This is my second post in the Cognitive Distortions Series. “Cognitive distortions” is another name for beliefs that hold us back and prevent us from living our best lives. The key reality for this series is that our thoughts have profound effects on our perceptions of reality. In order to improve our lives, we must first become aware of our false or negative thoughts and replace them with positive ones.
In my previous blog, I talked about black and white thinking. A close cousin to that particular cognitive distortion is overgeneralization. Overgeneralization takes the tiniest little nugget of criticism and turns it into an all-encompassing thought process that distorts our reality and causes us to place limitations on ourselves in every part of our lives. The way that this happens is through our self-talk. The lens through which we see the world determines how we perceive and react to it. When things don’t go our way, we often become self-critical and the negative self-talk goes rampant. This causes us to create and operate from negative beliefs about ourselves.
One of the most common (and destructive) limiting beliefs that we have is “I never do anything right.” When we look at this objectively we can readily see that the word “never” is a problem. However, limiting beliefs are deep inside us and they pop up automatically. Because they are automatic we rarely stop and think about them the way we are here. Something fails to happen the way we planned and the automatic limiting belief “I never do anything right” pops up. We don’t question it, we just accept it as a true statement. The other word that is problematic in this thought is “anything”. Is it really true that you never do anything right? Probably not. Never and anything cover waaaay too much ground for what we are trying to express.
Another common and destructive limiting belief is “I’m a failure.” This can be closely tied to the “I never do anything right” belief. Again, the problem with this is that it means I am a failure all the time. This is obviously not true. A statement like this is perhaps the most damaging because it doesn’t leave room for change. When you buy into this fallacy, you think, “I’m a failure today, tomorrow, next week, next year, and forever. If it is something that I am, then it can’t be changed.” If success does happen to come along, it is dismissed as a fluke or a strange twist of fate. When you believe at the core of yourself that you are a failure you can’t take credit for anything because it would disprove your belief. We have to be careful of the labels we put on ourselves because our selves just might believe them!
Admit it: You’ve thought of yourself as a failure who never does anything right. Maybe it was last year when you burned Christmas dinner (while your entire family was at your house, of course) or this morning when you spilled milk all over the kitchen floor. For many people, one mistake or event reminds them of previous failures and they become overwhelmed by dwelling on their shortcomings. “I forgot to send mom a card for her birthday” leads to “I didn’t even call her last week” which leads to “Remember that time I broke mom’s favorite necklace?” which, in turn, leads to you thinking of all the other times you missed the mark. At the end of the road, you arrive at the false conclusion that you are a failure and you are unable to do anything right at all.
There are a few things you can do to overcome overgeneralization, but first I would like for you to understand what I’m talking about. I often talk about our need to “think about what we are thinking about.” This is called meta-cognition. Above, when I pointed out the two words that caused the difficulty (never and anything), I was engaging in meta-cognition. When a thought pops up that causes you to feel that all-too-familiar anxiety or depression, stop and think about what you are thinking about.
Here are a few steps to get you started:
- When you feel yourself become anxious, depressed, or afraid, stop and think about what you are thinking about.
- Isolate the problem words.
- Ask yourself, “Is this true?” or, “Is there anything more true?”
- Replace the words with the more true words.
- Restate the thought that brought on the anxiety in a way that is not only more positive, but is also more true.
- Repeat these steps each and every time the thought pops up.
Okay, okay. I know you are thinking that this is a lot of work to just replace some thoughts in your head. While it may sound a little tedious, I assure you that you will experience life-changing results if you decide to work your way through these cognitive distortions and the suggestions for changing them.
I know this to be absolutely true because it happened for me.
With the help of a good friend and mentor (these were the days before coaches) I worked through all of these steps and I can honestly tell you that I don’t even recognize the person that I was prior to this. My life was transformed. I know that’s a big word, but it’s true. This work absolutely transformed my life. If you would like a mentor (coach) to walk down this path with you, I would be honored to be that person. It makes me so happy when I see my clients put these things to work in their lives!