This is my fifth 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.
Jumping to conclusions is the only exercise some people get.
Do you know a person eager to find the worst explanation for another’s words or actions? Have you ever been in an argument with someone over something you didn’t even do? I’m sure we’ve all been on both ends of this problem at some point. When something goes wrong or a routine gets disrupted, it is too easy to assume the worst about our peers and circumstances. However, the way we look at each event or person is a deliberate choice over which we have complete control.
Jumping to conclusions is a negative thinking pattern developed by making pessimistic assumptions that are not supported by facts. This dangerous phenomenon can occur in a couple of different ways: mind-reading and fortune telling. When you are mind-reading, you assume that others are negatively evaluating you or have bad intentions for you. When you are fortune-telling, you are predicting a negative future outcome or deciding that situations will turn out for the worst before the situation has even occurred.
It’s natural for us to make assumptions and inferences about whatever is occurring in our environments, and we jump to many conclusions every day as a result. It is only damaging, however, when we actually believe our assumptions and inferences are factual and true without digging deeper to find confirmation.
Here’s an example that may seem familiar to you. A few minutes ago, my husband said something to me to which I replied, “What?” He noted that my tone was a little off and assumed I was upset. He jumped to that conclusion based on what he assumed that my tone meant. The fact was, however, that I was focusing on something else and he had simply interrupted my train of thought. In truth, I was a little irritated. But I was not upset or angry like he assumed.
Looking at this example a little more deeply you can see how we assess the things that are going on in our environments and make judgments about them constantly. We couldn’t stop doing that even if we wanted to. But when we don’t allow for the possibility that we are wrong, we will soon find ourselves in trouble.
Almost immediately after my response, my husband asked me if I was mad. I answered that I was not mad—just preoccupied—and we went on with our evening. He did a few things right in this situation. After making the inference, he asked me for clarification. When he found no evidence to support his inference, his thoughts took a different route and no problem occurred.
Sometimes we don’t get the chance to clarify with the other person. All is not lost! We can do something called reframing.
Let’s say that I get up and go to the fridge to get my orange juice just like I do every morning. My husband has already left the house when I discover that the carton is almost empty. My first reaction is to assume that my husband had drank all of the orange juice and I might infer that he is thoughtless and rude. If I go down this road it is likely that a problem will occur at some point, ending either with me directly questioning my husband (possibly in a raised voice) or me in a grumpy mood to start the day.
I could, however, STOP and ask myself some questions like, “Is it possible that he didn’t even have orange juice this morning?” or, “Is there any evidence that he was thoughtless and rude?” or even, “Is there another possible explanation?” I could reframe the way I thought about it and could say to myself, “Hmmm, I guess one of us forgot to put it on the grocery list. I’ll do that now and pick some up after work.” If I frame my thoughts in this way, no problem occurs. I go on about my day and my husband isn’t even aware of any of my thoughts. As you can see, this method is good for all parties involved.
Reframing is a skill that you can develop. It is really all about the stories that you tell yourself. If I tell myself that my husband is thoughtless and rude, I will have one reaction. If I tell myself that it was an oversight, I will have another. The choice is mine. With enough practice I can retrain myself to stop jumping to negative conclusions without evidence. I will never stop assessing my environment and drawing conclusions, but I can automatically begin to look at the positive possibilities and realize that I can choose to tell myself any story I want. When I have reached that point, a shift in the way I am thinking occurs and my world becomes a little less threatening and hostile.
To recap, here are the steps you should take to stop jumping to negative conclusions:
- As soon as you realize that you are jumping to conclusions, STOP.
- Ask yourself some questions like, “What are the possibilities? Is there evidence that supports my negative inference? What story am I telling myself? Is there another story that I could tell myself?”
- Make a choice to keep your story or change (reframe) it.
- Ask for clarification if you have the opportunity.
- Most of all, keep an open mind. Realize that, while it is natural to make assumptions and jump to conclusions, your thoughts are not necessarily factual. Be willing to change your mind and tell yourself a different story.
While it is not an easy to change your way of thinking, it can be done! If you would like help with your negative thought patterns, drop me an email. The journey is not such a long one when we walk it together! Change your thoughts and you’ll change your life!