If you were out hiking and came across a stream, would you immediately start drinking? What if the water was contaminated? If the water was questionable, you wouldn’t drink, right? But you need water so what do you do? Many hikers don’t even worry about contaminants because they have filters, which take out the bad and leave the good. But what if your filter doesn’t work? How can you trust your water? Remove the word water and replace it with thoughts.
You have a mental filter. A filter of ideas, like a water filter, allows you to identify and extricate what may be harmful and be able to keep what’s good. The way we cognitively evaluate and assemble our beliefs is through what psychologists call a schema. It is a mental structure that sifts through ideas, events, and relationships to form an interpretation.
This interpretation, good or bad, determines how we respond behaviorally and what we feel in response to these things. But sometimes our filters can be faulty. For example, we can have false beliefs within our schema or apply the wrong schema to any given situation, so whatever is run through the filter (schema) will come out tainted.
The idea of cognitive distortions, or another way of putting it, thinking errors, is from Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, a psychological and counseling model created by the late Aaron T. Beck. Thinking errors are defined as systematic errors in reasoning. The way you think is so important. What you think determines what you believe about yourself, others and the world. Those beliefs determine how you behave.
Discovering your thinking errors can be a painful process, but there is hope. Examining and changing distorted ways you think is liberating. The work is hard, but the benefits outweigh the costs. There is power in naming problems. That is why every single Alcoholics Anonymous meeting begins with “Hello, my name is…and I’m an alcoholic.” In the same vein say with me, “Hello, my name is… and I’m a person who struggles with thinking errors.”
Admitting a problem is the first step involved in change. But what do you do after that? What are some practical steps you can take to change your thinking errors?
5 Steps to Challenge and Change Thinking Errors
Step 1: Identify the Thinking Error. Thinking errors can relate to anything. I wrote a book specifically regarding the thinking errors parents make. But there are all sorts of thinking errors regarding work, school, intimate relationships, sports and so on. Some of the most common thinking errors you can find by clicking on this link. Whatever your thinking error is, you can’t change it until you become aware of it. And, you need to become aware of it when its affecting you in the moment, in real-time.
Example: Black and White Thinking– this is the thinking error that people, events, and experiences are interpreted in rigid, binary categories; you are either this or that, good or bad, honest or dishonest, fun or boring. So, for example, if your first experience of flying on a plane is unpleasant, than you would reason, distortedly, that flying on planes are bad, they will always be bad, and every time you fly the experience will be bad.
Step 2: Understand How the Thinking Error Makes You Feel and Behave. Distorted thinking drives distorted feelings and behaviors. Therefore, you need to understand how the distorted thinking influences you.
Example: The thought of flying makes you anxious and irritable. You avoid flying at all costs and discount positive experiences of flying as being a “fluke.”
Step 3: Find Reasons and Evidence that Support or Counter the Thinking Error. When you’ve identified what your thinking error is, and how it affects you, the next step is to challenge the thinking error. That means, you need to rationally work through reasons that support the thinking error, and reasons that counter it.
Example: Challenge the assumption that flying is bad. First, find supporting evidence: flights have turbulence. Sometimes planes crash. Flying can be expensive. Second, find counter evidence: Flying is the safest form of travel. Its relatively inexpensive. Its faster than driving in most cases. Turbulence is normal. Plane crashes are extremely rare. Driving is far more dangerous.
Step 4: Conclude with Reality-Based, Accurate, Positive Thinking. Weigh the supporting evidence against the counter evidence and let that determine your thinking.
Example: Flying is safe. There will be turbulence, but turbulence doesn’t signal danger, and its infrequent. There is some risk, but it is the safest form of travel. And, in many cases, its the most expedient. Therefore, flying is mostly good, with some minor problems. This is a more accurate way of thinking that isn’t rigid, recognizes that flying doesn’t fit into one category or the other, of good or bad.
Step 5: Choose New Behaviors In-Line with the New Thinking. Distorted thinking ruins opportunities, makes you avoid certain things, keeps you from new experiences, and steals your joy. Accurate, reality-based thinking liberates you to enjoy life and to be mentally healthy. Healthy thinking leads to healthy feeling and behaving. Challenging thinking errors lead to an accurate perception of the world, others and yourself.
Example: There is no reason to avoid flying. I can travel the world, see long-distance family and friends, and have new experiences afforded to me through flying. Flying is not something to fear or avoid. I don’t need to feel anxiety or stress.