Have you ever heard the term “stinking thinking”? It’s often used to describe the many ways we twist and turn different scenarios in our minds to be more negative than they really are. We psychologists call these mind twists “cognitive distortions” because they are literally distortions of thought.
Distorted beliefs can make us feel like we are looking at the world through a fun-house mirror – which, by the way, isn’t so fun.
What Are Cognitive Distortions?
All events are neutral until we place meaning on them. How we interpret events has a lot to do with our past experiences. You can read more about that in How Your Childhood is Affecting Your Romantic Relationships.
Our brains love to make connections between thoughts, ideas, feelings and consequences, whether or not they are actually connected. And it can be surprisingly simple for the brain to create inaccurate connections between events and their meaning.
The problem with cognitive distortions is that they seem so real to the person who is thinking them, they might never be questioned! It takes a certain level of self-awareness to realize when you are using this kind of belief system and are stuck in negative thinking patterns.
Seeing a qualified online therapist can help you raise your levels of awareness so that you can function better both on your own and in your relationships. In the meantime, I’ll give you a few quick tips to get you started on how to change negative thinking.
In this blog post, I’m going to review some of the most common cognitive distortions examples I see in my private practice, along with some ideas about how to reframe this negative thinking into more positive beliefs. We call this “reframing” because it’s kind of like putting on a new pair of glasses, only these specs allow you to see the world in a better light.
Ready? Let’s put on our rose-colored lenses!
Cognitive Distortion Examples
Polarized Thinking Cognitive Distortions
With polarized thinking cognitive distortion, or black and white thinking, you can make one mistake and you feel like a total failure. You trust someone completely or not at all. You are either all bad or all good. If your partner is late once, you say something like “you are always late! I can’t rely on you for anything!” This cognitive distortion is polarizing and causes you to think about him (or yourself) in a negative light rather than as someone who just made a mistake.
A Better Way: Realize that life is full of grey areas, and that there are usually more solutions to a problem than you initially think. Also keep in mind that everyone has good qualities and bad, but that doesn’t mean that they are a good or bad person. Take a deep breath and calm your mind. This will help you move out of those rigid dimensions and make space for creative alternatives or different ways of viewing your significant other.
Overgeneralization Cognitive Distortion
Overgeneralization cognitive distortion is labeling every situation as similar to a negative one that happened in the past. “He lied to me about going out with his friends so now he can’t ever be trusted. For that matter, everyone else I meet will lie to me too.” Thinking “all men are cheaters” is another overgeneralization cognitive distortion example.
A Better Way: See that each situation in life is unique, and treat it that way. Don’t let your negative expectations become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Give people the benefit of the doubt. Explore where the generalization comes from and how you might be attracting situations and people that follow the storyline you have created about the way things are. For example, just because all the men you have dated have cheated on you doesn’t mean all men are cheaters. In addition, you may be attracting men that cheat because of your own childhood wounding that hasn’t been addressed or healed.
Mind Reading Cognitive Distortion
Mind reading cognitive distortion is assuming that you know what the other person is thinking or believing that the other person should know what you are thinking. This is very dangerous territory in a relationship. “He should have known I was upset.” Trust me, if you don’t tell him, he doesn’t know. Or if he does know, he probably doesn’t fully understand why.
A Better Way: Say what you mean and mean what you say. Learn to take what you hear at face value. Try not to add meaning to what is being said. If you feel that you need clarification – ask for it, and then make a conscious decision to believe what you’ve been told.
Emotional Reasoning Cognitive Distortion
Emotional reasoning cognitive distortion occurs when you believe that a feeling is a fact. For example, you believe that you are ugly because you feel ugly. Or you think he doesn’t love you anymore because you feel unloved. This kind of negative thinking can have a significant impact on your relationship.
A Better Way: Understand that your feelings are valid, but they do not constitute facts. Learn to acknowledge and have compassion for what you are feeling, without giving in to false truths. For example, instead of deciding that you are, in fact, ugly, try to determine where that feeling is coming from and work with yourself to resolve it. Knowing the real issue makes it much easier to find a solution.
Personalization Cognitive Distortion
Personalization cognitive distortion is akin to believing that you have caused all the problems in the universe. Sounds kind of self-centered, doesn’t it? “She looks angry. I must have done or said something wrong.” This is also a potential sign of codependent relationship.
A Better Way: Consider that every person you encounter has a million things going on in his or her life, many of which have nothing to do with you. Let go of the idea that you are responsible for everything. Go stand in front of the ocean, and remember how small you really are! And check in with someone about what’s going on with them before you assign yourself undue blame.
How to Stop Negative Thinking
Changing these cognitive distortions in relationships may sound simple, but it takes continuous, conscious effort. Each of these suggestions for change requires slowing down long enough to question your own thoughts, which, in itself can be a tricky process.
Now that you have identified some ways in which you might be distorting reality and explored some of the effects of negative thinking on relationships, take a moment to ask yourself if you are engaging in any of these cognitive distortions next time you are feeling upset.
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