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  • Mental Health Matters 8

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    Changing Distorted Thoughts

     I know you are all patiently awaiting the answer to the cliff-hanging question I left you with last time.  I am going to keep you waiting only a few moments longer so I can quickly review what we discussed. 

    We learned that the individual who says, “He made me so mad!” is plain wrong.  While we are not denying his anger, we are arguing against the assertion that someone made him angry.  No person or event makes us feel any specific way.   It is the thoughts we have (our self-talk) that causes us to feel one way or another.  In other words, the only person that is responsible for how you feel is YOU.  

    So, how do you change how you think?  I have met many clients that, when faced with the daunting task of altering maladaptive thought patterns, slump to the back of their chair, cross their arms, and claim, “I cannot possibly change how I think.  This is how I am.  This is how I have always been.”  Well guess what?  These people, too, are wrong!  While I will acknowledge that their distorted thought patterns have likely plagued their lives for an extended period of time, the pervasiveness of these thoughts speaks not at all to their permanency.  Distorted thinking is a learned process; similarly, it can be unlearned. 

    The first and CRUCIAL step is to BE AWARE OF IT.  You may have heard the saying, “You cannot change what you choose not to acknowledge.”  When you stop attempting to attribute the cause of your unpleasant feelings to an external source, you take back the control over these feelings.  You now have the power to change them!

    So, where to begin?  You can start by creating a mood log.  When you are feeling upset, write down how you feel.  Write down the upsetting event and then write down the thoughts that were going through your head immediately following the event.  You will, over time, begin to notice a pattern in how you think.  You will begin to notice how this pattern directly results in how you feel on a daily basis. 

    As I have mentioned before, we all practice self-talk continuously throughout our day.  These voices are automatic and tell us about our world.  Things happen in our lives that affect what our voices tell us about our surroundings.  It might be a negative experience, it might be the result of the way you were raised, it might be due to physiological mechanisms that are beyond your control.  Many factors alter our stories in ways that can be both negative and positive. 

    When factors affect our thinking in a negative manner and we continue to employ these negative thought patterns, they begin to replace our previously existing automatic thoughts.  We call these Cognitive Distortions.  David Burns, in his book entitled “The Feeling Good Handbook” (1989), identified 10 common cognitive distortions that individuals most often employ in their daily lives.  I encourage you to have a look over them.  I have a feeling you may be able to identify more than one distorted thought pattern that you have fallen victim to at one time or another:

    1. All-or-nothing thinking: You see things in black and white categories. If your performance falls short of perfect, you see yourself as a total failure.
    1. Overgeneralization: You see a single negative event as a never-ending pattern of defeat.
    1. Mental filter: You pick out a single negative detail and dwell on it exclusively so that your vision of all reality becomes darkened, like the drop of ink that discolors the entire beaker of water.
    1. Disqualifying the positive: You reject positive experiences by insisting they "don't count" for some reason or other. You maintain a negative belief that is contradicted by your everyday experiences.
    1. Jumping to conclusions: You make a negative interpretation even though there are no definite facts that convincingly support your conclusion.
    1. Mind reading: You arbitrarily conclude that someone is reacting negatively to you and don't bother to check it out.
    2. The Fortune Teller Error: You anticipate that things will turn out badly and feel convinced that your prediction is an already-established fact.
    1. Magnification (catastrophizing) or minimization: You exaggerate the importance of things (such as your goof-up or someone else's achievement), or you inappropriately shrink things until they appear tiny (your own desirable qualities or the other fellow's imperfections). This is also called the "binocular trick."
    1. Emotional reasoning: You assume that your negative emotions necessarily reflect the way things really are: "I feel it, therefore it must be true."
    1. Should statements: You try to motivate yourself with shoulds and shouldn'ts, as if you had to be whipped and punished before you could be expected to do anything. "Musts" and "oughts" are also offenders. The emotional consequence is guilt. When you direct should statements toward others, you feel anger, frustration, and resentment.
    1. Labeling and mislabeling: This is an extreme form of overgeneralization. Instead of describing your error, you attach a negative label to yourself: "I'm a loser." When someone else's behavior rubs you the wrong way, you attach a negative label to him, "He's a louse." Mislabeling involves describing an event with language that is highly colored and emotionally loaded.
    1. Personalization: You see yourself as the cause of some negative external event for which, in fact, you were not primarily responsible.

    Your homework for this week:  When you are feeling upset, ask yourself what is going on in your head to make you feel this way.  Then, take this thought and see if you are able to place it into anyone of the categories of negative thoughts.  Lastly, try to re-write that thought in a way that is both realistic and more positive.  Please, do not give up!  You did not learn distorted thought patterns overnight and you will not learn to untwist these thought patterns overnight, either!

    Best of luck!

    Quote of the Week:

    “A man is but the product of his thoughts.  What he thinks, he becomes.”

    -  Mahatma Gandhi