THIS IS A CONTINUATION FROM: THE BEGINNER’S GUIDE TO COGNITIVE RESTRUCTURING: HOW TO CHANGE NEGATIVE THINKING PATTERNS FOR GOOD Please head back over and start there…
SPECIAL NOTE: I’ve asked Nick Wignall if I could share some of his articles here on opmindset.com. Please make sure you check out his episode on Mindset Radio. This article is a multi-part series. I have made minor modifications in order to create it into a more digestible form.
FOR THE COMPLETE ARTICLE AS WRITTEN VISIT NICK’S SITE AT: https://nickwignall.com/cognitive-restructuring/
No discussion of Cognitive Restructuring and Thoughts Records would be complete without some reference to Cognitive Distortions and the role they play in restructuring negative thinking patterns.
Cognitive Distortions are unrealistic, exaggerated, and generally inaccurate forms of self-talk. And these habitual inaccuracies or distortions in the way we think tend to create distortions in how we feel—usually in the form of excessively strong negative emotions.
Suppose you got an email from your boss on a Sunday afternoon saying, “We need to talk as soon as possible Monday morning. Please come by my office whenever you get in.”
Now, imagine two different ways of thinking about this:
- “Oh great, she’s gonna fire me, I know it. I totally screwed up that presentation last week and that’s what did it.”
- “Hmmm… That sounds ominous, but I guess it could be about anything.”
In the first response, there are two cognitive distortions:
- “She’s gonna fire me, I know it.” This is what psychologists call Mind Reading, and it happens when we predict what someone else is thinking without any evidence of whether it’s true or not.
- “I totally screwed up that presentation…” This is called Magnification, and it’s what happens when we take an error or mistake and blow it out of proportion.
In both cases, how we talked to ourselves was likely unrealistically negative. And as a result, we probably experienced a significant dose of negative emotion like fear, anxiety, or shame.
Of course, we all play a little fast and loose with our self-talk sometimes. But if you’re consistently overreacting to things, there’s a good chance it’s because your habitual way of talking to yourself about things contains some Cognitive Distortions.
To help you get better at recognizing and disputing your own Cognitive Distortions, here’s a list of the most common types of cognitive distortion followed be a brief description and example for each.
Mind Reading means assuming we understand what other people are thinking without any evidence. Ultimately, Mind Reading is a failure of imagination — we only imagine the negative without considering other possibilities, some of which are bound to be neutral or even positive.
EXAMPLE: Our spouse doesn’t immediately say hello when we get home from work, so we assume, “He must be upset with me for something.”
Overgeneralization is when we extend the evidence for something beyond what is appropriate.
EXAMPLE: After being told that our flight was delayed, we comment in our mind, “Typical! My flights are always delayed.”
Magnification is when we take our own errors or flaws and exaggerate them. Often magnification takes the form of catastrophizing small negative events and turning them into disasters in our minds.
EXAMPLE: After feeling a small heart palpitation, we think to ourselves, “What’s wrong with my heart? Am I having a heart attack? I need to go to the ER now!”
Minimization is the mirror image of Magnification and involves being dismissive of our strengths and positive qualities. When we minimize, it often keeps us in a cycle of feeling inferior because we don’t allow ourselves to benefit from acknowledging our true positive qualities and accomplishments.
EXAMPLE: After receiving a test back, we comment to ourselves, “Sure, I got an A, but I missed the easiest question on the exam.”
Emotional reasoning is when we make decisions based upon how we feel rather than what the evidence actually suggests.
EXAMPLE: “If only I felt more motivated then I could get ahead of my studying and enjoy vacation guilt-free.”
Black & White Thinking
Black and white thinking is the tendency to evaluate things exclusively in terms of extreme categories. It shows up most commonly when we evaluate our own personal qualities and characteristics this way.
EXAMPLE: Thinking back on a recent date that seemed to go badly, we think, “Ugh… I’m so awkward!”
Personalization is when we assume excessive amounts of responsibility, especially for things that are mostly or entirely outside our control.
EXAMPLE: After our child makes a crucial mistake at the end of a softball game, we think to ourselves, “If only I had practiced with her yesterday when she asked me to she wouldn’t have dropped that pop-up!”
Fortune Telling is when we predict what will happen based on little or no real evidence. Instead, when our mind throws a negative outcome or worst case scenario at us, we “go with that” and tell ourselves that that’s what will happen.
EXAMPLE: After a meeting, we predict, “They hated it!” (Mind Reading) and “There’s no way they’re going to accept our proposal.” (Fortune Telling).
Labeling is when we describe ourselves or others in one extreme way, usually negatively. Because people and their sense of self (including our own) are highly complex and ever-changing, Labeling is always an inaccurate oversimplification.
EXAMPLE: After a fight with our spouse, we tell ourselves, “He’s such jerk.”
Should Statements are a kind of self-talk we often use to try and motivate ourselves by always saying what we should and should not do. When we’re in the habit of using Should Statements, we set up a false expectation that we should have more certainty than we do. This can lead to chronic frustration, anxiety, and resentment.
EXAMPLE: “I just have to nail this performance,” we tell ourselves before going on stage.
Keeping tabs on our cognitive distortions
Cognitive distortions are good to keep in mind anytime you’re doing Cognitive Restructuring. In fact, some Thought Records actually have a specific place to note which Cognitive Distortions are present in your thoughts.
If we can get better at recognizing these habitual ways that we distort our thinking, we’re much more likely to correct them, think more realistically, and as a result, not feel quite so bad.
Common Obstacles to Cognitive Restructuring
So far, we’ve covered what Cognitive Restructuring is, why it’s beneficial, and how to do it exactly, including how to use a Thought Record and identify Cognitive Distortions.
But before we end this guide, it’s important to acknowledge that getting in the habit of actually doing Cognitive Restructuring is not easy. In part because many unanticipated but powerful obstacles often rise up and derail our best intentions.
Here are the most common obstacles to Cognitive Restructuring that I’ve encountered in my work with clients, along with some thoughts for managing them effectively.
On the one hand, it sounds obvious: For Cognitive Restructuring to be successful you must practice. And yet, I think it’s surprising how often we try new things expecting to get immediate results.
The goal of Cognitive Restructuring is to fundamentally change the way we habitually interpret negative events in our mind. It’s a lofty goal. And while it’s completely doable, it does take practice and plenty of it. So set your expectations accordingly.
Not remembering to practice
Even if we understand that Cognitive Restructuring will take practice for it to be successful, there’s a related problem of remembering to practice in the first place. Despite our best intentions, new habits often fall by the wayside simply because we have no reliable way to remind ourselves to practice them.
Remembering to do Cognitive Restructuring is a challenge because it’s not something we can just practice whenever we have a spare moment; instead, it’s best practiced immediately following an incident that leads to us becoming upset.
To reverse engineer this problem, we might start with identifying things we do after becoming upset and see if we can’t use those things as a reminder to practice.
For example, if you tend to text your spouse whenever something upsetting happens at work, you might ask your spouse to text you back with a reminder to do some Cognitive Restructuring.
Or let’s say whenever you get into an argument with your spouse and get upset, you tend to disappear into your room and fiddle around on the computer. In that case, a sticky note on your laptop that says “Cognitive Restructuring” might help you remember.
Practicing in your head
I pointed this out earlier, but it’s very important (borderline essential) that you not try to do Cognitive Restructuring in your head when you’re first starting out. The act of writing things down and referring to a Thought Record helps establish the basic knowledge and skills you need to complete it successfully.
Doing your Cognitive Restructuring on paper (or digitally) has a second big benefit: it forces you to slow down.
We can’t write/type nearly as fast as we can think. So when we force our thoughts down to the speed of writing, it often lowers the overall intensity of our feeling (Remember: the more negative thoughts you have the more negative feeling you’re going to experience).
Spending too much time on it
While spending too little time practice Cognitive Restructuring will obviously limit its usefulness, spending too much time on it can also be a problem.
Many people spend far too long on their Cognitive Restructuring, agonizing over tiny details and being hyper-thorough. The problem is that such an approach isn’t sustainable and those who do go this route end up burning out quickly.
A good rule of thumb is that Cognitive Restructuring should not take more than 5 or 10 minutes. At the very beginning, it may take a bit longer depending on the complexity of the situation and how familiar you are with the exercise, but in general, this should not be a time-intensive task. Instead, it should be surgical—accurate but concise!
That’s just positive thinking
One of the biggest misconceptions about Cognitive Restructuring is that it’s “just positive thinking.” In fact, that’s not what it is at all.
The overarching goal of Cognitive Restructuring is not to think more positively; it’s to think more realistically. Of course, if you’re habitually thinking in an unrealistically negative way, then yes, doing Cognitive Restructuring will lead to more positive thinking. But that’s simply a side effect of thinking more realistically.
It feels too simplistic
Many people instinctively feel that something as simple as changing the words you use to talk to yourself can have a significant and sustained effect on how you feel on a regular basis. And as a result, they dismiss it out of hand.
My counter-argument is simple: What if you surrounded yourself with negative people who constantly berated you and put you down? Even if you knew they were wrong, the constant barrage of negativity would start to get to you. And ultimately, changing the type of people whom you hung around with (or somehow getting them to change how they spoke to you) would be the solution to not feeling so bad.
Isn’t it bad to “fight” against my thoughts? Shouldn’t I just accept them?
Maybe the most legitimate obstacle to Cognitive Restructuring is the idea that engaging with our negative self-talk—even if it’s in an attempt to make it more realistic—isn’t always a good idea.
And actually, I think this is true.
While Cognitive Restructuring is often helpful, it’s not the only way to deal with negative thinking and self-talk. In fact, for many of my own clients, I often recommend a more mindfulness-based approach that involves observing negative thoughts without engaging with them.
The point is, Cognitive Restructuring is an approach—and often a powerful one—but we should acknowledge that there are other approaches that may be equally or even more effective depending on the context.
Summary and Key Points
Cognitive Restructuring is a powerful technique for reducing negative thinking patterns and whatever stress, anxiety, or other negative emotions and moods they create.
By learning to practice identifying and restructuring these habitual ways of thinking, we can not only start to feel better in the moment but in the long-run, we can train our minds to think about the world in a more realistic and balanced way.
Here are the most important concepts and ideas from this guide:
- Cognitive Restructuring is a core technique from Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, the most research-supported approach to treating common emotional struggles such as anxiety and depression.
- Cognitive Restructuring helps us to identify overly-negative habits of thinking which lead to overly-negative mood states.
- By changing our automatic thoughts to be more realistic, we can change how we feel on a regular basis for the better.
- Cognitive Restructuring has many practical benefits from lower anxiety and stress to improved communication, less procrastination, and more confidence.
- There are 6 basic steps in Cognitive Restructuring:
- Hit the pause button.
- Identify the trigger.
- Notice your automatic thoughts.
- Identify your emotional reaction and how intense it is.
- Generate alternative thoughts.
- Re-rate the intensity of your emotions.
- A Thought Record is a practical template for doing a Cognitive Restructuring that’s especially useful for beginners still learning the process.
- Cognitive Distortions are unrealistic and exaggerated ways of thinking that lead to negative self-talk and overly-negative emotions and moods. They include: mind reading, overgeneralization, magnification, minimization, emotional reasoning, black & white thinking, personalization, fortune telling, labeling, and should statements.
- It’s essential to understand that the power and benefit of Cognitive Restructuring come from the consistent practice of doing it.
CHECK NICK OUT AT: nickwignall.com (more in bio below)