There are many instances where an individual’s thoughts represent an inaccurate view of reality. In fact, I have seen many clients who have thought one thing about a situation and when we have reviewed the evidence, we have both seen how the client’s thoughts have not been a correct reflection of reality. It’s a sad state of affairs when you consider how our thoughts can create a negative mood and in many cases, this sad negative mood wasn’t even justified. Every second you spend miserable is a wasted opportunity to been content and at ease.
There are many ways in which we distort reality and cause ourselves unnecessary stress/anxiety purely due to our errors in thinking.
This is a very common error in thinking. It occurs when we assume that we know what someone else is thinking. For example: Your partner forgets to take the bins out after you asked them nicely to do it. You may assume “They don’t care about me because if they did they would care about my quality of life and help out more around the house”. There is NO direct evidence for this thought as there could be many reasons why they forgot to do the bins and it might have nothing to do with how they feel about you. Direct evidence would be them telling you, “I didn’t take bins out because I don’t care about you”. Recognising when you are mind reading is a good start, then ask yourself: “is there another explanation for this other than the one I am thinking? The reason I am choosing isn’t helpful and makes me angry/sad etc”. Thoughts affect feelings and if we decide on a thought that is less upsetting, we will be a lot happier and more relaxed. It’s a good mental trick and one that is used in Cognitive behavioural Therapy often.
Black and white thinking
There are individuals who see the world very rigidly. As a result these people are often very judgemental, of themselves and others. Of course, the more rules we have, the more the world conspires to break these rules. This causes a lot of stress and anxiety. For example: An individual with black and white thinking will see themselves (and others) as a success or a failure with no grey areas inbetween. An optimist will have a very different view of failure – they will be able to use ‘mental buffers’ to reduce the impact of failure but telling themselves that they were tired or didn’t get lucky whereas a rigid thinker will see themselves as a failure with no room for alternative explanations. This rigid thinking will lead to misery. The bottom line is that the world isn’t black and white. Reality can often be far more complicated and because of this we need to be more flexible in our thinking. Research has shown that those with psychologicl flexibility are far happier as they are able to see the world in a way that benefits them rather than in a way that harms them.
Self critical thinking
Individuals who treat themselves with compassion are much happier and tend to be more adventurous than those who are self critical. They fear failure less and if they do fail they don’t attribute that to their sense of self worth. Being self critical is unhelpful and isn’t a true reflection of reality as we are biased about ourselves. The way we see ourselves isn’t an accurate reflection and includes cognitive bias. Cognitive bias refers to the tendency to only see certin things that confirm existing thoughts. If we are self critical, we tend to be more alert to our shortcomings. This isn’t an accurate reflection at all.
This is another common error in thinking that veers away from reality. Something will trigger our anxiety and we start to overthink. For example: perhaps you are at work and your boss isn’t happy with work you have done (the trigger). That in itself isn’t the end of the world but many of us catastrophise. We think about the fact that our boss isn’t happy with out work, that leads to another thought – “perhaps I’ll get fired. If I get fired I will have financial issues and then I might end up homeless”. This downward spiral of thinking is an example of catastrophising. It isn’t a true reflection of reality but it can certainly freak us out and have us worrying unnecessarily. Don’t allow your thoughts to take on you on a downward spiral – they are just thoughts NOT facts.
Depressed individuals tend to use this type of thinking, often involuntarily. Life is never all bad or all good. When we focus more on the negatives, it can lead us to feeling despondent and sad. It’s important to restore balance and a good way to do this is to keep a journal. In it, write down three things that made you happy that day. It could be anything small from the sun shining, to a stranger being kind or seeing a friend you enjoy spending time with.
It’s never a good idea to compare yourself to others. It’s an unfair comparison because we compare ourselves (warts and all) the limited inof we have on others. We tend to see more positive things about others and compare ourselves unfavourably. Again, this type of thinking is unhelpful, isn’t a true reflection of reality and leads us to feeling despondent and deprived. The feelings are real but they aren’t warranted becasue the reality is different from what we think it is.
Emotional reasoning involves convincing ourselves that because we feel guilty or sad or unhappy, the thoughts must be true. Emotions are intense and often result from our thoughts. Just because we feel a certain doesn’t mean that the reality is in sync with the feeling.
The above are just a few examples of how our thoughts create a reality that isn’t necessarily accurate. Nobody experiences reality directly – we all perceive the world through our existing mental filters. If we experienced the reality of life directly, we would all notice exactly the same things but often we can go through the same experienc ebut come away from that with different thoughts about what happened.
Our filters are influenced by our prior experiences (for example, if we have been heart broken we may have little trust left for the opposite sex) and the way our parents brought us up. Our behaviours are learned as we are born ‘blank slates’. Learning to acknowledge our thoughts but not necessarily believing them is a very good strategy and a mental skill that not many people know about.