We’re going to take a break from our series “The List” and look at something that causes a lot of problems in marriage but typically goes unseen and undetected. It’s how we think. How we think affects how we view and react to things in marriage.
We typically believe our reactions and behaviors are in response to what’s happening in front of us. For example, when your spouse doesn’t return your calls or texts, you tend to get worried or upset. But it’s not the unanswered calls or texts that upset you. It’s your thoughts and beliefs about those unanswered texts and calls that cause you to be upset. You get worried because you start thinking, “Something bad must have happened to them. Or you get frustrated because you think, “Why are they blowing me off like this?”
It’s the thoughts, beliefs, and meanings we attach to events that cause us to react as we do.
I want to share with you 10 problematic thinking patterns (or cognitive distortions) that cause us problems. Then we’ll talk about things you can do to turn those cognitive distortions around.
Cognitive distortions are ways of thinking that are not necessarily true. They lead you to feel or do things that are not helpful. Though we all do this from time to time, when these patterns of thinking become persistent and ongoing, they cause problems.
Discounting or Filtering the Positive.
This is when you tend to discount positive aspects of a situation and/or focus predominantly on the negative aspects.
It’s when someone compliments you on a job well done, but your response is, “Oh, anyone could have done that.” Or, it’s when several people compliment you, yet you focus on the one person who didn’t.
This is also known as black-or-white thinking. It’s when you tend to see things as either all good or all bad. There’s no in-between and no shades of grey.
Let’s say your child gets their progress report and you discover they’ve made A’s in all their classes but one. And in that class, they made a B. You’re thrilled, but they feel like they’re a total failure at school. This is all-or-nothing thinking.
All-or-nothing thinking sets us up for disappointment and low self-esteem.
This is similar to all-or-nothing thinking, but here one negative event is seen as the ongoing over-arching pattern for life.
It’s when you get a flat tire on the way to work and your response is, “Why do these things always happen to me? Why can’t anything ever go right?”
Jumping to Conclusions.
Here, you tend to make evaluations and judgments before you have all the facts and evidence. It’s often referred to as “mind reading.”
For example, your spouse’s words are short and curt, and you assume they’re upset with you. Or they ask you a question, and you assume they’re trying to work some sort of angle.
This is an extreme type of jumping to conclusions. It’s also known as “awefulizing,” It’s is when something happens and you tend to jump to the worst possible conclusion.
For example…your boss calls you to their office and you’re sure you’re going to get fired. Then, your thinking continues… “If I get fired, we won’t be able to keep our house. We’ll have to move. Then the kids will have to change schools and lose all their friends.” And on and on it goes.
This one’s pretty straightforward. It’s when you tend to take things personally; even when they have nothing to do with you.
An example would be when your friend mentions that they aren’t really into something you’re into, and you take it as if they’re being critical of you.
There are two types of this cognitive distortion.
The first type is when you tend to believe you can (or should) have the ability to control situations or people in your life. An example would be when you believe if you just say and do the right things, you can keep your child from ever going astray.
The second type of this distortion is when you feel you have no control over anything; leaving you to play the victim and blame others. For example, you let your spouse verbally and emotionally abuse you because you feel there’s nothing you can do.
This is when you tend to believe what you feel. Your feelings become your reality.
You wake up feeling anxious and so you assume it’s going to be a bad day. Or, you feel like no one likes you, so you shy away from people and isolate yourself.
Some people have staunch and seemingly immovable thoughts about the way things “should” be, the way people “should” act, or what people “should” believe.
Many husbands and wives have huge fights over what each other “should” or “shouldn’t” do. A husband may think his wife “should” do the laundry, and the wife may think her husband “should” help with laundry. Or you may think, “My spouse “should” take an interest in the things that interest me. And if they don’t, they don’t really love me.”
Many people are “shoulding” all over themselves, and as a result, they wind up unhappy when things don’t live up to their “shoulds.” They also make others unhappy by trying to force their “shoulds” on them.
This occurs when you try to make others responsible for how you feel. It’s the belief that others have more power over how you feel than you do.
It sounds like this…”You’re making me angry!” “You’re the reason I can’t keep it together.” “I drink because of you.”
HOW TO CHANGE COGNITIVE DISTORTIONS.
The above is not a comprehensive list of cognitive distortions. It’s just ten of the most common.
Now that we’ve identified some of the cognitive distortions, here are some steps you can take to begin to change them…
Pay Attention to Your Thinking.
In other words, think about your thinking. Before automatically assuming that some person or event is causing your reactions, stop and ask yourself, “What am I thinking about this that could be causing me to react this way?”
Change the Absolutes in Your Thinking.
Catch any time you use words like “always” or “never” and replace them with words like “sometimes” or “occasionally.”
Argue With Your Conclusions.
Ask yourself if there’s any evidence for your conclusion. Ask if there could be other explanations for what happened. Ask if your conclusions are probable, based on your prior knowledge of the person or the situation. In other words, don’t assume you’re right. Challenge your thoughts.
Label Behaviors, Not People.
Think things like, “They forgot to take out the trash” rather than “They’re so lazy.” Or, “They were in such a hurry to get to the game, they forgot to pick up my prescription” not “They’re so selfish! All they ever think about is themselves!”
Not only should you take this approach with others, but you should also take this approach with yourself.
Look for the Positives.
Train yourself to look for the positives as much as you look for the negatives. Do this with regards to both people and situations. It will go a long way to changing your reactions and your outlooks.
I knew some parents who had a rule in their house. For every negative thing you said about something or someone, you had to give five positives. It was a great way of training their kids to look for the positive.
A FINAL WORD…
Once you’re aware of your cognitive distortions, you can begin to change them. It won’t happen overnight and it takes a lot of practice. But changing your cognitive distortions can have a strong and positive impact on your feelings, your views, and your behaviors.
Our thoughts have more impact on how we feel and behave than we give them credit for. We don’t have to be victims of our emotions; helplessly reacting to whatever our situations or spouse seems to dictate.
By recognizing and changing our habitual distorted thinking patterns, we can learn to see ourselves, our spouses, and our situations in a completely different light. We just need to learn to think about how we think.
(Gack through the ten cognitive distortions and determine the two or three you fall into the most. Then be on the watch for those in the coming days.)