There’s no denying that life throws us curves.
Job loss, personal illness, or the end of an important relationship can understandably make us feel anxious, depressed, or angry.
It’s crucial to acknowledge our feelings and be patient and compassionate with ourselves as we ride out these emotional waves.
However, it’s also important to take a look at how we might be prolonging our discomfort through the ways in which we interpret the events in our lives.
Take a look at the following terms, which David Burns calls cognitive distortions in his classic book “The Feeling Good Handbook” (1989). Do any of them ring a bell?
All-or-nothing thinking: You’re a black-and-white thinker. You put things into distinct categories, such as, “All people from New York are rude”.
Overgeneralization: To you, a single mistake means that you always do things incorrectly.
Mental filter: You focus on the cons and minimize the pros. You notice your spouse’s tendency to leave clothes on the bedroom floor or dishes in the sink, rather than appreciating their kindness, good cheer, and loyalty to you.
Discounting the positives: You’re adamant that your beneficial qualities or achievements aren’t important. In your mind, being honest, a good parent, or a loving spouse “doesn’t matter”.
Jumping to conclusions: (a) Mind reading: You assume that someone doesn’t like you without any solid evidence, or (b) Fortune-telling: You’re convinced that something awful will occur, again without any clear basis.
Magnification or minimization: You make a mountain out of a molehill or you diminish something’s importance. For instance, burning your toast in the morning might wreck the rest of your day.
Emotional reasoning: You believe that your feelings are facts or should dictate your choices. For instance, “I feel as if things won’t work out, so therefore they won’t”. Or “I don’t feel like doing my taxes, so I’ll wait until the weekend”.
Should statements: You judge yourself or other people by using “shoulds” and “shouldn’ts”. “Have to”, “ought to”, and “must” also fall into this same category.
Labeling: You identify with your weaknesses. For instance, you say, “I’m an idiot” or “a loser”, rather than “I made an error”.
Personalization and blame: You blame yourself for things that aren’t entirely under your control, or you point the finger at other people and ignore the impact of your own attitude and actions.
Familiarize yourself with the above list, and try to notice (without judgment — use your mindfulness skills) when you fall into one of these mental stances as you go through your day. Awareness is the first step toward positive change.
The good news is that with practice you can develop more constructive ways of thinking, which can increase your happiness — and I’ll cover some methods in my next blog post.