As winter quickly (It’s actually here) approaches, and the days get darker and colder, our thoughts can turn to the negative, often leaving us feeling down, frustrated, sad, angry, which can sometimes turn into unhealthy coping strategies. While some turn towards alcohol, drugs or food, others turn towards gambling, shopping and sex. All of these behaviours are used to manage or cope with those negative feelings, often too difficult to experience. However, they are destructive behaviours that can impact ones life personally, socially and professionally. In addition to finding healthier coping strategies for the difficulties in life, we also need to change the thinking that got us there in the first place.
In the past thirteen years of practicing cognitive-behavioural therapy, I have come across some common ‘Thinking Errors’ I’d like to share with you now, so that when you find yourself engaging in them, you can catch them much faster, check in to see what’s happening at a deeper level, and change them to reflect more rational, healthier ways of thinking. For each Thinking Error, I will provide an example and the strategies for overcoming them.
1. ABSOLUTE STATEMENTS - “I ALWAYS stink at spelling,” The first statement was from a child. When we use language like ‘always’ or ‘never’, it feels pretty bad and seems like things will remain that way permanently, which is quite difficult to change. Hence, the negative feelings that come along with these statements. The strategy here is to find the exception. In the first statement, I would ask the child how many spelling tests he’s had in the past. He’s in grade five, so he’s had a few by now. He told me that he’s had ten so far. Then I asked him, “Of the ten spelling tests you’ve had, what was the average mark you received?” His answer was 85%. This is the moment when the sheepish smile begins to appear on his face because he realizes his thinking was not quite realistic. He has made mistakes on each test, yes. But when I asked him if an 85% average would qualify him as ‘stinking’ status, he giggled and replied, ‘no.’ Evidence does not lie. Look for the hard numbers from your past to challenge your thinking error and replace it with a new one. For example, the new statement here could be, ‘I sometimes make errors in my spelling tests, but my average over this past year has been 85%, which is pretty great. I can continue to practice and improve if I’d like to do better.”
2. DRAWING CONCLUSIONS WITHOUT EVIDENCE - “I’m pretty sure I won’t get this job.” John sat before me, feeling down about his job prospects. There is no guarantee that one will get a job. There are too many factors to consider, such as the qualifications, experience and personality of other prospects. Maybe John was great, but the company found someone who was a better fit. It was a possibility he wouldn’t get the job. But I was more curious about his line of thinking. So I asked him, “How many jobs have you applied for in the past?” He told me that since his career began, he’s applied for 8 jobs. “Great. Okay, of those eight jobs you’ve applied for in the past, how many offered you the job?” Sheepish smile. “Eight,” he replied. Even I smiled and giggled. “Seriously? Eight?”, I questioned just to make sure I heard him correctly. “Yes.” “Okay, so you’re saying you’ve got a 100% closing rate on jobs?” “Yes,” he responded still smiling, his cheeks slightly flushed. “So let’s try a new statement then,” I proposed. “It’s highly likely I’ll get this job. But even if I don’t, evidence shows that I’ll get the one after that.” Remember, look for the evidence in the past that challenges your irrational thinking, and then rewrite that statement to reflect the evidence.
3. MAKING PREDICTIONS - Example. “If I go out for dinner with my girlfriends and they order something with chocolate for dessert, there’s no chance I’ll be able to say no.” Yes, this is me. I am a recovering chocoholic. I could do without white or dark chocolate, no problem. But put milk chocolate in front of me (chocolate-covered strawberries, world class chocolate ice cream from Baskin & Robbins, peanut butter chocolate ice cream, or a skor blizzard from Dairy Queen), I’m like a bee to honey, a Kardashian to social media. So when my girlfriends invited me out of dinner, that was my initial thinking statement. I had to go to the evidence and make a list that would be upheld in a court of law. For starters, my company had a holiday part last week and there was no shortage of chocolate on hand. I didn’t have a single piece. A few weeks earlier, I hosted a Halloween party at my house, and there was chocolate seemingly hanging from all corners of the room. Not one piece. Finally, at a friends birthday dinner last night, they ordered chocolate cake, and I declined. So what’s my new thinking statement? ‘Sometimes I have difficulty in saying no to chocolate, but I have at least three situations within the last month in which I said no, which means I can again.’
As soon as you find yourself engaging in negative thinking, take out a note pad or journal and begin to dissect your thinking statements by looking for the evidence that challenges them. Once you’ve found the evidence, rewrite the new statement that reflects your new, more rational line of thinking.