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I don’t know what it is with me lately. I’ve been on a “think positive” rampage. Maybe I’m tired of being so negative (gets so exhausting, doesn’t it?) Or of being anxious all the time.

As I was putting my old psychology books into my new bookcase (because people need to know I’m smart, and showing off fancy pants books will make it clear), I came across some printouts from one of my cognition classes on negative thought patterns. Coincidentally (I don’t believe in coincidence), I happened to be going through a negative downturn and was looking for a way to deal with my increasingly pessimistic thoughts. Voila. Out of one of my books falls a paper on how to recognize distorted thought patterns, and how to deal with them. For this post, I’ll begin with the first part.

Let’s start off with a personal example:

When I arrived to class late one day, I accidentally knocked over a girl’s coffee trying to get to a seat. I couldn’t stop to clean it up without disrupting the teacher. No matter how much my friend reassured me, “She put her coffee on the desk, next to the teacher’s projector. There was barely enough room to fit the cup. It was an accident waiting to happen,” I assumed that:

“Everyone in this class thinks that I’m a horrible person for not cleaning up the spilled coffee.”

Before purchasing my first home, I created an Excel file with my monthly budget…and redid it again and again. On paper, it was clear that I could afford all the expenses no matter how many times I manipulated the data. Yet even seeing it in black and white couldn’t shake off the financial fears I was having:

“I’m going to go bankrupt, the bank will take the house back, my credit will be ruined, and I’ll never be able to have my own place ever again.”

The thoughts I wrote above are examples of Automatic Negative Thoughts, or ANTs. And because they’re automatic, I tend to accept them as fact. However, if you take the time to analyze your negative thoughts, you’ll notice that a lot of them contain a great deal of distortion. The problem: If the accuracy of your negative thoughts are not challenged and you simply accept them as true, they will have an huge impact on the way you feel about yourself and the way you view your reality.

The following are examples of automatic negative thoughts. They’ve probably run through your mind in one form or another, but you may not have realized how distorted they are:

“Should” Thoughts (or “Must,” Have to,” “Ought to”)

Don’t lie – you know you’ve used this one before. Should thoughts are inflexible thoughts that don’t allow you any room for error or failure. They automatically put you in a position where you (or others) have to live up to a certain (often high) expectation; otherwise, there is something wrong with you (or them). Here are some should thoughts that I’ve had:

  • “I should have more money in my account.”
  • “I should be married by now with children.”
  • “I should be a certain weight.”

Here are some other examples of “should” thoughts you may have said to yourself:

  • “I shouldn’t get angry, it’s wrong.”
  • “I should be doing something productive instead of relaxing.”
  • “My children have to do well in school or people will think I’m a bad parent.”
  • “People should be nice to me all the time.”
  • “I should have known better.”

Mind Reading Thoughts

Just as the name implies, mind reading thoughts make assumptions about what other people are thinking or feeling, often based on little to no evidence. What we’re actually doing is jumping to conclusions, and personalizing the situation. In my spilled coffee example, I assumed that everyone saw me as an awful person – despite the fact that no one said anything to that affect – or gave me any stink eye. Here are some other examples of mind reading thoughts:

  • “She hasn’t called – she must be upset with me.”
  • “They were whispering when I walked into the room – they must have been talking about me.”
  • “He seems quiet and distant tonight – he’s thinking of breaking up with me.”
  • “My boss treated me rather curtly today – she probably didn’t like the way I did that project.”
  • “Everyone heard my boss point out the error I made; they must all think that I’m incompetent.”

Fortune Telling Thoughts

Most (good) psychics will tell you that nothing is set in stone – an outcome can change based on the choices you make. When you engage in fortune telling thinking, you’re making a definitive statement about how something is going to turn out. Here’s the sticky part: You may end up getting exactly what you expect because you create a self-fulfilling prophecy – you’ll take actions and make decisions based on your assumptions, which may actually bring about what you predicted:

  • “This party is going to suck. I’ll have no one to talk to and I won’t enjoy myself.” (So what do you do? You sit yourself in some corner, moping, rather than socializing with other people. As a result, you don’t enjoy yourself at the party, and voila – your prediction comes true.).
  • “No matter how well I plan, something always goes wrong.”
  • “I always find a way to mess things up.”
  • “I don’t know why I bothered studying. I’m going to fail this test.
  • “Going on this date is pointless. He’s not going to like me.”

Catastrophizing or Overgeneralizing Thoughts

I love to call this the “drama queen syndrome.” It’s sort of like fortune telling, but with dramatic and catastrophic conclusions. Basically, you assume that something terrible is going to happen as a result of your actions, like my dire conclusions about ending up penniless in my home purchase example. Here are other examples of catastrophic thinking:

  • “I can’t do this presentation. I’ll mess up, people will laugh, and I’ll be humiliated.”
  • “If I make one mistake, my boss will fire me.”
  • “We had such an awful fight. It will end our relationship.”
  • “I haven’t been feeling well lately. I probably have some horrible, incurable disease.”
  • “The Mayan calendar ends in 2012. That means we’re all going to die.” (I had to add this one in).

Filtering or Minimizing Thoughts

Imagine you’re walking through a field. To the right are the most beautiful flowers on the planet. On the left, the tallest, most majestic trees. Straight ahead, all you see is a path full of pebbles. Now imagine putting on one of those cones they put on dogs after an operation, so that they don’t nip at their stitches. You can’t see the flowers or the trees – just the pebbles. That’s how it is with thought filtering: You only focus on the pebbles (the negative things) and refuse to acknowledge the positive. No matter how well your day went, you zero in and obsess over the one thing that went wrong. It’s like being in a room with 100 people who know you well. Ninety-nine of those people tell you that they truly, genuinely love you, and think you’re an amazing person. One of those people states in no uncertain terms that you’re despicable and that they can’t stand the sight of you. Who would you listen to more? If your answer is the 100th person, hello – you’re filtering. What’s more, you’re minimizing the good and maximizing the bad. Here are a couple of other examples:

  • “I know my boss said she really liked the project, but she also pointed out mistakes. She probably thinks I’m totally incompetent.”
  • “The date went really well and we had an amazing “good night” kiss, and he said he wanted to see me again. But he hasn’t called. I’m sure he thinks I am not the right girl for him.”

All-or-Nothing/Black-or-White/Splitting Thoughts

It’s hard not to think of certain events or people as strictly good or strictly bad, but the truth is that there are a whole lot of gray areas. When you think in an all-or-nothing manner, you don’t allow yourself any middle ground (much like “Should” thoughts). It’s either good or bad, right or wrong, worth or not worth it, etc. You can also detect all-or-nothing thoughts by the use of words in the extreme, like “always,” “never,” and “all the time.” Here are some examples:

  • “If I can’t do it perfectly, then there’s no point in doing it at all.”
  • “Winning is the only option.”
  • “This deal will make or break me.”
  • “Either he’s with me on this or he’s against me.”
  • “I can either be a success or a failure – there’s no other option.”

Emotional Reasoning Thoughts

As far as I know, René Descartes is credited with, “I think therefore I am.” I don’t remember him ever saying, “I feel therefore I am.” Emotions offer valuable information about what is happening to us in the moment. The problem is that some of us make the mistake of giving our feelings too much power over us. Your emotions do not define who you are. To put it plainly, just because you feel like a loser for doing something you wish you hadn’t, that doesn’t mean you really are a loser. Here are some other examples of emotional reasoning:

  • “I feel like a total failure.” (Therefore, I am a failure)
  • “I feel fat.” (Therefore, I am fat)
  • “I feel like everything I say sounds boring. He probably thinks I’m a dull person who lacks personality.”
  • “I feel like he’s pulling away from me.” (Therefore, he is pulling away from me)
  • “I feel lost, without any hope.” (Therefore, my life is hopeless)

In part two, we’ll be discussing how to squash your annoying ANTs!

Insightfully yours,

Queen D