“A sick thought can devour the body’s flesh more than fever or consumption.” – Guy de Maupassant
When you’re in the midst of a repetitive pattern of self-defeating thoughts it can be tough to see any alternatives. In fact, self-defeating automatic thoughts can become so repetitive that you may have never even considered the mere possibility that they might be simply untrue. When these maladaptive patterns of viewing yourself, others, or the world begin to interfere with living the meaningful life that you envision, it’s probably time to pause and consider possible solutions.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is one treatment modality with a great deal of research supporting its efficacy in the treatment of various mental health concerns. For some people, CBT is extremely helpful in alleviating the anxiety, panic, and depression that can accompany maladaptive thought patterns.
Self-Defeating Thoughts & Alternative Thoughts
One way to identify common cognitive distortions that impact your overall functioning is to read through a few common self-defeating thought patterns and notice what resonates with you personally. As you read through the following self-defeating thoughts, take the time to mindfully observe your responses: physical, mental, or emotional. Your automatic physical, cognitive, and emotional reactions are often filled with useful information that can lead you closer to finding solutions that will work for you.
(1) Filtering vs. Expanding your Focus
Filtering involves making conclusions after focusing heavily on the negative details of a situation and filtering out all of the good stuff. What ends up happening is that you create a distorted view of the big picture… the world tends to look and feel like a pretty scary place when you’re deeply entrenched in this mindset. An example of filtering is thinking to yourself, “I’m a total failure,” despite the fact (evidence) that you’ve experienced successes and triumphs.
Expanding your focus means actively choosing to seek out and notice evidence that contrasts with a negatively skewed outlook. Broaden your sphere of attention by looking for evidence that (as in the previous example) you are not a “total failure.” This might mean learning how to accept (and believe) positive feedback from others, allowing yourself to feel authentically proud of a job well done, or reflecting on the progress you’ve made in particular area of your life.
(2) Jumping to Conclusions vs. Sticking to the Facts
Jumping to conclusions happens when you make negative assumptions without any credible evidence to back up those assumptions. For some people, jumping to conclusions involves consciously or unconsciously avoiding evidence that contradicts your assumptions. Examples of jumping to conclusions are thinking, “My boss is definitely going to fire me,” or “I’m going to fail this class.”
Sticking to the facts is an alternative thinking style that requires asking yourself some honest questions, such as: “What facts do I have that my conclusion is accurate?” and “What facts do I have that my conclusion is not accurate?” It can be tough sometimes, but try to keep your focus on the available facts instead of letting your mind wander to unrealistic or unlikely scenarios. In the examples above, sticking to the facts might include assessing the known facts about your work performance before assuming you’re going to be fired. In the second example, sticking to the facts involves realistically assessing your abilities, performance, and willingness to take the steps necessary to successfully pass the class.
(3) Overgeneralizing vs. Being Specific
Overgeneralizing occurs when you focus on the negative outcomes of one (or a few) situations and use those undesirable outcomes as “proof” about broad aspects of your character, talents, or relationships. In essence, your mind is focusing on a couple of negative outcomes and using them to make sweeping conclusions or general rules about life as a whole. An example of overgeneralizing is thinking, “My friend didn’t invite me to go out this weekend because I must have made her angry. I bet I make everybody else angry, too.”
Being specific is a way to challenge the unhelpful thinking style of overgeneralizing by gaining clarity on what’s really happening. You can practice being specific by asking yourself questions, such as: “Is this situation really as awful as I think it is right now?” and “Is it really going to negatively affect other important areas of my life?” There are usually lots of alternative explanations for unpleasant situations. Quite often, a single bad event or interpersonal interaction doesn’t mean that your life is ruined.
(4) Mind Reading vs. Asking for Clarification
Mind reading occurs when you make assumptions about what someone else is thinking without considering other possibilities. For example, maybe you just “know” that your friend or coworker is thinking negative things about you based on the way he or she looks especially unhappy today. When you’re stuck in the unhelpful thinking style of mind reading, you might interpret the other person’s behavior as a signal that means something negative about you.
Asking for clarification is a more effective alternative to mind reading because you can’t really “know” what someone else is thinking without asking. This can be intimidating for some people, and understandably so… but if you’re willing to take the risk of checking in with the other person about what he or she is thinking, you (or both of you) might feel a lot better. Try to consider an appropriate time and setting to ask for clarification. For instance, you could say, “I thought that you looked upset earlier this morning. May I ask what’s bothering you?” This alternative to mind reading provides you with a chance to gain insight into the situation and may even help build emotional intelligence by learning to interpret social cues more accurately.
Did any of those common self-defeating thoughts resonate with you personally? If you identified one of your self-defeating thoughts in the list above, take a moment to consider how your life and relationships might be different and function more effectively if you adopted an alternative way of thinking. It takes diligent practice to learn an alternative thinking style, especially if self-defeating thoughts feel deeply engrained into your general way of being… but it is possible.
Many of us engage in some form of maladaptive or distorted thinking at times. Simply having a self-defeating thought doesn’t necessarily mean anything is “wrong.” If you notice yourself judging your thought patterns, try disengaging from judgmental self-talk for a moment by practicing cognitive defusion. When you feel ready, you can return to mindful self-exploration.
The idea behind reflecting on common patterns of unhelpful cognitions is to discover if any of these cognitive styles represent a distinct pattern that is significantly interfering with your overall functioning. The point is certainly not to waste your energy by ruminating. At the end of the day, the onus is on you to decide whether or not you’re “uncomfortable enough” to start making changes.
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Wood, J.C. (2010). The cognitive behavioral therapy workbook for personality disorders. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, Inc.
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