By Brianna Wiest
To think well is to think objectively and factually. The human brain is wired to affirm itself; we are programmed to find evidence that supports what we most want to believe. Unless our subconscious is clear, it’s how we create our most compelling convictions. If we were raised believing we are social outcasts, we’re always seeking out evidence that we are, in fact, disliked by peers.
Like most things, distorted thinking tends to happen in patterns. We aren’t alone in the things that most deeply plague or fascinate or panic us, and in fact, you’ll probably find comfort in the fact that there are terms for them. In 1981, Dr. Matthew McKay, Dr. Martha Davis and Patrick Fanning published “Thoughts and Feelings: Taking Control of Your Moods and Your Life,” outlining exactly what these are, and how they tend to manifest. Here, 17 of the most prominent types of distorted thinking:
1. Filtering. Filtering is choosing to have a selectively informed perspective. It is to take the negative details of a situation and magnify them while filtering the positive aspects out. Picking out a single detail and coloring entire events by it isolates “good” and “bad” experiences from one another, and therefore, they become larger and more awful (or better) than they are in reality.
2. Polarization. The hallmark of distortion is a hyper-reliance on dichotomies. Things are either good or bad, right or wrong, and no in-between. It is to perceive everything within extremes, and be closed to a middle ground. This tends to manifest most strongly in self-perceptions: you’re either perfect or you’re a failure.
3. Overgeneralization. You come to conclusions based on a single piece of evidence, or a single experience. If something bad happens once, out of fear that it will happen again, you expect it so you can “prepare” for it. The language this kind of thinking usually entails is the use of “always” or “never” to illustrate a problem. This kind of distortion can lead to a restricted life, as you avoid experiences because you gauge failure on a single event or instance.
4. Mind-reading. You assume to know what people are feeling and why they act the way they do, especially when it comes to how they feel about you. This is usually due to your own projections and biases. You can only comprehend that people feel the way you would and respond the way you do to certain situations, simply because you aren’t familiar with anything else.
5. Catastrophizing. You always assume that the absolute worst will happen. It is to take random circumstances and to imagine they are indicative of the most disastrous outcome. It is a symptom of not trusting oneself, and not believing you have the capacity to adapt to change. If you imagine the worst is always happening, nothing can shock or surprise you.
6. Personalization. You interpret everything that happens within the context of how it affects and applies to you. You think that everything people say or do or infer is for or against you. It is the inability to realize that a world exists outside of how you engage with it. Other symptoms are trying to compare yourself to others, as though someone else’s intelligence or attractiveness means something about your own. The basic thinking error is that you interpret each experience, each conversation, each look as a clue to your worth and value.
7. Control fallacies. There are two ways control fallacies work: either you feel externally controlled (you see yourself as helpless, or a victim of fate) or you feel internally controlled, which means you think of yourself as responsible for the pain and happiness of everyone around you. Both are usually symptomatic of not taking control of your life in a healthy, productive way.
8. Fallacy of fairness. You believe that you know what’s fair, right and just, and that the only problem is other people don’t agree with you. You do not understand that truths can coexist, and by virtue of seeing your own opinions as valid (experience has proved them to be) you assume they are valid for everyone else as well, and if they would only adopt them, their problems would be solved.
9. Blaming. The sister issue of projection, when you blame, you hold everyone and everything responsible for your pain. On the flip side, you blame yourself for every problem that comes up. Regardless, it’s a distorted way of holding someone or something accountable for an issue.
10. Should’s. You have a list of rules about what people should and shouldn’t do that you grew up believing were unquestionably true. These were imposed on you through culture, family, religion, schooling, etc. People who break these rules anger you, and you do everything to avoid doing so yourself. Because you believe the rules are indisputable, you put yourself in the position of being able to judge and find fault in everyone else around you.
11. Emotional reasoning. You believe that what you feel must be true, without evaluating it at all. If you feel bored, unloved, unintelligent, unsuccessful – even momentarily – you assume it’s true, just because you have felt it. A lot of internal conflict arises out of the inability to reconcile our emotions with our thinking processes.
12. Fallacy of change. You expect that other people can change, and that they must, because your hopes for happiness depend on it. This leads to you putting a lot of pressure on people, when in reality, you are simply corroding your relationship with them. The underlying assumption of this thinking style is that your happiness depends on the actions of others. Your happiness actually depends on the thousands of large and small choices you make in your life.
13. Global labeling. You generalize one or two qualities that you see in your immediate social circle as being a judgment about all of humanity. Global labeling creates a world that’s stereotypical and one-dimensional. Labeling yourself in such a way is an impediment to self-esteem; labeling others in such a way results in relationship problems and prejudice.
14. Being right. You feel as though you are always on trial to prove that your opinions, actions and choices are correct, or at least, more correct than an alternative. Being wrong is associated with being “bad,” or unworthy. Your need to be right often results in close-mindedness, as defensiveness does not leave room to consider another idea, perhaps one that is more informed than your own.
15. Heaven’s reward fallacy. You imagine that someone is keeping score of all the wrong and right doings in your life. You expect that your sacrifice, good-doing, or self-denial will pay off, even if there is no clear, logical way that it will. You are constantly doing the “right thing,” even if you don’t feel like it. This leads to feeling physically and emotionally depleted, because there is no actual reward in the sacrifice and denial.