Overcome Automatic Thought Distortions

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By Teri Karjala; Owner of the Creative Counseling Center LLC- Greenwood Village
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One of the major ways in which I work with people, through my practice, is on how they see and talk to themselves.  So many of the individuals that we work with are like you and I.  We have all been affected by the circumstances in our lives and tend to adopt that set of circumstances as our "story".  We then live our lives based on these “stories” picked up along the way. 

We also receive and transmit, whether consciously or subconsciously, messages to each other that seem to solidify or create these stories.  Whether these messages are welcome or not, they exist all around us and have extreme power.  We may even find ourselves tailoring our lives to these messages without realizing it.

For example, in elementary school I was never fond of standing up and giving an oral book report or presentation.  To be honest, I learned quickly that I was not a fan of “public speaking” in general due to what I thought was my lack of skills in this area.  However, what really happened was that I had received message after message, mostly from my teachers, that “I was a terrible public speaker.” 

This message continued through high school and into college when I had a professor state, “you are so nervous that you make me nervous just listening to you.”  That message may have been intended to be constructive criticism, but all I heard was a loud and clear confirmation.  So, as a grown-up you can imagine that I did not go into public speaking.  Why?  The messages that I had received throughout my life served as an overwhelming body of evidence supporting the notion that I was, in fact, a terrible speaker. 

Remarkably, as I learned how these concepts, of messages and negative thinking, affected my own perception of myself I turned a corner and began to “undo” the damage that had been done.  I started to work on my own “head-trash” and the self-limiting beliefs that I had around public speaking and found that, instead of hate or fear, I had a profound for passion it.  Imagine that, me a public speaker!  I had to go back to the root of all the messages and negative self-talk and face all of the lies that I had been feeding myself.  As I did that, using various methods, I found a love and excitement for public speaking.

I share this story because, all too often, when clients come in for counseling they are in a similar place to the one that I have described.  A place of allowing other peoples “stories” or other peoples messages about them run their lives.  Here is a list of common self-limiting thought distortions.

Assuming:

We assume the worst without testing the evidence. “You are angry at me.”

Shoulds(Musts/Oughts):

Demands that we make of ourselves. “I should have known better.”

The Fairy-Tale Fantasy:

Demanding the ideal from life. A special type of “should.” “The world shouldn’t be this way.”

All or Nothing Thinking:

Seeing everything in black or white. “If I’m not performing than I am a failure.”

Overgeneralizing:

Deciding that negative experiences describe your life completely. Using words like “always, never, no one,”etc. “I always ruin everything.”

Labeling/Mislabeling:

Creating a personal negative identity based on prior mistakes. “I’m stupid.”

Dwelling on the Negative:

Focusing attention on the negative. “How can I feel good today when I was criticized.”

Rejecting the Positive:

Overlooks the positive aspects of a situation. “It was nothing, anyone can do it.”

Unfavorable Comparisons:

Magnify your faults and minimize strengths. “Oh, I’m only a house wife, Jane is a rich, brilliant attorney.”

Catastrophizing:

Expecting the worst to happen. “If you leave me I am going to die.”

Personalizing:

Making events personally meaningful to me. “It’s all my fault.”

Blaming:

Blaming is the opposite of personalizing. Blaming other people/situations and not taking responsibility for my part. “He/She ruined my life.”

Making Feelings Facts:

Taking our feelings as proof of the way things really are. “I feel worthless. I must be worthless.”

In order to combat and change negative modes of thought that reinforce the negative messages in your life consider doing the following:

  1. Keep a journal of ALL your limiting thoughts each day (you may be surprised at how often you are in this place).
  2. Replace with a more reasonable response (think if you were giving your best friend advice on this what would you say to them).
  3. Create a plan to work on eliminating those self-disparaging thoughts for good.  This may include therapy (EFT, EMDR, CBT, etc.), having an accountability partner, or other resources to help combat this limiting thoughts that hold you back.
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