Distorted thinking is when we misinterpret a situation as awful and a threat to our well-being, when in reality it is not. Because our thoughts generate emotions, and our emotions cause reactions, distortions in our thinking can lead us into an undesirable reaction.
Everyone is guilty of distorted thinking at one time or another. The less we do it, however, the more likely we are to respond appropriately rather than with an over-sized reaction. Identifying distorted thinking, then challenging it, is the best way to reduce the number and size of our bad reactions.
Need some examples of distorted thinking to help you see your own? Wondering how to challenge your distorted thoughts? This page is for you. The left column introduces common types of distorted thinking. As you move to the right you’ll find an example of a distorted thought that fits the type, and then tips for challenging those distorted thoughts when they happen.
Distorted thinking type
My wife forgot to buy the BBQ sauce I asked her to buy. She’s so forgetful.
Challenges to distortions
Maintain a balance in your perspective: She did get a whole bunch of other groceries for us. The BBQ is not a big deal. I can go back and get some if we need more.
Things are either black-or-white, good or bad. People or situations fit into either/or categories with no middle ground.
Most people and situations are complex. Allow for shades of gray: He doesn’t do a very good job with personal grooming, but he is friendly, make my daughter laugh, and gets her home on time.
Coming to a general conclusion based on one incident or a single piece of evidence.
One experience may not be the case all the time: It looked like they were short on help and still training employees. Maybe I’ll give them another chance after they have more time to get established.
Without individuals saying so, we assume we know what they are feeling and why they act the way they do. In particular, we assume we know how people are feeling toward us and the motivation for their actions.
Reading someone else’s mind is not possible and can needlessly take us down a very negative path: She usually says yes when I ask her out. Maybe she wanted to go but really does have other plans. I could ask her for another night, or ask her if everything is okay between us.
Expecting disaster to strike, no matter what. We act as if possible what if scenarios are certain.
Personalization is a distortion where a person believes that everything others do or say is some kind of direct, personal attack.
If we feel externally controlled, we see ourselves as a helpless victim of fate. Or, in the fallacy of internal control, we assume responsibility for the pain and happiness of everyone around us.
(Internal) If my wife had a bad day, I have to make her happy.
My wife had a bad day. I’ll try to cheer her up, but if she’s not ready for it, I’ll know that I tried.
Feeling resentful because we think we know what is fair, but other people won’t agree with us.
Holding other people responsible for our pain, or taking the other track and blaming ourselves for every problem.
These are ironclad rules about how people should (or should not) behave. Others who break the rules make us angry, while we feel guilty when we violate our own rules.
I really should exercise.
It would be nice if my neighbor raked, but there’s no code that says he has to.
Exercise would be a good choice for me.
Believe that what we feel must automatically be true.
The expectation that other people will change to suit our wishes if we just pressure them enough.
Labeling or mislabeling involves describing a person or event with highly colored and emotionally loaded language.
When my partner gets angry with me for staying out late, it becomes, “She’s a crazy bitch.”
I got down-sized from my job.
My partner was upset with me for staying out late.
Feeling continually on trial to prove that our opinions and actions are correct. Being wrong is unthinkable. We go to any length to demonstrate we’re right.
Expecting our sacrifice and self-denial to pay off, as if someone is keeping score. We feel bitter when the reward doesn’t come.