Common thinking errors and how to reframe them.
Psychologists have identified a number of thinking errors – sometimes called ‘crooked thinking’ or ‘cognitive distortions’ – that most people make some of the time (and some people make all of the time!).
Thinking errors are irrational, exaggerated and unhelpful thoughts which can stop you from looking at a situation in a clear, balanced way. If left unchecked, they can lead to feelings of stress, anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem, which can lead to all sorts of unhelpful and unhealthy behaviours.
The trick is to spot thinking errors, and reframe them into more helpful, balanced thoughts. This, in turn, will lower stress and anxiety.
Here are the most common types of thinking errors, and my top tips for reframing them:
Thought Error #1: Making Rigid Demands
Thoughts and beliefs that contain words like ‘must’, ‘should’, ‘got to’, and ‘have to’ are often problematic because they’re extreme and rigid. It can feel stressful when we tell ourselves things like “I have to work all weekend” or “I’ve got to tidy the house” or “I mustn’t eat chocolate”, and so on.
The trick is to allow your brain some flexibility, which in turn will reduce stress. Reframe rigid demands by using words such as ‘prefer’, ‘choose’, or ‘want to’. E.g., “I want to get on top of my work so I’ll do some work this weekend”, or “I’m choosing not to eat chocolate (so I can move closer to my weight loss goals)”, and so on.
Thought Error #2: Catastrophising (or ‘making mountains out of molehills’)
We’ve probably all had negative thoughts at some point that have spiralled into an impending catastrophe or disaster in our minds. For example, a bumpy flight turns into the plane crashing, or your child not getting into a certain school turns into him/her never going to university and getting a good job, or hurting your back turns into your boss firing you for being sick and you losing your house because you can’t pay your mortgage. And so on.
When you catastrophise, you begin to think “What-if?” and you focus only on the worst-case scenarios – which will cause stress and anxiety to rise, and keep you focused on even worse negative outcomes.
The trick with catastrophising is to firstly think “What-if not?”. I.e. start to identify alternative, best-case scenarios. Thoughts aren’t facts, so your best-case scenarios are equally as valid as the worst-case ones!
Secondly – look for some evidence that contradicts your original assumption. Consider what might be a more realistic explanation or outcome.
And most importantly, start to notice when you’re having this kind of thought – awareness is the first step to change.
Thought Error #3 – Fortune Telling
This is one of my personal favourites! Fortune telling is about anticipating the worst case and predicting it will happen – even though there is little or no evidence to support your prediction.
How often have you found yourself with a crystal ball, telling yourself that you don’t want to go to the party tonight because it’s going to be boring, or that you’ll never lose weight, and so on?
The problem with fortune telling – apart from the fact we generally predict a miserable future for ourselves rather than a positive one! – is that you don’t really know how things will turn out. Yes, you might have experience from the past this is a possibility, but mostly it’s not a 100% guaranteed outcome.
There are 2 quick tricks to reframing this kind of thought error. Ask yourself:
- What evidences supports a contrary opinion? E.g., “I’ve lost weight before”, or “I thought Anne’s party was going to be boring and it wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be”, etc.
- “On a scale of 1 – 10, how factually correct is that statement?”.
Remember, thoughts are not facts – don’t believe everything you tell yourself!
Thought Error #4 – Mind-Reading
So, you think you know what other people are thinking, do you? 🙂
With mind-reading, the tendency is often to assume that others are thinking negative things about you or have negative motives and intentions. For example, “He doesn’t like me”, or “She’ll think I’m stupid if I ask that question”, or “I know they don’t want to hang around with me”, and so on.
The trouble with these kinds of thoughts – apart from the fact they’re negative and can make you feel anxious, angry or sad – is that you generally adapt your behaviour to your own detriment (for example, you might decide not to ask a question or enter into a conversation).
Similar to fortune-telling (see Thought Error #3), you can’t possibly know what someone else is thinking! So ask yourself:
- Is it possible they could be thinking something else? (yes!)
- How factually true is your thought? (probably not very!)
- Are you jumping to conclusions? (yes!)
Thought Error #5 – All-or-nothing thinking
All-or-nothing thinking causes you to think in extremes. Everything – from your view of yourself, others, or life itself – is divided into black-or-white terms.
All-or-nothing thinking involves using absolute terms, such as never or always. Something’s either perfect, or it’s a disaster. You’re either successful or a complete failure. You’re either on a diet, or (completely) off it. Unfortunately, this kind of thinking is limiting and creates extreme and unrealistic expectations.
The 2 tricks here are:
- Find the shades of grey in between the black-and-white. E.g., instead of using the word ‘always’, replace it with ‘mostly’, or ‘sometimes’ (or ‘almost always’ at a push!). Using shades of grey is likely more realistic, more possible to achieve, and creates less stress.
- Replace the word ‘or’ with the word ‘and’. E.g., instead of believing you’re either a failure OR a success, tell yourself you’re a failure AND a success. I.e., you’re realistically somewhere between the two. This helps us become much less judgemental which in turn reduces stress, anxiety and depression.
As always, please feel free to get in touch with any questions or comments.
Dr Marcelle Crinean, PhD, owner and director of Brain Reframe, is a highly qualified therapist, coach and lecturer.
In her busy practice, Marcelle successfully treats sleep and stress-related issues (including insomnia, anxiety and depression) as well as disordered eating, binge-eating and undereating. She regularly holds workshops and webinars, and trains business executives across the UK and Europe in the art of sleep and stress management.