Are you guilty of the 10 most common cognitive thinking errors?

Jan Kwiatkowski, LMFT, is a psychotherapist and mental health consultant for Aurora Family Service in Milwaukee, WI.

Do you ever get frustrated when people mistake something you said? Maybe they blow it out of proportion or focus on one detail and not the context. Maybe they remember the one time something happened and assume it will always happen. Maybe your teenager shouts that “ You ALWAYS or you NEVER” fill in the blank.

Maybe you read an article or see a news story and you associate the behavior of one, with the behavior of all who may be similar in some way. Or it’s hard for you to understand that there may be many different and equally valid interpretations of an event or of life experience. Finally, you may say or hear someone say that something or someone “should” or “shouldn’t” be the way it is.

Each of these is one of the 10 most common cognitive thinking errors. When I work with families, teachers and students or couples, one these cognitive thinking errors is generally in play. When I look back at the election campaign just completed, it’s not hard to find examples of cognitive distortions all around, from speeches, to commercials to interviews with the people on the street. Cognitive thinking mistakes have a way of shutting down any kind of real conversation and acting as a defense to keep conversations from happening.

The 10 most common thinking mistakes include:

  1. All or nothing thinking (also called black and white thinking)–This means thinking about things in absolute terms. When you hear words like always, never and every in a statement, it’s an example of all or nothing thinking.
  2. Overgeneralization–This happens when we take isolated cases and use them to make wide generalizations about events or people.
  3. Mental Filters–People using this thinking mistake will often focus on the negatives while largely ignoring the positives.
  4. Disqualifying the positives occurs when a person continues to “shoot down” the person or situation for arbitrary reasons. It’s a way of holding on to a belief we have despite evidence to the contrary.
  5. Jumping to conclusions assumes the negative when there is no evidence to support it. People do this when we try to read the minds of others, anticipate that things will turn out poorly.
  6. Magnifying and minimizing occurs when we exaggerate the negatives or understate the positives. Sometimes this can go to the extreme of catastrophizing, which focuses on the worst possible outcome.
  7. Emotional reasoning happens when our emotions take over and we do not allow for the influence of factual information.
  8. “Shoulding” leads us to focus on those things we cannot control. A good example of this is when we are stressing out by focusing on what should be happening or someone should be doing, rather than the reality of what is in front of us.
  9. Labeling or mislabeling. We do this when we apply a label to ourselves or others (most often negative) rather than describing the specific behavior. For example, we might have lost 5 pounds in the last month and our goal was to lose 10. If we say to ourselves that we are nothing but lazy, fat slobs, we are labeling or mislabeling.
  10. Personalization and Blame–This occurs when we hold ourselves or others responsible for things that are out of their (or our) control. A child might be going through a rough patch and we start thinking that we are the worst parent on the planet.

These 10 thinking habits are deeply ingrained in all of us. We tend to have our favorite, though not intentional thinking habits. We have all used them or been on the receiving end of their use. We tend to use them defensively or when we are not ready or able to let go of a belief we may have or admit to a fear that is inside of us. The good news is that these thinking habits can be broken. Like any other habit it takes awareness and practice.

Listen carefully and read critically this week to see how many of these common thinking mistakes you observe and how many you employ. Notice whether they help of hinder what is happening. Notice, if you can, what happens in situations where common thinking errors are minimally used. Notice if you tend toward a particular thinking error
and ask yourself what is underneath that. It can be fear, the need for approval, unwillingness to let go of a belief, the need to be right or to be in control. If you need some assistance on breaking these thinking habits, give us a call at 414-345-4540.

Aurora Family Service helps families overcome challenges, changes and crisis to live well again. We achieve stability and strength for families through counseling, parenting, elder care, financial, career, health and community services.  For more information, visit our website, follow us on Facebook, or call 1-414-342-4560

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