By: Keith Danner, Counselor, LCPC LADC
Thoughts matter as they are a defining part of who we are. They are essential to survival by helping us identify risks and rewards. They can be simple or sometimes complicated and conflicting. They can be automatic and habitual, sometimes subtle. Thoughts can influence our relationships regarding how we feel about ourselves and other people, places, and things. They influence our feelings, decisions, and behaviors. Thoughts are the way we interpret and give meaning to our experiences. They tell stories and create recordings from our learning that are etched into our memories. They are expressed through a process that is both verbal and non-verbal. They can be reinforced and aligned with others who have similar thoughts.
Sometimes thoughts can also be misleading and distort reality. These thinking errors can be dangerous because they betray us and have potential to hurt ourselves and others. These thoughts can become a spiraling loop of negative thoughts and feelings. An article on Positive Psychology.com Cognitive Distortions: When Your Brain Lies to You defines cognitive distortions:
“Cognitive distortions are biased perspectives we take on ourselves and the world around us. They are irrational thoughts and beliefs that we unknowingly reinforce over time. These patterns and systems of thoughts are often-subtle–it’s difficult to recognize them when they are a regular feature of your day-to-day thoughts. That is why they can be so damaging since it’s hard to change what you don’t recognize as something that needs to change” (Ackerman, n.d. par 9,10).
There are other aspects of thinking errors that are important to consider. These thoughts often 1) Shift blame to people, places, and things; 2) Takes away personal responsibility; 3) Has hint of truth, making it believable; and 4) Limits emotional growth. Distortions usually start when the hint of truth is used to justify and breathe energy into thoughts. There may be some evidence directly or indirectly to support them. They may also be based in FEAR and appearing real in the moment. These thoughts are incomplete because there may be other evidence unknown or ignored that counters them.
Examples of a few distortions are using isolated experiences and overgeneralizing them to other people, places, and things; thinking that it is either all our fault or someone else’s; thinking in absolute extremes – all or nothing; minimizing the positive; catastrophizing the worst possible outcome; filtering out certain types of evidence; assuming our thoughts are facts based on feelings; assigning labels to ourselves and others; jumping to conclusions by misreading people, places, and things; and setting rigid rules of how you and others should act.
There are many credible self-help resources available to use. Learn to identify distorted thoughts; accept thoughts with honesty, compassion, and courage; take positive action to reframe thoughts so that they can be supportive and realistic; and most importantly ask for professional help when thoughts and feelings are intense, unmanageable, and/or unsafe. These steps could allow for new opportunities to take responsibility for our thoughts and to grow emotionally.