Part 2 of two-part series on Thinking Distortions by Teresa Colon of WoundedBirdsMinistry.
At their root, thinking distortions are simply a misinterpretation of the world around us and specifically of our experiences within it. Thinking distortions happen as a result of our positive experiences; if it takes too long for my best friend to return a text, I may think that I’ve upset her and she doesn’t like me anymore, when the reality is that she’s been busy with shuttling her kids around to various soccer practices.
When we allow thinking distortions to exist, we often respond to the world in an unhelpful away. Psychologists would say that the stories we tell ourselves “don’t fit the facts.” Realigning our thoughts to more accurately reflect the world helps us respond better, and often frees us from unnecessary guilt and shame.
There are six steps to changing our thinking – walk with me as we discuss how. I advise having paper and a pencil with you.
Step 1: Identify the Scenario
Begin with identifying the situation or moment that caused the thought in the first place. “Suzie didn’t wave back at me at church” might be the scenario, or perhaps we spoke at a conference and out of the 100 comments, we got one piece of negative feedback. These are often also called “triggers,” because they set off the distorted thinking.
When we first start tackling these thinking distortions, these triggers are often superficial, like the ones we listed above (although they don’t feel superficial at the time). As we continue to identify different situations that trigger a response, a pattern may emerge that allows us to go another level deeper. We’ll touch more deeply on this in the next step.
Step 2: Identify the Automatic Thoughts
Now, let’s go through all the thoughts that ran through our brain when this happened. These can be tough to identify since they are automatic thoughts and responses; we don’t even know we have them (or we’ve simply defined them as “the truth”). The good news is we can identify them; we just have to be patient. Also, we may not identify all of them the first time we work our way through this scenario.
In one support group I run, we did this exercise and as we progressed, we got to the underlying thought: “All my friends leave me.” We got to this underlying thought after 20 minutes of hard, honest work and in a group setting; when I first did these exercises on my own, it took me much longer (and several runs through the exercise) to get to a similar realization. It’s a bit like peeling an onion: getting to those deeper thoughts accelerates our growth and change, but first we have to make our way through the outer layers–and peeling those outer layers prepares us for the heart of the onion.
Step 3: Take Inventory
What emotions did this scenario or these thoughts cause? When Suzie didn’t wave back, maybe we felt disappointed or sad. When we read that negative comment card, perhaps we felt resentful or confused. Take a moment and catalog them. If you’re like me, just reading the thought brings back the emotions; if you’re like another woman I’ve worked with, you may feel numb to your emotions and have to fight to recognize any of them. Start where you are. It’s enough.Start where you are. It's enough-Teresa Colon, @teresamcolon, #thinking #pointofview Click To Tweet
Similarly, catalog how your body felt when you had these thoughts. Did your shoulders tighten? Hands go numb or get tingly in the fingers? Do you rub the top part of your chest? Squint your eyes? Again, be patient and compassionate with yourself here.
These reactions vary based upon your own personal experiences; how I react will not be the same as you react, and it’s worth taking your time to identify these impacts. In fact, not only had I never experienced hands going number or getting tingly, I’d never even heard of it until I led one of my support groups. However, there was a chorus of responses from around the table when we discussed reactions.
All this is to say: Please don’t dismiss an emotional or physical reaction because “that’s crazy” or “no one does that.” If that’s how your body reacts, that’s how your body reacts. No judgment; it just is.
Step 4: Identify the Thinking Distortions
It’s time to look at the thoughts and identify the associated Thinking Distortion. Suzie didn’t wave back at me, so I think she doesn’t like me anymore or that I did something wrong? That sure does sounds like Mind Reading to me!
That one negative comment card from the conference? Maybe the associated thought is “I never get it right. I always find a way to flub a presentation!” I think we have two Thinking Distortions in here: Overgeneralization and Perfectionism.
Go through each thought until you identify the associated Thinking Distortion.
Step 5: Challenge that Distortion!
Once we’ve identified the Thinking Distortions, it’s time to challenge them. Rather than send our minds racing over the past three months of interactions with Suzie looking for that one thing we did or said that “ruined” our relationship with her, we can take a look at the situation and see if the story fits the facts. Are we 100% confident that Suzie saw us? Did she make direct eye contact? Did her other body language suggest there was an issue? If the answers to these questions are “no,” then what’s an alternative explanation? Maybe she didn’t see us. Maybe she was distracted just as she started to wave, so we didn’t catch it. These are new thoughts and healthier ones.
And that conference? Do we literally always flub our presentations? What is a “flub” anyway? There’s a difference between being vulnerable on stage, tripping a little on our words and a disastrous presentation. Not only that, but we got 99 positive comments! Maybe that person was having a bad day, or didn’t get enough sleep that night. Maybe the commenter lives with their own Thinking Distortions and happened to respond negatively to us. Do we know any presenters who always deliver a great presentation? Who only gets positive comments? (Spoiler alert: NO.) Let’s not hold ourselves to a higher and unrealistic standard than we would hold our friends, heroes, and mentors.
We know we’re getting better at challenging the Thinking Distortions when we start to mock them: “I always fail? Well, guess what, Mr. Overgeneralization, this girl made an amazing cup of coffee this morning!”
Step 6: Take a New Inventory
As we challenge these Thinking Distortions and put the scenario into perspective, we often feel relief. Our emotions shift – even in little ways. Our bodies feel a little different. Maybe our hands are less tingly, or not tingly at all. Maybe our shoulders are lower, or the rocks in our stomachs are now pebbles or are gone altogether. Regardless, take a moment to catalog how you feel in this moment, after directly challenging the Thinking Distortion. Write it all down! Someone else has probably made the mistake too.Write it all down!-Teresa Colon @teresamcolon #writing #thoughtsClick To Tweet
Going through these six steps allows us to start laying down and adjusting the shortcuts that exist in our minds. We are literally re-wiring our brains as we go through this process, so patience and compassion is key. If you were re-wiring your house, would you expect to get it all done in a single afternoon? (Unless we’re talking a 300 sq ft studio apartment, we certainly wouldn’t – and even that would be a stretch.) In the same way, we may need to repeat our efforts several times for the same or similar triggers before the groove starts to change path and the shortcut shifts. The good news is that even though you may not see a change, the change is happening.
Over time, you may even share an experience like I’ve had: your body may start telling you that a Thinking Distortion is happening. Since I’ve started cataloging my physical reactions to automatic thoughts, I know that when I sit and rock on my hands, I’m feeling anxious. I may not know I’m anxious until I recognize the physical manifestation. That allows me to go through the last few minutes and identify what I was thinking about that caused me distress. From there, I’m able to identify and challenge a Thinking Distortion.
These changes absolutely happen. Not only have I lived them, I’ve also worked with many women who have tried these six steps and experienced success. You can, too. Changing our thoughts is possible, and now you know how.
Teresa Colon founded Wounded Birds Ministry to compassionately educate, encourage, and support those who live with a mental illness. Driven by her own experiences with bipolar disorder and related traumas, she loves to share the hope, knowledge, and skills she learned along her own journey to health. Teresa is also a contributor to The Mighty.
Want to know more about challenging and destroying thinking distortions? Get the free workbook at her website! Covering 14 Common Thinking Distortions, it also includes a detailed worksheet that walks you through the steps outlined here, along with a link to a video that walks you through two examples.
If you missed part one you can catch it right here.