sure you really understand what’s been said to you. This process helps two people who disagree to appreciate each others point of view. A proportionately greater amount of time is spent trying to understand the other person than in devising your own rebuttals and arguments. Other people believe what they are saying as strongly as you believe in your convictions, and that there is not always one right answer. Focus on what you can learn from the other person’s opinion.

 23. Heaven’s Reward Fallacy: The Reward is Now.

This distorted thinking style accepts pain and unhappiness because those who do “good” are rewarded in the end. But if doing good means you are doing things you don’t want to do and sacrificing things you resent giving ‘ up, then you are likely to reap no reward at all. You’ll become so bitter and unhappy that people will steer clear of you. In reality, the reward is now. Your relationships, your progress toward your goals, and the care you give to the people you love should be intrinsically rewarding. Most days, your emotional bank balance should be in the black. If you are drained, running in the red ink for days or weeks at a time, something is wrong. You need to arrange your activities to provide some here-and-now reward, dropping or sharing the activities that drain you. It is part of your responsibility to those you care about not to do things that will lead you to feel resentful. Remember that you would not want others doing things for you that they didn’t want to. If you have difficulty saying no, practice assertiveness and clarify your boundaries.

Adapted from: “Overcoming Anger,” Larry Stentzel. MFT (2012)


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