13 ways you distort your thoughts (and how to stop doing it)
A photograph is usually looked at, but seldom looked into.
Thoughts are like photographs. We take an image, something that is what it is, and we can change it. We can get closer or farther from it. We can see it in black in white or in color. We can choose to zoom in on a specific portion of the picture. The ideas and images we photograph in our minds can be altered with different lenses. They can be distorted and changed not only by the variety of lenses we are looking through but also by the various ways we develop the the film. Thoughts are amazing. They can be wonderful and useful, but they can also be very far from what is reality (but what, really, is reality?).
Yesterday, as I was looking up ideas for dealing with the blah weather (which, by the way, is still pretty gray though this is a lot more acceptable to me when I'm at home, in bed, sick), I came across a list of thinking distortions. This was posted by Travllr in a comment section on Yahoo! Answers, so I'm not entirely sure who to credit the information to. Travllr noted that David Burns, in his book Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy, identified the most prominent types of thinking distortions that cause people to upset themselves. I'm not entirely sure if these are his ideas or if he just referenced them in his book. Either way, I'm grateful that I found them. I think I'm guilty of a lot of them and I bet most people are from time to time.
Like taking a photograph, sometimes it's very hard to capture the world, and our interactions with others, as they actually are. It is often hard for us, after images and thoughts and ideas travel through our minds, to have them come out looking the same as they did when they went in. We are all burdened with backgrounds and opinions and life experiences and personalities that affect the way we perceive the world. When you take a moment to think about how different we all are, it's a wonder that we can communicate with each other at all! Take a look at the list of thinking distortions. (Note: I've broken them up a little differently than they were in the comments on Yahoo!) Below each distortion I've written my ideas about how you can avoid each type of distortion to bring clarity and positivity to your thoughts.
13 Thinking Distortions
- All or nothing thinking.
Seeing things in black and white; anything short of perfection is seen as failure.
Seeing a single negative event as a never-ending pattern of defeat.
- Mental filter.
Dwelling on a single negative detail that colors all reality.
- Disqualifying the positive.
Rejecting positive experiences to sustain negative beliefs.
- Jumping to conclusions.
Making negative conclusions not supported by facts.
- Mind reading.
Arbitrarily concluding others are reacting negatively to you without verification.
- Fortune telling.
Anticipating, and experiencing as an established fact, things turning out badly.
Exaggerating the importance of things.
Inappropriately reducing the value of things or qualities of others.
- Emotional reasoning.
Assuming negative emotions reflect the way things really are.
Attaching labels to yourself and others and describing events in emotionally-loaded phrases.
- Should statements.
Motivating yourself with "shoulds" and "should nots" which results in guilt and anger.
Seeing yourself as the cause for events which you had no control over.
As I mentioned, I stumbled across these accidentally, which just goes to show that you never know what you'll find when you look around! I wanted to share with you what the commenter, Travllr, wrote about these distortions. S/he called these thinking distortions the "little foxes." When s/he is feeling upset due to a thinking distortion, s/he identifies which of the "foxes" is disturbing her and says to that fox, "Shoo!" Eventually, according to Travllr, tranquility returns once the fox has been scared away. So how can YOU scare these distortions away? Keep reading...
How To Stop Distorting Your Thoughts
- Be positive. This sounds simple, but keeping up a positive attitude, no matter what's going on in your life, can really help you to see things more clearly and avoid being trapped by distortion.
- Be present. Stay in the moment. Think about the now. You are where you are and you are only wasting time if you are focusing on the past (which is over) or obsessing about the future (which might not play out the way you imagine).
- Be controlling. You can control the way you perceive a situation and the world around you. It's not always easy, but you have have power to think about things the way you want to think about them -- so try thinking about the positive.
- Be mindful. Be aware of what you are feeling when you are thinking. Sit with your emotions and figure out why you are having them. Once you recognize the distortions and can identify them, you'll be more unlikely to be dismissive of your reactions. Pay attention to what you think.
I'm sure there are tons and tons of ways to avoid distorting your thoughts, but these are the ones that seem to resonate most with me. Don't beat yourself up for having distorted thoughts from time to time; it's hard not to. Think about it like a roll of film (old fashioned, I know!). You take a whole roll, all of your thoughts, and there are bound to be a few that are a little fuzzy or aren't aiming quite where you wanted them to. Being more careful and conscious of how you think should help you create clearer thoughts and clearer thoughts mean better communication with others. Keep adjusting your lens and watching the world from different angles and, before you know it, you'll the get picture you've been looking for.
You said it....one of the easiest way to stop distorting your thoughts is to stay positive and be midful. What great suggestions. :-) Attitude is everything.
Imperfect Action is better than No Action
Posted by: Giovanna Garcia | May 05, 2009 at 01:06 PM
I love this post. Particularly the 13 thinking distortions. I think we all suffer from them from time to time. For me, I think the best way to combat it is to accept reality. Reality is what it is. It isn't necessarily good or bad. It just is. To see more clearly, I think it's helpful to list the facts.
For example, I used to have issues thinking that I was the stupidest one in a class. Instead of the broad generalization, it was helpful to ask, what facts support this conclusion? What were my grades? What's my participation like? How do you define intelligence anyways? Etc. And then, I also thought, well, even if I were the stupidest one, so what? That doesn't imply that I'm less of a person. And, it was also useful to remind myself what university I was attending. A person who graduates at the bottom of his class at Harvard, still graduates from Harvard. (No, I didn't graduate from Harvard, but the thought experiment is still relevant.)
Posted by: Vi | Maximizing Utility | May 05, 2009 at 01:36 PM
Giovana - Sometimes it's hard to be positive and mindful, especially when your mind is playing tricks on you, but attitude IS everything and, lucky for us, we have the ability to control our attitude all the time.
Vi - I'm glad you liked them! When I found them I just knew I had to share them with my readers. You make such a great point -- "reality is what it is." Not good. Not bad. It's hard to remember this at times but it's SO important. Thanks for sharing your experience with us. It's a great example of how attitude is everything. Sometimes you just have to throw up your hands and say, "So what?!"
Posted by: Positively Present | May 05, 2009 at 01:48 PM
I was just thinking about this the other day and ended up writing a blog post about shifting perspective. I felt like my life had been going in circles because of being in what felt like the same place I was after graduating from undergrad. My roommate said don't look at as circles, look at it from the side, and you will see a spiral upwards. Simple way of looking at something differently makes how things look different.
Posted by: Srinivas Rao | May 05, 2009 at 01:59 PM
I have so many distorted thoughts. Ever since about a year ago I've been trying to stop thinking them, with quite a lot of success. I can't say exactly how I've managed though. But I still have many more, for example one negative outweighing all positives, or simply blowing things way out of proportion. I get one of those, and my whole day is basically wasted. But recognising it definitely helps to get things started.
Posted by: Penny | May 05, 2009 at 02:35 PM
Srinivas - I just read your post on perspective and I really enjoyed it! I love the difference between seeing circles and seeing spirals -- so interesting!
Penny - Recognition is key to stopping the negativity spiral. It's so important to realize how you're thinking. If you don't know what you're doing, how can you change it? I'm glad to hear that you've been able to stop distorting your thoughts as much. If you think of ways you've been able to do it, feel free to come back and post them as I'm sure my readers would love additional ideas. Sometimes it really is just taking control of how we think and doing what we can to have a positive attitude.
Posted by: Positively Present | May 05, 2009 at 02:58 PM
What a great metaphor...the camera. I've been guilty of all the negative thought processes at one time or another. Your advice for sorting them out and finding the root of them and then the positives is excellent!
Posted by: Karen | May 05, 2009 at 03:10 PM
Bloody brilliant! I love the thoughts as photos metaphor. It's the positive attitude that really helps keep those distorted thoughts at bay - hard work, yes. But worth it! Keep up the great work you're doing here! :)
Posted by: green ink | May 05, 2009 at 03:17 PM
Karen - Glad you liked the metaphor! I think we're all guilty of them from time to time. It's not easy not do when negativity is pushing us to see the not-good in a situation. Being positive and present is really the best way to avoid them (though this is definitely easier written than done!)
Green Ink - So glad you enjoyed the post and the metaphor! :) It's not always easy to be postitive, but it's really helpful to work on having positive thoughts. It's hard work but it makes life a lot easier!
Posted by: Positively Present | May 05, 2009 at 03:25 PM
You've got so many amazing insights on this site. This post really resonated with me. I think it was Buddha who said nothing is as dangerous as your own unguarded thoughts. What you think you become. So true! I think you've inspired my next blog post. Thank you! =)
Posted by: Lori | May 05, 2009 at 05:36 PM
Lori - I'm glad you liked the post and I'm very glad that you gained some inspiration for your next post. Can't wait to read it! :)
Posted by: Positively Present | May 05, 2009 at 05:42 PM
Insightful post - thank you for sharing it. "All or Nothing" really hit home with me. Perfectionism is something I struggled a good deal with for most of my life, and it really tanked me in my efforts to overcome an eating disorder. Gracious...
Little foxes, indeed!
Posted by: Megan Bord | May 05, 2009 at 06:45 PM
Megan - Yeah, perfectionism can be pretty tricky. If you feel like you have to be perfect, you can be really limited in how you live your life. I have some experience with this too, but it's really important to take the first step of realizing that you are striving for an idealistic notion that isn't a reality. Didn't you love the foxes idea? I thought it was cute and a good way to shoo those distortions away!
Posted by: positively present | May 05, 2009 at 06:55 PM
Once again wonderful work. I love it
If you wouldnt mind would you check out my latest article http://www.successdemandsaction.com/2009/05/mastering-law-of-attraction.html I take pride in it.
Posted by: Success Demands Action | May 05, 2009 at 07:04 PM
Success Demands Action - I'm glad you liked the post! :) I checked yours out as well and it was wonderful. I really enjoyed what you wrote about searching for happiness. If you look for it, you will find it!
Posted by: positively present | May 05, 2009 at 07:25 PM
Excellent, insightful post, love it!
Posted by: Lucky Balaraman | May 05, 2009 at 08:50 PM
Excellent post! We should all have this list of distortions on little note cards to carry around with us. That way we can refer to them every day. It will be a constant reminder to check our thinking. Thanks for sharing this with us. You get two thumbs up!
Posted by: Anita | May 05, 2009 at 09:10 PM
Lucky - Thank you! :) So glad you enjoyed reading it.
Anita - What a great idea about the cards. I think those actually might really be helpful for me, especially in certain situations! Excellent idea!
Posted by: positively present | May 05, 2009 at 10:27 PM
Dani, you did it again; another great post! You captured this topic well with your words. I think that most people are under the impression that they have no control over their thoughts, which is totally wrong. It takes alot of effort initially to master this technique but it will reward you greatly. You are so right- negative thoughts are a part of reality and they provide valuable contrast so we can keep on course.
Posted by: Account Deleted | May 05, 2009 at 11:01 PM
Oh my. These 13 thought distortions really hit home. At one time, I think I subscribed to over half of them (!) but lucky for me I found a good therapist and have learned to identify these little "foxes" over time and shoo a lot of them away (I love the "foxes" idea).
My biggest thinking distortion has probably been the "shoulds." When it was brought to my attention, I had one of the biggest revelations I'd had in years. And I wrote about this recently in one of my own posts: "Why I Don't 'Do' Commandments?" When I speak and think in "shoulds" I find myself living in (and feeling the emotions) of fear, guilt and anger. Yikes! Not something I want.
One of the things I realized one day is that the hardest prison to escape from is the prison of the mind (I don't know if I thought this up or just vaguely remember it from somewhere else a long time ago), but it's been very true for me.
Thank you for sharing what you've found out about some of the ways we can liberate it ... and liberate ourselves.
Posted by: Chania Girl | May 06, 2009 at 12:04 AM
Very nice!! Positive thought is positive action.
Good suggestions and a nice delivery as well. Looking forward to morel.
Posted by: jack | May 06, 2009 at 01:33 AM
Hi Dani .. thanks another really well written piece .. great ideas to be pondered on .. it's staying on track, little steps and keeping going and most importantly staying positive.
Thanks - Hilary Melton-Butcher
Posted by: Hilary | May 06, 2009 at 02:36 AM
Hi Dani. I've read about these different thinking distortions and can appreciate your suggestions about how to minimize them. It's fun to play a game with these too and accentuate them. For example, take a situation and try to see how many conclusions you can jump to, or how many different ways you can magnify a situation. That way, you will come to recognize when you are doing this and be able to catch it sooner.
Posted by: Davina | May 06, 2009 at 04:16 AM
Unfortunately, I use many of these distortions. I think your advice on how to counteract these distortions is excellent.
Related to "Be mindful.", meditation has been really helpful for me in spotting some of my distortions.
Posted by: Roger - A Content Life | May 06, 2009 at 07:46 AM
"The ideas and images we photograph in our minds can be altered with different lenses."
Sharing what I'm thinking with someone else often helps me. This is usually a spiritual adviser or someone who will give me a straight answer. Getting a different perspective helps, and getting it out into the open lessons it's grip on me.
Like you said, my ideas and images can be distorted by past experiences (baggage). Most of that comes from how I perceived myself, as a victim or what my part in the past situation was. By accepting my part, I can move forward and be more aware to avoid making that mistake again.
The thoughts as photo's metaphor is excellent. I can pull it out, flip it around, examine it from all angles... really make something out of it that has nothing to do with its intended purpose.
Just look out a window and describe what you see. Than ask someone else to look out that same window and describe what they see.
Another example is when someone says something to me and I hear one thing... I roll it over and over in my mind, trying to interpret what they meant. Days go by and I've developed this entire story behind a simple comment by someone. Maybe I confront the person and asked them what they meant by it, usually they say, "huh? I don't remember saying that..." or "I didn't mean anything by it."
Posted by: Jared | May 06, 2009 at 09:01 AM
Raphael - We definitely have control over our thoughts, but it's so much easier to think we don't. We love to rationalize and tell ourselves that we are allowed to think or be a certain way because of a certain situation/thing/trait/person. This is a cop out. We can control how we perceive a situation. It's hard, but it's possible.
Chania Girl - I loved the foxes idea too. I thought it was so great! Too bad I don't know exactly who to credit it to... I also like your idea about being a prisoner in our minds (I've heard that somewhere too). Sometimes we get so stuck in our minds, thinking about what we should or shouldn't do, that we don't realize what's really happening in relatity. We need to free ourselves from being stuck in distorted thinking and recognize that things are what they are. It's up to us to see the positive in them!
Jack - So glad you liked it! Thanks for commenting and encouraging me to keep the posts coming. :)
Hilary - You're right -- little steps can make a big difference. Just reading (or, for me, writing) this post is a little step. Becoming aware of what is happening in your mind is critical to making changes toward a more positive life.
Davina - LOVE that idea! I've never thought of doing that before and I think it's actually great. If I took a situation and thought about all of the various ways I could interpret it, I bet I would be so surprised by what my mind could come up with. I'm definitely going to try this and I think everyone else should too! Great idea!
Roger - Don't worry, I think most of us have taken part in distorted thinking from time to time. It's really, really hard not to. I think meditation is a great way to be mindful and I'm really going to try to get into it. I didn't really think about it in relation to distorted thinking, but, you're right, I think it could really help me see things more clearly.
Jared - I completely agree with you. So often I overanalyze something said to me only to find out that the person who said it meant absolutely nothing by it! Communication is so important, and it's critical to make sure that when you're communicating with others, you're not doing in through a distorted lens. I guess what it comes down to is really being aware of your thoughts and expressing them as they are. I find that I'm very passive-aggressive at times and don't really say what I mean (or mean what I say). I need to be more conscious of what I am thinking and, in turn, I will be able to communicate my thoughts better. Thanks for your insights! :)
Posted by: positively present | May 06, 2009 at 11:43 AM
Beautiful analogy of thoughts to photographs.
I'm a fan of Feeling Good and I've shared a lot of book nuggets on my blog. It's a tough book to fully absorb and implement, but I use it as a reference of patterns and practices for feeling good. It's the ultimate guide.
Posted by: J.D. Meier | May 06, 2009 at 12:08 PM
Maintaining a joyful, positive outlook and keeping a high level of enthusiasm can sometimes be difficult at best. But…the more you do it, the easier it gets. The rewards tend to reflect the effort you invest. And…the good things are often found in the middle of life’s most challenging lessons.
Fantastic post...thanks for the reminder to keep focused, remain positive and to live in the now.
Posted by: Lo | May 06, 2009 at 12:10 PM
Excellent post! Great use of the photo as an analogy. We do have many choices on how we process what happens along our journey. We can distort, enlarge, shrink and change things in many ways. We choose how we perceive. The tips you give at the end our spot on. Thanks for sharing your find.
Posted by: Mark | May 06, 2009 at 12:13 PM
A great article. Though I would disagree with the "controlling" part. Or rather, the degree of choice we have in our life is also the degree we surrender to the experience.
Most of us don't want to see our habits in thinking. When we surrender to our "dysfunction", we have more choices.
Posted by: Matthew | Polaris Rising | May 06, 2009 at 01:31 PM
J.D. - I'm glad you liked the analogy! I thought it fit pretty well with the topic. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on the book. I haven't read it yet, but I definitely plan on checking it out soon!
Lo - You're so right -- practice makes perfect. The more we work on be positive, the easier it is to do. Now that I'm working on this blog and writing about positivity all the time, I find that I really do have a more positive outlook on life (though I'm still a work in progress!).
Mark - I'm glad you enjoyed the post and the analogy. It's hard not to distort our thoughts from time to time, but I really think it's important to be aware of what we're doing and do our best to stay positive in the present moment.
Matthew - Great point about surrending to the experience. I agree, we need to recognize our distortions and understand them in order to have more choices. Thanks for the comment. It definitely opened my eyes to a new perspective, which is always wonderful!
Posted by: positively present | May 06, 2009 at 03:08 PM
That post is insanely, awesomely thorough! I totally found myself nodding through the whole thing. I really like that you added magnification and minimization, and the only thing I'd add to "minimization" is when we minimize the feelings of others or ourselves. (Sometimes we don't validate our emotions because we feel we 'shouldn't' feel that way'.)
I LOVE this article.
Posted by: Hayden Tompkins | May 06, 2009 at 03:14 PM
Hayden - :) So glad you liked the post! I completely agree -- sometimes we minimize our feelings or the feelings of others, which is another way we distort things. Very good point to bring up!
Posted by: positively present | May 06, 2009 at 04:23 PM
this is a great post, one full of dead-on reminders about how to be a better me. thanks!
Posted by: adam | iHappy.me | May 06, 2009 at 07:08 PM
Yes! Being mindful and observing instead of reacting allows us to let go of distorting thoughts. Stumbled.
Posted by: Stacey / Create a Balance | May 06, 2009 at 08:54 PM
Adam - I'm glad you enjoyed the post! :) Thanks for commenting.
Stacey - Thank you for the stumble. I'm really glad you enjoyed the post. It really is important to be mindful of our thoughts (even though it's definitely hard at times!).
Posted by: positively present | May 06, 2009 at 09:40 PM
hey, i hopped from chania's blog. it is true that we get a little jaded about life for whatever reasons. a lot of those you mentioned here mirror the way i perceive things. so i get a little irrational because i look at things negatively and when things don't go wrong as i had expected them, i get a little paranoid that maybe later they would. and it is tiring. thanks for the post. i have made a print-out and kept it near my study table. :)
Posted by: fifi | May 07, 2009 at 04:25 AM
This is a great post!
I think like most people I am guilty of a lot of these things, and in many instances I am my own worst enemy. I don't know why we are trained to be self-destructive, but it's good to become aware of it and train your mind to think constructively and posititively:)
The glass can be half empty or half full:)
Have a great Day1
Posted by: Diggy | May 07, 2009 at 04:36 AM
This is a very helpful post. Oftentimes, we are not even aware that we are distorting our own thoughts. It's so easy to jump into conclusions or to make generalizations without considering the real facts. Most often too, we easily get disheartened by our own thinking. We should clear our thoughts if we really desire to achieve a happier fuller life! :-)
Posted by: Jocelyn/ I TAKE OFF THE MASK | May 07, 2009 at 09:11 AM
Fifi - So glad you found my blog and you liked the post! I think it's a great thing to print out and keep nearby. I think I need it in my wallet so I have it with me at all times, haha.
Diggy - I'm glad you enjoyed reading this. I always used to be a half-empty kind of person, but this blog is helping me to see the positive side of things. Thanks for your comment!
Jocelyn - You're right -- it's so easy to distort our thoughts. I think I do it much more often than I should and it really only causes unhappiness. Being aware of what we're doing is a good first step, I think!
Posted by: positively present | May 07, 2009 at 10:51 AM
I came here via Vlad's 'Fun Life Development'. I found this blog so pertinent to my life at this time. Thank you for planting some seeds in my brain.
Posted by: Kelli | May 07, 2009 at 01:25 PM
Kelli - I'm so glad you found Positively Present. It's great that you feel you can relate to it. Thanks so much for coming by and for commenting. :)
Posted by: positively present | May 07, 2009 at 02:36 PM
Great! A very useful post. I like Letting go...has made a big difference in my life. Thanks.
Posted by: Kaushik | May 08, 2009 at 07:25 AM
I read your ABC article and came back and commented in the wrong article!
Ah, being mindful is it! I find that simply being aware of thought, simply observing without interacting, judging or interpreting, works very well. Awareness does its thing all by itself when I get out of the way.
Great advice. Thanks.
Posted by: Kaushik | May 08, 2009 at 07:30 AM
Kaushik - I've done that before too -- commented on the wrong article. It's easy to do, but, you're right, it's an example of how we can be more mindful in what we're doing! :)
Posted by: positively present | May 08, 2009 at 08:11 AM
I just came across your blog and love it!
I thought you might want to know that I quoted this post in my own blog post at http://growingupjenny.blogspot.com/2009/05/changing-my-mind-1.html. I hope you'll take a look!
Thanks for sharing your insight. I look forward to continuing to read your thoughts. :)
Posted by: Jenny Stamos Kovacs | May 10, 2009 at 12:38 PM
Jenny - I'm so glad you found Positively Present! :) I just went over to your blog and checked it out. Thank you so much for linking to my site. I really enjoyed reading your insights about this topic. I love your blog and I hope all of my readers will head over and check it out. :)
Posted by: positively present | May 10, 2009 at 04:16 PM
A great post summing up cognitive distortions. Thanks for sharing.
Posted by: Kellen | September 08, 2009 at 10:53 AM
Kellen - You're welcome! Thanks for commenting. I'm glad you liked the post. :)
Posted by: positively present | September 08, 2009 at 01:20 PM
Your post makes me think of Oprah's webinar with Eckhart Tolle.
Mind training, exercise, rest and healthy food make for wholeness...
Thanks for sharing!
Posted by: axel g | December 25, 2009 at 05:15 AM
Axel - Eckhart Tolle is awesome and I find "The Power of Now" so inspiring. Thanks for your comment!
Posted by: positively present | December 25, 2009 at 12:15 PM
nice post...thanks for tackling a very difficult topic...it is an incredibly arduous journey in learning to observe ones self...one needs to learn to see and understand the structure of the mind of memory...all thoughts come from memory..therefore all thoughts are of time..of the past...so thinking that you are in the present still involves thinking..you are still operating within the field of thought..so you really aren't in the present moment your just thinking you are...it takes an utterly quiet mind...to see that the observer is the observed...the thinker and the thought are not separate..problem is most people see these internal movements as being separate..then we proceed to try to control,distort,rationalize or suppress our thoughts....if you can clearly see this internal movement in its entirety then there is a possibility for you to go beyond thought...to be able to see something simply..as it is without distortion....
Posted by: Ivan | June 14, 2010 at 12:47 AM
Ivan - Thank you for your comment! I completely agree that it's a difficult journey to learn about one's self and there are so many aspect to self-realization. You've brought up some great points about thoughts and the present moment... You've given me a lot to think about and added some thoughtful observations on this post so thank you!
Posted by: positively present | June 14, 2010 at 07:01 AM
http://tenlittlefoxes.com - Burns noted 10 types of thinking distortions. As you've listed the 13 above, actually 6 and 7 are the manifestations of Little Fox 5! Happy that you found them, and are passing them along. (I'm travllr) I'd also be happy to forward an Excel wall poster that I created (3-pg, tape together) for anyone who requests it travllr -at- yahoo -dot- com.
Posted by: Daar Fisher | August 22, 2010 at 03:56 AM
Daar - Wow, it's really cool that you found this post! How exciting! I'm definitely going to send you an email and get that Excel poster from you. Sounds awesome. Thanks!
Posted by: positively present | August 23, 2010 at 07:54 AM