The idea that if we change our thoughts we can change ourselves is the essence of cognitive psychology. For examples of this approach, see the books by Ellis (1997) and McMullin (2000). One of the most practical components of the cognitive approach to mental health is the identification and correction of errors in thinking. These mental mistakes are often called cognitive distortions because thinking has become exaggerated or distorted in some way. The following are some common mental mistakes that people make:
1) Catastrophizing. We make this mental mistake when we believe something is far worse than it actually is. Catastrophizing gives negative interpretations to life experiences and eliminates alternative explanations that are positive. A good example of catastrophizing in the Bible is found in the story of the ten spies who brought back a negative report after they explored the land of Canaan. They said, “We seemed like grasshoppers in our own eyes, and we looked the same to them” (Numbers 13:33). Notice that they minimized their own stature while believing they could read the minds of the people of Canaan. Joshua and Caleb, however, had a clearer picture of the situation. Caleb said, “We should go up and take possession of the land, for we can certainly do it” (Numbers 13:30).
2) Minimization. Whereas catastrophizing exaggerates negative things, minimization minimizes positive things. We can minimize the good we see in ourselves and others by magnifying any failure and discounting any good. Sometimes this is called mental filter because of filtering out the good while focusing on the negative. An example would be when a person misses only one question on a test but considers himself a failure because he missed that question rather than being proud of all the answers he got right. This is also called discounting the positive because positive experiences are being rejected as if they do not count.
3) All or Nothing. The all or nothing mistake looks at everything in black and white instead of recognizing that there may be shades of gray. An example of this thinking occurs when people believe that unless they are successful at one thing, they are a failure at everything. Another example is when a person will not be your friend unless he can be your best or most important friend.
4) Should, must, and ought fallacy. Words like should, must, and ought are often associated with all or nothing thinking. For example, while reflecting on a past event, we might say to ourselves, “I should have done better.” This is negative thinking because there is nothing that can be done to change the past. It also minimizes whatever good that may have been done at the time. Using words like should, must, and ought encourages unnecessary guilt when used in the context of unrealistic expectations. There is a place for guilt, and there are times when words like should, must, and ought are appropriate, but these words can be used excessively in ways that keep us depressed and defeated.
5) Labeling. When people attach negative labels to themselves, it tends to affect every aspect of their lives. If they make one mistake, they may label themselves by saying, “I am a loser.” In drug and alcohol addiction treatment, labeling often occurs when people repeat negative and self-defeating statements about themselves during treatment. Statements such as, “I am a drug addict” or “I cannot control my drinking” are examples of labeling. Once addicts accept the label, they tend to behave according to the label.
6) Jumping to conclusions. People jump to conclusions when they interpret events negatively even though there is little or no evidence to support their conclusions. This is a mental mistake because they are reaching a conclusion before they have all the facts. In conversations, it requires us to read the minds of others. In events, it requires us to foretell the future. An example would be when people believe others are intent on hurting them even though they do not have all the facts.
J B Myers
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