- Sara Mann
I think it was within the first or second week of treatment for my eating disorder that I was introduced to the idea of thinking errors. The first week I was pretty much arguing with my therapist that I really didn’t have a problem. I wasn’t that thin. I was actually in fact fat and could lose some weight, and if I start to eat more I will for sure become so obese and disgusting my life would be ruined. I will never forget how when she told me I was in fact too thin and what I was eating was indeed an anorexic intake, I stared at her like she was saying the grass was blue and the sky was green.
I truly could not comprehend that what I was seeing and thinking was not truth, fact, real or right. I couldn’t! I would waste $250.00, 50 minute sessions in tears trying to convince her that I was eating enough and how eating more or eating bread was the worst thing for me. When I think back to that time three years ago I can’t believe I was in such a dire mental state. I had zero coping skills other then to run and restrict. I believed every thought that popped into my head to the point of suicidal ideation and I had allowed my mind to beat me down to such a bad place that I had no ability to be rational, positive or healthy. Dang, anorexia and our thoughts are powerful!
At one of these appointments with my therapist, I walked in, ready to convince her of the obvious and all of a sudden she pulled out a ‘Thinking Error’ worksheet and asked me to read it and circle the number next to anything on the list that I thought described me. I kid you not, I circled every....single....one of them. Shoot. I knew then that I really had a problem. It took reading it myself for me to see how bad my thoughts had gotten. I still was in denial about my body, my food intake and that I was anorexic, but I did start to see that it's possible my thoughts can't always be 100% trusted.
Now before I give you the list of thinking errors that my therapist presented me with I want to let you know exactly what they are first!
Thinking errors, also known as cognitive distortions or even distorted automatic thoughts are, “faulty patterns of thinking that are self-defeating. They occur when the things you are thinking do not match up with reality.” (1) Thinking errors can lead to sever anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, constant negativity, social anxiety and can lead to poor behavioral patterns.
My thinking errors led to anorexia, over exercise, self hatred, poor relationships, shutting in from anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts, extremely low self esteem, lashing out, arguing with my spouse you name it. They put me and can put you in a very dark and lonely/negative place. The GOOD NEWS thought is that they can be overcome! With help, therapy, prayer and hard work you can actually change your automatic thoughts.
So....what exactly are these thinking errors? Here is a list of 17 of them.
MIND READING - You assume that you know what people think without having sufficient evidence of their thoughts. example - “He thinks I’m a loser.” “She is thinking I don’t know the first think about this project.” “They all think I’m so dumb after what I just said.”
FORTUNETELLING - You predict the future negatively without considering other, more likely outcomes. Things will get worse, or there is danger ahead. example - “I’ll fail that exam.” “I won’t get the job.” “I’ll be so upset, I won’t be able to function at all.”
CATASTROPHIZING - You believe that what has happened or will happen will be so awful and unbearable that you won’t be able to stand it. example - “It would be terrible if I failed.” “What if I mess up? I will crawl in a hole and hide.” “If he says no I would just kill myself.”
LABELING - You assign fixed, global, negative traits to yourself and others without considering that the evidence might more reasonably lead to a less disastrous conclusion. example - “I’m undesirable.” “He’s a rotten person.” “I’m a loser.”
DISCOUNTING POSITIVES - You claim that the positive things you or others do are trivial. You unreasonably tell yourself that positive experiences, deeds or qualities do not count. example - “Those successes were easy so they don’t really count.” “He’s my husband, he has to say those things.” “I did that well, but that doesn’t mean I’m good; I just got lucky.”
NEGATIVE FILTER - You focus almost exclusively on the negatives and seldom notice the positives.
example - “Look at all the people who don’t like me.” “I can’t believe I missed that note when I played.”
OVERGENERALIZING - You perceive a global pattern of negatives on the basis of a single incident. You make sweeping negative conclusions that goes far beyond the current situation. example - “This generally happens to me. I seem to fail at a lot of things.” “Because I felt uncomfortable at the meeting, I don’t have what it takes to make friends.”
ALL OR NOTHING THINKING (also known as dichotomous thinking) - You view events or people in all-or-nothing terms. You think in a black and white, polarized way. You view your situation in only two categories instead of on a continuum. example - “Well if I’m not skinny I must be fat.” “If I’m not a total success then I’m a failure.” “It was a complete waste of time.” “Everyone rejects me.”
SHOULDS - You interpret event in terms of how things should be rather than simply focusing on what is. You have precise, fixed ideas of how you and/or others should behave, and you overestimate how bad it is that these expectations are not met. example - “I should to well, if I don’t I’m a failure.” “It’s terrible I made that mistake, I should always do my best.” “ I should be more productive. If I’m not I’m lazy.”
PERSONALIZING - You attribute a disproportionate amount of the blame to yourself for negative events, and you fail to see that certain events are also caused by others. You believe others are behaving negatively because of you, without considering more plausible explanations for their behavior. example - “That situation was all my fault.” “The marriage ended because I failed.” “He was really mean to me because I said something wrong (not because he has an anger problem).”
BLAMING - You focus on the other person as the source of your negative feelings, and you refuse to take responsibility for changing yourself. example - “She’s to blame for the way I feel now.” “My parents caused all my problems.”
UNFAIR COMPARISONS - You interpret events in terms of standards that are unrealistic. For example - you focus primarily on others who do better than you and find yourself inferior in the comparison.
example - “She’s more successful than I am.” “Others did better then I did on the test.” “Her photos are better then mine.” “My style isn’t as cool as hers.”
REGRET ORIENTATION - You focus on the idea that you could have done better in the past rather than on what you can do better now. example - “If only I had done that, this wouldn’t have happened.” “If I ate better in recovery I wouldn’t be this weight right now.” “I shouldn’t have said that.” “I could have done better at that.”
WHAT IF? - You keep asking a series of questions about “what if” something happens, and you fail to be satisfied with any of the answers. example - “Yeah, but what if I get anxious?” “Ok, but what if I mess up?” “What if it goes bad?”
EMOTIONAL REASONING - You let your feelings guide your interpretation of reality. You think something must be true because you “feel” (actually believe) it so strongly, ignoring or discounting evidence to the contrary.
example - “I know I do a lot of things right, but I still feel like I’m a failure.” “I feel really bad right now, therefore my marriage isn’t working out.” “I feel fat, so I must be huge.”
INABILITY TO DISCONFIRM - You reject any evidence or arguments that might contradict your negative thoughts. Your thought cannot be refuted. example - “That’s not the real issue. There are deeper problems. There are other factors.” “Well most people might go back to their pre-ED weight, but my body is different.”
JUDGMENT FOCUS - You view yourself, others and events in terms of evaluations as good-bad or superior-inferior rather than simply describing, accepting or understanding. You continually measure yourself and others according to arbitrary standards and find that you and others fall short. You are focused on the judgements of others as well as your own judgments of yourself.
example - “Look how successful she is. I’m not that successful.” “He is better then me at that.” “She is thinner so she will be better at that then me.” “You have to reconcile with everyone, no matter because it’s the “right” thing to do.”
MAGNIFICATION/MINIMIZATION - When you evaluate yourself, another person, or a situation you unreasonably magnify the negative and/or minimize the positive.
example - “I got one questions wrong, I can’t believe I messed up.” “I ate a piece of candy today, I’m a bad.” “I may be healthier now and not close to death, but I’m still overweight and that makes me gross.”
SELECTIVE ABSTRACTION (Mental Filter) - You pay undue attention to one negative detail instead of seeing the whole picture. example - “Because I got one low rating on my evaluation (which also contained several high ratings), it means I did a bad job.” (3&4)
WOW right?! PLEASE do NOT judge yourself if you circled any of them or all of them. I’m sure that most of us deal with at least a couple of these thinking errors. I know that even after a lot of therapy and work I still have these thought patterns popping up in my head. It’s pretty normal to have some cognitive distortions, especially if you are going through a really hard time. When these distortions become overwhelming, you are suffering from many or all of them and they effect your life in multiple negative ways it can truly become a problem.
So, what do you do?! What did I do?! I mean, now that you read all those you can see how messed up my mental state had become.
I want to say this...if you are finding that you are really suffering from a lot of these thinking errors, please get professional help. There are therapists out there that are highly educated and experienced in helping people identify and overcome these thinking errors so that life can be SO much better. I am not one of those professionals. I am only sharing information that helped me overcome my eating disorder and the thoughts that kept me stuck in that destructive pattern and lifestyle. If you can’t afford treatment or therapy at least you can read this!
The first step to fixing this issue is that it is important to begin recognizing when you are having a thinking error. It took a long time for me to figure this out. I basically had to daily sit down, go over thoughts I had and slowly go through this list. My husband also read them and helped point out when I was clearly having a thinking error. Almost every negative thought I was having, I was challenging or trying to simply define which thinking error I was dealing with.
There are a few skills that I learned to implement that have helped me either reduce or completely get rid of my thinking errors.
The first was that I did a TON of thought logs. Literally my therapist printed me off 50 blank thought logs, and any time I got caught up in a thinking error I had to fill one out and then bring them all in to my next session to go over them. I wrote an entire blog about thought logs here. Check it out! They are important!
Another option is to actively challenge your own beliefs/thoughts. Here is a list of questions I have used to help me do this.
-What’s the evidence for and against this thought?
-What would I tell a friend with this same situation (rather than what I tell myself)?
-What’s the worst that could realistically happen? How bad would that be?
-Is it really true that I must, should, or have to....?
-Am I over-generalizing from a past occurrence?
-Are there other explanations besides blaming myself?
-Is there any conceivable way to look at this positively?
-Is this situation really in my control?
-What difference will this make next week, month or year?
-Is thinking this way helping the situation or making it worse?
-How have I tolerated these situations in the past?
-How can my religious or spiritual beliefs help me with this?
-What advice would a therapist or mentor give me regarding this situation?
-What can I accept about the situation?
Honestly, answering these questions helps a LOT. I think it gets my mind out of the rut and into making new pathways of curiosity and flexibility, not just negativity and error.
Other then the thought logs, there is another cognitive therapy thought exercise/record I’ve used for challenging my thinking errors. It’s another thought log, just a bit different and more specific then the other one.
I grab a pen and paper (for some reason actually writing it with paper and pen helps more), and work through each of these steps.
The situation - Briefly describe the situation that led to your unpleasant feelings. This will help you remember it later if you want to review your notes.
Initial thought. What thought first crossed your mind? This was probably a subconscious or automatic thought that you have had before.
Negative thinking. Identify the negative thinking behind your initial thought. Choose one or more from the list of common types of negative thinking (I listed these above!!)
Source of negative belief. Can you trace your thinking back to a situation or person? Is there a deep belief or fear driving your thinking? Search your heart.
Challenge your thinking. Look at the evidence both for and against your thinking. Have you been in a similar situation before? What did you learn from it? What strengths do you bring to this situation. Make sure you see the whole picture.
Consider the consequences. What are the short-term and long-term consequences if you continue to think like this? Look at the physical, psychological, professional and emotional consequences.
Alternative thinking. The previous steps of the though record helped you understand your thinking and lower your defenses. Now that you’ve considered the facts, write down a healthier way of thinking.
Positive belief and affirmation. Write down a statement that reflects your healthier beliefs. Find something that you can repeat to yourself.
Action plan. What action can you take to support your new thinking?
Improvement. Do you feel slightly better or more optimistic?This step reinforces the idea that if you change your thinking, you will change your mood. Gradually over time, your thinking and life will begin to improve. (4)
(Are you struggling with a negative thought right now? Are you ruminating on something that's giving you anxiety? Grab a pen! Give it a try right now!)
If you are struggling with answering any of these questions, the questions in the thought log or the questions above that help you challenge these thinking errors, I again suggest seeing a therapist, or at the very least call on a trusted friend or family member! Sometimes it feels almost impossible to come up with alternative thoughts or evidence against our strong negative thoughts! I would sit in therapy for hours saying, “I can’t see it any other way!!!!!” And then the therapist would help me see it another way.
The reason I’m sharing this information with you is because there is NO reason to have to live in the insecurity, low self-esteem, anxious, and depressive state that these thinking errors can leave you in. I know first hand how dark of a place that is and I’m also a witness that with hard work (actually doing these exercises) and getting help, your mind and thoughts can actually change and joy CAN truly come back into your life!
I also believe deeply that God can help us renew our minds. Romans 12:2 says “Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect.” NLV I believe that by doing practical things like working with a therapist and practicing the exercises above, along with praying that God will renew and transform my mind I was able to significantly reduce the amount of thinking errors that were plaguing me. I think you can too!
I hope this helps and if you have any questions please comment below or feel free to send me a message!
I want to leave you with one positive thought to keep in your mind...
You are beautiful! You are worthy! You are loved! You are forgiven! You are unique! You have purpose! You are enough!
p.s. I've always posted photos that I have taken of street graffiti for each blog. I have a deep love for graffiti for some reason. Lately I've been feeling like I want some a little different. I've always loved flowers. My home always has fresh cut flowers. They remind me of season, and beauty and how we are all different. They remind me of God's creation and I've never seen a flower I didn't want to photograph. I'm at my happiest when I'm in a garden of flowers. So I'm changing my post photos from photos I've taken of graffiti to photos that I take of flowers :) Enjoy!
2. From Cognitive Therapy: Basics and Beyond by Judith Beck. ©1995 The Guilford Press.
3. Leahy, Holland and McGinn (2012)