Do you tend to see things in ‘black-and-white’? For instance, are you either a total success, or a total failure? If one thing goes wrong does this mean that everything is
wrong? This error can be called ‘all-or-nothing thinking’. You seem to be saying to yourself “if I am not perfect, I must be a complete mess” or “if everyone doesn’t love me
then nobody loves me”. All-or-nothing thinking can be checked by asking yourself , “what is the evidence for saying that everything is wrong, or that nothing is right?” It may be true that some things are wrong, or that some improvement could be made in a situation. This is not the same as saying that everything is wrong, or nothing is right.
Reality is made up of a thousand shades of grey. You are not all good and all bad; all right or all wrong. There is no black-and-white.
In a similar way, do you tend to use one bad experience to colour other parts of your life? Do you ever make a mistake, or fail at something and say to yourself, “I never get
anything right”. This is an example of overgeneralisation.
Just because you fail at one thing doesn’t mean that you will fail at everything. Maybe you fall out with a friend and end up saying “nobody loves me”. You are taking your feelings from one situation, and colouring other situations in an equally bad way. Again, the easiest way to tackle this is to ask for the evidence. How do you know that nobody loves you; or that you never get anything right? There is no need to pretend that
there is no problem. At the same time, there is no value in generalising your unhappiness from one situation to the rest of your life. Try to tell the difference between things which are really ‘bad’ or unpleasant, from those which you have ‘coloured’ black by overgeneralising.
Most things which happen to you will not be all bad. They will be made up of ‘bad bits’ and ‘good bits’. Do you tend to think just about the bad bits; ignoring the good bits? This
is a bit like making coffee with ground coffee. However, instead of keeping the water which runs through the ground beans, you keep the grounds instead. Even when
making coffee there is a ‘good bit’ (the coffee liquid) and a ‘bad bit’ (the coffee grounds). When you find yourself saying “I didn’t have a minute’s happiness today” or “my life has
been just one problem after another,” you may well be using the mental filter. You may be concentrating only upon the bad bits—to the exclusion of any ‘good bits’. Again, you
should start tackling this error by checking the evidence. Make a list of all the ‘bad bits’; and then try to list the ‘good bits’—no matter how small they appear by comparison.
Beware of ‘filtering’ out the bad experiences, and dwelling upon them.
Discounting the Positive
In a similar way, you might be telling yourself that some ‘good bits’ don’t count for some reason. You might say, “OK, so I did my housework today. So what? I do it every
day. It’s hardly a success”. You may be telling yourself that certain things don’t count as positive experiences. You reject these as positive experiences; and end up dwelling upon
the negative experiences (the bad bits). This error is another version of the mental filter. If you are obliged to recognise something which isn’t really bad, you discount it
by saying that it’s not really good either. It’s nothing. Try to remind yourself that filtering out good experiences only worsens your depression. Discounting the positive is another way of focusing on bad experience; and another way of deepening your depression.
Jumping to Conclusions Often,
You may tell yourself that things are ‘bad’ although you have no evidence to support this. This is a bit like crystal-ball gazing. You are predicting that certain things will
happen – a bit like a fortune teller. You may tell yourself that “I’ll never get over this” or “I’ll never be able to do that”. How do you know? Can you foretell the future? At other
times you may say that “everyone is fed up with me” or “people don’t like me any more”. How do you know? Can you read their minds? Jumping to conclusions is a very common error—we all tend to do this from time to time. The easiest way to challenge this error is to look for the evidence. How do you know that this or that will happen? How do you know that people don’t like you or don’t want you. There is no point just saying “well I feel that way”. This is just a sign that you are jumping to conclusions.
Most of us tend to exaggerate. Maybe you do this as well. If something goes wrong do you ever say, “Oh, this is terrible, and there’s nothing I can do about it”. You may well be
magnifying the problem—almost as though you were holding a magnifying glass over it. You make it look much worse than it really is. At the same time you underestimate
your own ability to deal with it—almost as if you were looking at your own abilities down the wrong end of a telescope. You make them appear much smaller than they
really are. You minimise yourself—you make yourself appear less able, or competent. When things go wrong you should try to avoid turning a small problem into a disaster
or a complete catastrophe. Search for the evidence. How bad is it really? Is it really so terrible? Is it really the worst thing which could happen to you? Are you really not able to do anything? Make a list of the sort of things you might at least try.
Human beings tend to be emotional. We tend to let our hearts rule our heads, a lot of the time. However, we need to watch that such ‘emotional reasoning’ doesn’t lead us into trouble. Do you ever think, “I feel guilty. This must mean I’ve done something wrong”. Or, “I know that I can’t prove it but I just feel that its true.” These are both examples of emotional reasoning: you letting your heart rule your head. Again, you must search for the evidence to support feeling this way. If you can’t find any you will have to try to accept that you are being ‘emotional’. You are putting yourself down for no good reason: You have a choice. You can continue to ‘feel’ guilty or let down (or whatever) for no good reason. Or you can tell yourself that there is no reason why you should feel this way: and then try to work out how you should be feeling.
Shoulds & Musts
Do you ever find yourself saying “I should be able to pull myself together” or “I must always try to appear cheerful” or “I should always want to be with my family.” These kind of thoughts make heavy demands upon you emotionally. They make you feel that you are a failure (if you can’t pull yourself together); or they make you feel that you have let others down (if you aren’t always cheerful); or they make you feel guilty (if you don’t want to be with your family). It is one thing to want to try to be positive, or cheerful or loving. It is quite another to say that you should or must always be like that. When you find yourself using ‘should and musts’ simply tell yourself to stop trying to be perfect.
Go ahead and try to be positive, or loving or cheerful. But don’t punish yourself if you can’t always keep it up.
When things go wrong you may find yourself sticking labels on yourself. When you have a quarrel with someone this may mean that you are a ‘rotten person’. When you try to tackle something but give up, this means that you are ‘hopeless’ or ‘useless’. You find it difficult to recognise that you are made up of ‘good bits’ and ‘bad bits’—like other people. The label you apply usually suggests that you are all completely bad, or hopeless, or useless. To check this error ask for the evidence. How do you know that you are completely bad? How do you know that you will not succeed next time round? How do you know that other people wouldn’t have found this equally difficult? Beware of labels—they usually hide the truth.
The final error involves thinking that “everything always happens to me.” You may think that bad things—like a sudden downpour on a sunny day—have some special relationship with you. You may think that this is just another example of your bad luck; or, you may think that in some way it is your fault. If people have an argument, it may be as a result of something you said. Or, if someone is unhappy, it is because you must have upset them. Although it is difficult to accept, the truth is that you are not really that important. Nobody is that important. Unless you can prove to yourself that it is your fault—by pointing to some evidence—then you will have to accept that you are making the error of personalisation. You are tricking yourself into thinking that things always happen to you, or are your fault.
This simply is not true.
Checklist for challenging distorted thinking
Jumping to conclusions? □
Assuming my view of things is the only possible one? □
Posing questions that have no answers? □
Thinking in all-or-nothing terms? □
Using ultimatum words (musts/shoulds) in my thinking? □
Totally condemning myself (or someone else) on the basis of a single event? □
Concentrating on my weaknesses and neglecting my strengths? □
Blaming myself for something that is not really my fault? □
Taking things personally that have little or nothing to do with me? □
Expecting myself or others to be perfect? □
Using a double standard? □
Paying attention only to the negative side of things? □
Overestimating the chances of disaster? □
Exaggerating the importance of events? □
Fretting about how things should be instead of accepting and dealing with them as they
Assuming that I cannot do anything to alter the situation? □
Predicting the outcome instead of experimenting with it?