The best tip off that you are using a distorted thinking style is the presence of negative emotions, such as feeling nervous, fed-up, frustrated or irritated. You feel disgusted with yourself; you play certain worries over and over like a broken record. You notice conflicts arising with friends or family. It is time to focus on what you are thinking.
Faulty logic is at the root of many thinking errors and a great deal of human pain. Human beings operate on all sorts of hidden beliefs that become rules (major premises) against which experiences are weighed and upon which conclusions are based. If the premise is in error, then a false conclusion will result.
For example the belief that "All criticism is meant to hurt" is an over-generalization. When the person is criticised he assumes the critic is trying to hurt him, when the criticism may have been helpful. Other such beliefs may be: "Mistakes are intolerable", "If I'm rejected, I'll be ruined", "People can't be trusted", and of course there are thousands more.
Most people believe in cherished rules like this, but they result in misinterpretations, poor decision-making, lowered self-esteem and stressful emotions. They were usually originally made at the end of a traumatic experience when they seemed to make sense, to be safe solutions to the survival-threatening situation. The decision is repressed along with the memory of the event, but it resurfaces in automatic thinking. In other situations of course, it doesn't make much sense.
To begin combating your distortions, you should recall a time when you were experiencing a painful emotion or were in the middle of some interpersonal conflict.
- Firstly, identify the emotion you felt.
- Secondly, describe the situation. Consider: "What do I believe to be true about situations like this?" "What did I think about during or after the event?"
- Thirdly, identify the fallacy or distortion in the thinking.
- Finally, restructure your belief to take account of the uncovered distortion.
The following section will help you identify the sort of distortions and irrationalities that can so easily cause painful emotion.
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