Does it feel like the world is out to get you?
Does it seem like everyone you know is an a-hole?
Does it feel like your life is going nowhere and that you’ll always be a loser?
If you answered “yes” to one or more of the above questions, then you might be a miserable SOB.
Don’t worry, though. You don’t have to be a miserable SOB for the rest of your life. You’re probably not really a miserable SOB, even. You’re probably a swell guy who’s just let some stinking thinking infect his mind.
At least that’s what psychologist David Burns postulates in his book — Feeling Good — which helped popularize cognitive behavioral therapy.
In the book, Burns highlights eleven common cognitive distortions people engage in that make them feel absolutely miserable. These cognitive distortions are erroneous thought patterns that give everything a jaundiced tint and sicken how you feel about yourself, other people, and the world around you. According to cognitive behavioral therapy, a big reason people feel miserable is that their thoughts are jacked up. Fix the erroneous mental models, and you fix the bad feelings.
Below we highlight the eleven cognitive distortions that people engage in on the regular, and which may be making you feel miserable. With each, we’ve included the definition Burns gives of the distortion in his newest book, Feeling Great, along with a thumbnail sketch of it that can help you recognize that distortion in your own life.
1. All or Nothing Thinking
“You look at things in absolute, black-or-white categories, as if shades of gray do not exist.”
“If I never write a bestselling book, I’m a failure.”
“Because I’ve discovered these flaws in my faith, the whole thing is a lie.”
“She forgot my birthday, so she’s not worth having a relationship with.”
Most things in life aren’t black and white. Overly dualistic thinking isn’t true to reality. Life is full of nuance. A goal can be worth pursuing even if it doesn’t garner the highest success; there are worthwhile things in both flawed people and flawed philosophies.
“You generalize from some specific flaw, failure, or mistake to your entire self. Or you may generalize the way you feel right now or some negative experience you’ve just had, to the future.”
Overgeneralization is all about lending a globalized import to a discrete mess-up. You make a mistake at work and decide you’re incompetent at your job. You lose your temper at your kids and decide you’re a bad dad.
Overgeneralization deals in “always” and “never”: You make a cutting comment to your girlfriend and think, “I always ruin my relationships.” You miss one workout and think, “I’ll never get in shape.”
You can also overgeneralize with other people by taking a specific flaw, and deciding it’s indicative of their entire character. For example, because your co-worker whistles annoyingly, you decide he’s entirely inconsiderate . . . ignoring the way he always brings donuts to meetings and helps you troubleshoot your software.
3. Mental Filtering
“You filter out or ignore the positives and focus entirely on the negatives.”
Your mind is like Velcro for the negative and Teflon for the positive; bad things persistently stick in your head, while good things slide off and into the realm of non-awareness.
4. Discounting the Positive
“You tell yourself that your positive qualities or successes don’t count.”
This is related to mental filtering. The difference is that you do recognize the positive qualities in yourself or in another person . . . but then you convince yourself that they don’t “count.”
“My last idea went over well, but it won’t get me any closer to getting the promotion.”
“Yeah, I did lose some weight this week, but it doesn’t matter because I still look like the Pillsbury Doughboy.”
“That woman may have said that I looked handsome, but she was just being nice.”
5. Mind Reading
“You jump to conclusions about how others are thinking and feeling without any clear evidence.”
Humans are terrible mind readers, but that doesn’t stop us from trying to be clairvoyant. And when we do read the minds of others, we typically assume — without evidence — that they’re thinking the worst about us.
“My boss didn’t say anything after my presentation because she thinks I did a bad job