In the late 1970s, a savvy medical doctor named David Burns revealed information that changed the face of psychology: depression is not an emotional disorder. Dr. Burns boldly stated, “Every bad feeling you have is the result of your distorted negative thinking.” In fact, his research showed that “intense negative thinking always accompanies a depressive episode.”
In 1980, Burns published a best-selling book titled, “Feeling Good: the New Mood Therapy,” which made his work usable to the masses. It sold millions of copies to regular folks and psychologists alike and continues to sell today. His groundbreaking approach now serves as the foundation for an evidenced- based practice called cognitive behavioral therapy that is used by therapists worldwide.
His basic idea: change your mood by shifting your thinking through life transformation. Dr. Burns’ research deciphered 10 specific errors in the way that we unknowingly respond to life situations. Come to find that whenever you have an upsetting circumstance, whether it is mundane – I broke my favorite dishware, or serious – your daughter is flunking out of school, you can change your feelings (and your response to your daughter) by understanding your thinking errors.
He explains, “Your emotions result entirely from the way you look at things.” This is true because we must process information neurologically, meaning, we must understand what is happening first and then we have a reaction through feelings.
Ready to learn the errors? They are as follows:
1.) ALL-OR-NOTHING THINKING: You see things in black-and-white categories. If your performance falls short of perfect, you see yourself as a total failure.
2.) OVER-GENERALIZATION: You see a single negative event as a never-ending pattern of defeat.
3.) MENTAL FILTER: You pick out a single negative detail and dwell on it exclusively so that your vision of all reality becomes darkened, like the drop of ink that discolors the entire beaker of water.
4.) DISQUALIFYING THE POSITIVE: You reject positive experiences by insisting they “don’t count” for some reason or other. In this way, you can maintain a negative belief that is contradicted by your everyday experiences.
5.) JUMPING TO CONCLUSIONS: You make a negative interpretation even though there are no definite facts that convincingly support your conclusion. There are two ways we move too quickly into judgment:
a. MIND READING: You arbitrarily conclude that someone is reacting negatively to you and you don’t bother to check this out.
b. FORTUNE TELLING: You anticipate that things will turn out badly and you feel convinced that your prediction is an already-established fact.
6.) MAGNIFICATION (CATASTROPHIZING) OR MINIMIZATION: You exaggerate the importance of things (such as your goof-up or someone else’s achievement), or you inappropriately shrink things until they appear tiny (your own desirable qualities or other fellow’s imperfections). This is also called the “binocular trick.”
7.) EMOTIONAL REASONING: You assume that your negative emotions necessarily reflect the way things really are: “I feel it, therefore it must be true.”
8.) SHOULD STATEMENTS: You try to motivate yourself with should and shouldn’t, as if you had to be whipped and punished before you could be expected to do anything. “Musts” and “oughts” are also offenders. The emotional consequences are guilt. When you direct should statements toward others, you feel anger, frustration and resentment.
9.) LABELING AND MISLABELING: This is an extreme form of over-generalization. Instead of describing your error, you attach a negative label to yourself. “I’m a loser.” When someone else’s behavior rubs you the wrong way, you attach a negative label to him, “He’s a damn louse.” Mislabeling involves describing an event with language that is highly colored and emotionally loaded.
10.) PERSONALIZATION: You see yourself as the cause of some negative external event, which in fact you were not primarily responsible for.
Do any of these items sound familiar? Do you have some favorites that you do every day? Don’t despair; it is inevitable to fall into the trap of mistaken thoughts -until now!
Now that you know how you contribute to your own misery you can stop! Start by catching yourself making these errors and reading a life transformation book. Once you recognize that you thinking has become distorted, you can begin imagining a rationale response. I go into this in detail in the next blog called, “4 Steps Psychologists’ Use to Change a Mood.”
In order to become more familiar with these thinking errors, print this blog and tape it up in a location where you can gaze at it daily – your office desk, the side of the computer monitor, or on the dash of your car. Instead of staring at the wall while you brush your teeth you can place this list on the inside of your bathroom cabinet door. As you brush your teeth both morning and evening, review these cognitive distortions that cause you to judge yourself. Get to know them well so you can begin catching yourself mid-thought so your mood can brighten quickly.