Every day tens of thousands of thoughts flit through your brain. Most of them are thoughts you’ve had many times before. And a certain percentage are complete bull.

I heard someone in the hospital car park the other day saying, ‘These machines never work for me.’ No, I’m sure they see her coming and start to switch up the programming.

These kinds of thoughts are known as cognitive distortions. It sounds logical and rational (to us at least), but it’s actually a way of keeping ourselves feeling small and bad, and in our caves (safer that way).

The woman in the car park was overgeneralising, creating a pattern (and often a self-fulfilling prophecy) based on one or two isolated incidents. Also see, with more serious consequences, ‘men always leave me’.

Catastrophising is another very common cognitive distortion, but there are plenty of others. Recognise any of these?

Mind-reading

This is where you jump to conclusions about what other people think (or will think) about you. E.g. ‘They think I’m stupid.’ This is based on your fears, and not on any actual evidence.

Filtering

You see the facts, but filter out any which don’t suit your narrative. For example, you remember the one time that someone criticised you, and not all the times they praised you.

Personalisation

This, fairly obviously, is where you take everything personally. This might mean that you assume someone is ‘having a go’ when in fact they are not talking about you at all, or it might mean that you habitually believe that you are to blame for everything.

Life should be fair/I have to be right

I’ve put a few of the classic cognitive distortions together here. Of course we’d all like life to always be fair, and no-one particularly enjoys being wrong, but holding onto these thoughts too firmly can cause us all sorts of psychological pain because life simply doesn’t work that way.

All or nothing

This is where you see yourself, another person or an event as either a perfect success or a complete failure. It can make you very hard not just on yourself, but on others. If a friend lets you down in any way, they deserve to be dumped. If one thing goes wrong on your wedding day, it was a nightmare.

What to do about ‘stinking thinking’.

If you recognise any of these cognitive distortions as something you tend to do, you are very far from alone. We all think these ways at least occasionally. The brain is fond of making short-cuts, and these kinds of patterns make life a bit easier for the brain. They also fit in with our tendency towards negative bias. However, they can also cause us, and those around us, a great deal of unnecessary suffering.

The key is to start noticing them, and challenging them. Don’t believe everything you think. When you notice these kinds of thoughts, ask yourself the following questions:

Is it actually true? If you still say yes, then ask yourself what evidence you have.

What is my ‘chimp’ getting out of believing this? It might be enjoying feeling a victim for example. or it might be a way of avoiding getting close to someone, or avoiding taking a risk.

How would it be if I didn’t believe this? You’ll probably feel relief at the thought, and then you can indeed choose not to believe it. How much better does that feel?

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