Research shows that much of what we experience in life is fundamentally ambiguous and open to a variety of interpretations. (For more about that, see our earlier article, ‘Gratitude as a Way of Seeing.’) One of the ways we make sense of life’s circumstances is by the meanings we ascribe to those circumstances. The problem arises when we impose negative meanings onto our experiences that are based on a distorted view of reality.
Psychologists who have studied human thought and communication have identified some common distortions or “thinking errors” that cause many people negatively to frame their experiences. There are many lists of these thinking errors on the internet, but below are ones I have identified as being the most common and relevant to everyday life.
One very common distortion is to look at an entire situation or set of conditions and hone in on specific negatives while overlooking positives that might balance things out. How many times do we think about our day, our job, our relationships, or our family in a way that filters out what is good while giving inordinate attention to what is bad? It’s easy for negative details to become so magnified in our thinking that we filter out more positive aspects that could bring things into perspective if only we had eyes to focus on what is good. Filtering often happens in married relationships, where a husband will become so accustomed to his wife’s good qualities that he will overlook those qualities, allowing her imperfections to become magnified in his thinking.
Filtering can also occur in the other direction, when a person filters out negative aspects of a situation, ignoring problems that need to be addressed. This is the error of escapism and denial.
The point is to let our thinking and reactions be based on fact, not on an outlook that is unreasonably pessimistic or optimistic. To be overly optimistic is to filter out problems that need to be faced; to be overly pessimistic is to filter out the things we can still be grateful for in a given situation, despite the problems.
Polarized thinking, or “splitting,” happens when we divide the world into extreme black and white. For example, you might think that all liberals are good people and all conservatives are bad, or visa versa. Or you might observe something another person said and conclude that they are either trustworthy or untrustworthy. Or you might reflect on something you have done and conclude that either you are a success or a failure, smart or stupid, good or bad. But most people and situations are not so black and white, and it’s easy to make sweeping judgments that overlook the role context plays in informing a person’s behavior.
Polarized thinking is closely related to the all-or-nothing fallacy. Sometimes a person will look at a potential project and think that unless they can do it perfectly, there is no use working on it at all. Or we might approach problems with our spouse by thinking that unless problems can be solved perfectly, they are not worth trying to solve even partially. By contrast, a mature person is able to live with ambiguity and accept that sometimes people and situations are too complex to be dividing into black and white.
Overgeneralizing is very similar to polarized thinking and happens when we hastily infer a pattern out of a single incident. For example, if something bad happens in the morning, a person might think “Now I’m going to have a bad day.” Or if you make a mistake at something, you might be tempted to think, “I always fail when I try things like that.” If something unpleasant happens in a relationship, people sometimes think, “We never get along” or “he’s always doing things like that.”
Although it can sometimes be rational to generalize when there is evidence to support the generalization, we have to be careful not to infer negative patterns out of isolated incidents. When we overgeneralize, we are prone to overlook important factors of context that may account for why things happened as they did. Overgeneralizing can often lead us to label ourselves or others with attributions like “idiot,” “stupid,” “failure,” as well as to hastily assume that a person’s behavior must be a symptom of their intrinsic character instead of a result of external circumstances.
Catastrophizing is closely related to overgeneralizing. It involves inferring a dramatic pattern from insignificant events or interpreting undesirable circumstances as the worst possible outcome. We’re often tempted to put a catastrophic context around our own shortcomings (“the fact that I did that means I’m a complete failure as a mother!”) or to dramatize other people’s mistakes and shortcomings (“the fact that my wife believes that about me proves we’re incompatible” or “only a manipulative and controlling husband would say that to me!”).
Catastrophizing also happens when we forecast disastrous consequences about the future. This is sometimes called “fortune-telling” in the psychological literature. Here are some common examples of catastrophic forecasting:
- “Things have gone so smoothly for so long that tragedy is bound to be just around the corner.”
- “If I go on a diet, I’ll probably just gain weight.”
- “If I compromise with him in this one area with my husband then everything I’ve worked to achieve in our marriage could begin to crumble.”
- “The fact that I can’t pay this bill proves we’re on the road to bankruptcy.”
It can be particularly easy to fall into the error of catastrophizing during times of stress, tiredness, and heartache. The key is that when you begin thinking catastrophic thoughts, recognize the error and remind yourself that you need not be subject to disordered cognitions. It’s always possible to reframe catastrophic-based thoughts with a more realistic assessment of the situation. For example, instead of saying to yourself, “I think this is finally going to push me beyond coping point,” you could say, “I know from the past that I’ve been able to endure a lot more than I thought I’d be able to. I have a basis for confidence as these further challenges arise in my life.”
Mind-reading occurs when we make hasty assumptions about what another person is thinking or what is driving their behavior. You’ve probably had the experience of being with someone who responds to things you say by announcing what you really meant, or who interacted with you as if they understood your thinking, motives, and intentions better than you do yourself. Sometimes mind-reading is practiced by people who are controlling and verbally abusive (“you think you’re so smart whenever you use big words” or “you think you’re so spiritual don’t you?”), and at other times mind-reading is practiced by people who suffer chronic insecurity (“she must have really thought I was stupid when I said that” or “I just know everyone at the party was judging me because of my tattoos”). When mind-reading becomes chronic, a person may end up habitually twisting another person’s words to confirm their preconceived interpretations, making healthy communication impossible.
Often the more we get to know someone, the greater the temptation becomes to assume we know what they are thinking. To illustrate this, imagine the following scenario.
Steve returned home after a long and tiring day at work. His wife, Jennifer, had also had a long day. She had intended to have a warm dinner waiting for her husband, but all day she had been harried by unexpected distractions. All that was waiting for Steve when he came home was a big pile of dishes.
A few minutes after his arrival, Steve asked Jennifer, “What did you do today?”
Angrily, Jennifer responded, “You only asked that because you want to know why I didn’t make dinner! You aren’t actually interested in my day at all.”
In this exchange, Jennifer is mind-reading, imposing a narrative onto Steve’s words that may not be accurate. To be sure, Steve might have been asking his question as a subtle way of finding out why there was no dinner, or maybe he was genuinely interested in his wife’s day. It may even have been a combination of both. Whatever may have been Steve’s real meaning, it would have been healthy for Jennifer to respond with another question, perhaps asking something like, “Honey, are you asking that because you are genuinely interested in how my day went, or only because you want to know why I didn’t make dinner?”
The point is not that we can never read between the lines to pick up nonverbal cues. Sometimes we really can intuit what other people are thinking, especially with people we know well. For example, in the above exchange, if Steve had asked, “What did you do today?” while looking at the pile of dishes and rolling his eyes, then Jennifer would have good reason to infer a subtext to his question. But even when you are pretty sure you know what another person is thinking, hold it lightly and don’t be afraid to check in with the other person.
Emotional reasoning occurs when we allow our feelings to drive our thinking, or when we treat our emotional reactions as if they are self-authenticating. Often our emotional reactions are correct, but we cannot know that simply on the basis of how we feel. We need to first check if our feelings are rooted in fact.
Here are some common examples of emotional reasoning:
- “What he did made me feel hurt; therefore, it must have been wrong.”
- “If I’m this scared about moving, then I shouldn’t do it.”
- “I know my spouse is behaving inappropriately, because otherwise why would I feel jealous?”
- “I feel like I can’t cope with this; therefore, I can’t cope with it.”