Distorted thinking is more common than ever during a time when we are bombarded with information day after day. Unfortunately, so much of this input is misinformation propagated through distorted thinking patterns rather than through critical thinking processes. Distorted thinking impacts our communication and hence the quality of our work with groups. So as group leaders, let’s spend a few minutes reviewing common modes of distorted thinking identified by Albert Ellis in in his work with Rational Emotive Therapy. We will share the first of these in this issue and follow up with the remainder in Part II.
Examples of Distorted Thinking
Distortion is characterized by looking at only one element of a situation to the exclusion of everything else. The single detail is picked out and the whole event is then colored by this detail.
People tend to have their specific focus when looking for the detail to color their perceptions. Depressed people tend to focus on the loss and become blind to any positive that may exist in the situation. Others, prone to anxiety select the danger, and those that tend to be angry tend to see only the injustice.
The process of remembering can also be selective. Recalling only the negative creates a tendency to be angry, anxious, or depressed. The filtering process causes people to magnify and awfulize. The end result is all fears and losses become exaggerated in importance. Key words for filtering are: terrible, awful, disgusting, horrendous.
Characterized by a dichotomous view of the world. Tendency is to see everything in extremes with little room for the middle ground. People and things are either good, bad, wonderful, awful, black or white. There is no gray. Reactions to events tend to swing from one emotional extreme to another. The impact is to judge self and others in the extreme. There is no room for mistakes. If leaders are not perfect then they are useless.
In this distorted mode of thinking, one makes broad, generalized conclusions based on a single incident or piece of evidence. Often over generalizations are couched in absolute statements. Typical statements are “I’ll never trust management again,” “nobody is capable of getting this done but me,” “I always have to do everything around here.” Words such as all.. .every.. .none.. .never. . .always… everybody. ..nobody are cues of when someone is over generalizing.
One is doing this when they make snap judgments about others. Mostly people are making assumptions about others motivations, feelings, and attitudes when the are employing this distorted thinking style. Often mind reading assumptions are based on projections, or self attributes that we prefer to not admit or own. We may focus on someone’s lateness but overlook our own tendency towards the same problem. We jump to conclusions without collecting more data to verify the reality. As well we tend to overlook our own attributions and attribute personal experience to others.
In this style one takes a small piece of evidence, then expands and dramatizes it to the extreme. A small mistake means you’ll never be promoted, a moderate rating means that you’ll be RIF’ed, a fight means that the relationship is over. Catastrophizing can be contagious as the emotional reactiveness spreads across those closely associated.
The tendency to relate everything around you to yourself. This can be either negative or positive in the sense that you consider “any success as a result of your contribution,” or “any failure is certainly your fault.” Comments made by others are interpreted in a personal manner. The boss says “we’re falling behind on this project” in a meeting and the personalizer is convinced that he is talking about them. Each experience or conversation is interpreted as a clue to your personal worth or value.
Their are two ways this can go. You either see yourself as helpless and externally controlled, or as omnipotent and responsible for everyone around you.
Feeling externally controlled keeps you stuck: “They are doing it to you.” Failing to take any personally responsibility tends to keep one stuck in helplessness and leads to serious depression. Focusing on only those things that are beyond your control contributes to this style of thinking.
When one feels responsible for everything and everyone around them there is a tendency to feel the weight of the world on their shoulders. Everyone is depending on you, you cannot make mistakes, and you have to right all wrongs. Failure to live up to these notions creates guilt as well as an exaggerated sense of power.
Your assignment this week is to survey this list and select your own most favorite distorted thinking mode. Then brainstorm a new action you can practice to correct it. Please share your perspective on this important subject in the comments section below.