Thursday, January 24, 2008

Thinking Errors

This concept has a variety of different names depending on the theoretical orientation of the clinician. You might have heard terms such as “psychological” defenses,” “cognitive distortions,” or even “stinkin’ thinkin.’” All of these labels refer to a behavior pattern based on an unhealthy thinking process. As illustrated in the compulsive cycle, and in the power of thought discussion, our thoughts shape our reality; we act based on these thoughts. Too many times I’ve heard the comment that “I didn’t know what I was thinking,” “How come I couldn’t stop myself, because I knew I shouldn’t be doing this.” My response is to affirm that the acting out cycle is sophisticated; people will act on thoughts they may not fully realize that are present. The speed by which we experience various thoughts is simply too fast for us to fully understand all of the thoughts upon which we act. Some of these thoughts might be suppressed and/or repressed; other thoughts might be so automatic that we simply don’t recognize their power. The purpose of therapy is to help the client reveal the unhealthy thinking patterns in one’s life.

In the Broadway Musical, “Wicked” at one point the heroine enters the City of Oz. The citizens of Oz wore green colored glasses. After a while, the citizens “forgot” they were wearing these green glasses, and they simply concluded that everything was in fact “green.” This was why Oz appeared to be the Emerald city. In a similar way, our thinking pattern colors our view of life. These patterns are so pervasive, we simply don’t realize they are present. Sometimes the assumptions have a limited impact in our life; other times, these thinking patterns are so unhealthy they result in pain and negative consequences in our life or the lives of others around us. Often, these thinking errors are attempts to minimize pain, justify our behaviors, or otherwise help us avoid reality. As you increase your initial awareness of thinking errors, the variety and number of thinking errors will surprise you. You’ll be surprised at the prevalence of these thoughts, and how we use these thoughts to justify almost all behavior, including speeding, avoiding tasks/responsibilities and justification for harming others.

As mentioned in the previous topic “The Power of Thought,” I hold that our thoughts and feelings are intertwined, with the feelings arising from the thoughts. Thus, thinking errors contribute to our experience of feelings. Notice the example of the missing car in the previous post. You can experience a range of emotions simply by being aware of the thoughts. The feelings then, can facilitate increased thinking errors. Consider the following example:

I think my boss is out to get me. So, when we talk, I’m verbally defensive and avoidant. When my boss confronts me, I feel even worse and disconnected. I then feel angry because they are also hurting me. After the conflict, I feel alone. Then, the loneliness is used to justify sexual acting out.

This is but one example of the interplay from the thoughts/feelings.

Consider an alternative thought instead. My boss is simply doing her job. She was put upon by the corporate management to hold people accountable. So, instead of her being “out to get me,” she is simply frustrated and short with me.

In this second example, my feelings and subsequent behaviors will be completely different. The key, however, is to be aware of the thinking error that first occurs: “My boss is out to get me.” As you go through the examples below, a sense of persecution is one type of thinking error. We use this thinking error to justify many of our behaviors.

Now, I’ve listed a summary of thinking errors. In NO WAY ARE THESE EXHAUSTIVE. The mind is an amazingly creative source of never ending thinking errors. These examples are simply provided to represent the primary types of thinking errors and to help you become aware of the various patterns in your life.

Justification: making excuses for our behaviors.

I deserve...

It happened to me and no one cared.

I was angry.

It’s what I would want

Repression: forgetting things that are uncomfortable.

I didn’t know

Seemingly unexplainable naivete,

memory lapse

lack of awareness of one's own situation and condition

Displacement/Blaming: telling ourselves that someone else or something else is responsible for our actions.

If she/he had not done what she/he did

She/he started it.

She had a reputation.

He didn’t tell me to stop.

She’s a tease so it was as much her fault.

My partner wasn’t interested in sex

Victimization: Using a one’s own history as a justification for behavior.

I’m the victim in this case. There is nothing I could do.

“I had no other choice.

It happened to me when I was his age.

I never get what I want.

No one was there for me.

Minimization: playing down the nature of the discretion or the harm.

It’s only this one time.

No harm, no foul.

I was just trying to make her feel better.

Things just got out of hand.

I’ll only do it one last time.

It’s just pictures, no one was hurt.

Denial: Refusal to accept external reality because it is too threatening;

I didn’t know it was against the law.

I won’t get caught.

I didn’t think my partner would care.

Catastrophizing/Exaggerating: exaggerating the reasons for or the consequences of our actions.

If I hadn’t done it something awful would have happened.

Over-Generalization: use of terms such as “everybody”, “never”, “always”, “no one” to increase the argument for our behavior.

Everybody else seems to do it.

I am never wrong.

I know others did it so I figured it would be okay.

You always blame me.

Misinterpretation: deliberately taking the comments or actions of another out of the context

I just did what you told me to do

Escaping/ Fantasy: Tendency to retreat into fantasy in order to resolve inner and outer conflicts

I hoped it would make me feel better

I didn’t want this to happen.

Projection. Shifting one's unacceptable thoughts, feelings and impulses onto someone else so as to blame or attack them.


severe jealousy,

hypervigilance to external danger,

Intellectualization: Unacceptable denial or avoidance of emotions by focusing on the intellectual aspects. In my treatment approach, this is a recognized danger.

Reaction Formation:

I’m out of work, but I need to buy this because it is so cheap. Look at all the money I save.

This defense can work effectively in the short term, but will eventually fails.

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