This is the first in a two-part resource article. The second part has six more thoughts.
By Rachel Amity, MSW Candidate, U-M Athletic Counseling Team
Have you ever caught yourself thinking about things in a way that makes you feel sad, frustrated, or less confident? Many of us slip into ways of thinking that make us feel unsure of our abilities. These types of thoughts are called cognitive distortions. They trick us into thinking and feeling that certain things are true, even if those thoughts and feelings aren’t supported by facts. Below is a list of some of the most common distortions, how they might be affecting your life, and what you can do about them.
1. All-or-nothing thinking
You see things in black-or-white categories. If a situation falls short of perfect, you see it as a total failure. Your performance was either totally good or totally bad.
Ex: You lost the first set of a match, and now you tell yourself that the whole match is a lost cause, even though there is still time to win.
Ex: You get a C on your midterm, higher than the average, but you expected to get an A. You can still get an A- in the class, but you see your midterm grade as a sign you have failed the course.
You see a single negative event, such as a match loss or an injury, as a never-ending pattern of defeat by using words such as “always” or “never” when you think about it.
Ex: You go on a date and have a good time, but they don’t ask you on a second date. You then come to the conclusion that you will never find a partner or be in a relationship.
Ex: You failed your last math exam, therefore you come to the conclusion that you will never be good at math.
3. Catastrophizing and Minimization
You exaggerate the importance of your problems and shortcomings, and/or you minimize the importance of your desirable qualities.
Ex: You are worried you will fail your upcoming exam; you catastrophize this event and believe if you do fail, you will never be successful.
Ex: As a senior, you want to be a leader for your team. However, you’ve been experiencing some pain during practices and feel you won’t be able to lead anymore if you get injured. You fail to see that your ability to communicate with your team will make you a valuable leader no matter what.
You filter out and discount positive information, pick out a negative detail and dwell on it exclusively. In other words, you notice your failures, but don’t see your successes.
Ex: You feel as though one of your friends has been upset with you because you haven’t been studying together every night like you did last month. However, you overlook the fact that they invited you to dinner and to watch a movie this weekend and they were happy to have you there.
Ex: You usually submit your assignments on time, but you turned this assignment in late. You focus on this one instance as a sign that you are unable to keep up with course work.
Personalization occurs when you hold yourself personally responsible for an event that isn’t entirely under your control, or when you blame other people for something that was (at least partially) your fault.
Ex: You missed an extra point after a touchdown on Saturday, and the team lost – you can’t help but feel as though you would have won if you had just made that extra point, even though the whole team struggled; you begin to blame yourself for the loss.
Ex: You have a group project in one of your classes this semester. You missed the last two group meetings because you wanted to catch up with friends and take a nap. Your group turned in the first part of the project last week, and you got a lower grade than you wanted. You blame your group members for the grade, even though you could have attended the meetings and contributed to the group more.
6. Disqualifying the Positive
You reject positive experiences by insisting they “don’t count.” If you do a good job, you may tell yourself that it wasn’t good enough or that anyone could have done as well.
Ex: You’re lifting more during workouts. You ignore the strength and conditioning improvements because you still feel your game performance could be better.
Ex: You have a presentation in class and you do you well enough to get an A on it. However, you discount this grade thinking that everyone else in the class probably got an A also, maybe even an A+, you just got lucky.
What to do
Did some of those sound familiar? Take a moment to reflect on the times that you may have found yourself thinking in these ways. Did it change your feelings, emotions, or ability to perform academically, socially, or physically? If so, you are not alone. These cognitive distortions are common, but in their more extreme forms, they can be harmful to our well being. Luckily, there are a few steps you can take to help recognize them and reduce the harm they cause.
Notice your feelings.
How are the thoughts going through your head making you feel? What emotion am I having? What did I notice in my body?
Are the thoughts helpful?
What are you responding to? What did those thoughts, images, or memories say about this situation?
Search for evidence.
What evidence do you have that supports the thought you’re having? What facts provide evidence against the unhelpful thoughts?
What would someone else say about this situation? What advice would you give to someone else who was going through this? Is there another way to think about this?
Change your situation or do something to stop the thought. Recognizing that thoughts come and go, we can choose to pay attention and hold onto them, or to let them go. Sometimes by doing something different, it helps let go of the thought more quickly, and therefore, it will have less chance to impact the way you feel and perform.
Campus Mind Works – U-M website supporting student mental health