Cognitive behavioral therapy recognizes nine common and self-defeating errors in our thinking patterns. Do you make any of them?
In the first essay in this series, we examined five of those common errors in our patterns of thinking: binocular vision; black-and-white thinking; wearing dark or rose-colored glasses; fortune telling; and “making it personal.” Of course, all of us think in these restricted ways sometimes—that’s an inevitable part of being human—but the problem becomes a critical one when we sink into these modes of thinking most of the time. When that happens, our own minds and the way they process information can become our worst enemies.
So how do we combat these thinking errors? The first step involves simply recognizing them. If we can identify and name a certain kind of self-defeating thinking, then we can begin to move past it.
With that in mind, here are the final four thinking errors we’re all prone to:
Ask yourself: do I make general conclusions based only on one specific action or event? If I see someone being unkind, for example, do I conclude that they’re a fundamentally unkind person? Overgeneralizing defeats us because it draws conclusions based on insufficient evidence. It also reminds us that we never have enough information to know or understand the whole story. The Baha’i teachings advise us to independently investigate the truth, and reach our conclusions based only a fair-minded assessment:
Examine then and judge aright that which We shall reveal unto thee, that haply thou mayest be accounted in the sight of God amongst those who are fair-minded in these matters. – Baha’u’llah, Gems of Divine Mysteries, p. 74.
Discover for yourselves the reality of things, and strive to assimilate the methods by which noble-mindedness and glory are attained among the nations and people of the world. No man should follow blindly his ancestors and forefathers. Nay, each must see with his own eyes, hear with his own ears and investigate independently in order that he may find the truth. – Abdu’l-Baha, Divine Philosophy, p. 24.
Do I put simple, unfair, and negative labels on people or things that are really more complicated than the label suggests? Labeling, like stereotyping, divides people. When we label others, we put them into a category that rarely fits. Instead, the Baha’i teachings recommend, we should refrain from labeling or judging others, and even from labeling ourselves:
We must look upon our enemies with a sin-covering eye and act with justice when confronted with any injustice whatsoever, forgive all, consider the whole of humanity as our own family, the whole earth as our own country, be sympathetic with all suffering, nurse the sick, offer a shelter to the exiled, help the poor and those in need, dress all wounds and share the happiness of each one. Be compassionate, so that your actions will shine like unto the light streaming forth from the lamp … If we see a man acting after this manner we can say of him: “Verily, he is a reflector of servitude!” We cannot conceive of a star without light, a tree without seed. If we claim to be followers of light we must diffuse the light through our actions. To label ourselves will not be sufficient. – Abdu’l-Baha, Divine Philosophy, pp. 41-42.
3. Discounting the Positive
Do I discount positive things or thoughts by telling myself they don’t really matter? Can I accept a compliment from another person without thinking it isn’t really so? Do I twist good situations into things that are bad? Since our thoughts determine our reality, the Baha’i writings say, we should do everything we can to see the positive in others and in ourselves:
If you desire with all your heart, friendship with every race on earth, your thought, spiritual and positive, will spread; it will become the desire of others, growing stronger and stronger, until it reaches the minds of all men. – Abdu’l-Baha, Paris Talks, p. 7.
4. Beating Up on Myself or Others
Do I insist or demand that things should or even must be done in a certain way? Am I unkind to myself, discounting my own good motives and beating up on myself when I fail? The Baha’i teachings remind us that our positive, flexible thinking can carry us to great heights—but that beating up on ourselves or others can sink us into clinical depression and other maladies. With practice, though, negative neural pathways can atrophy from disuse, and new ones—healthier, more realistic and more positive—can take over:
I charge you all that each one of you concentrate all the thoughts of your heart on love and unity. When a thought of war comes, oppose it by a stronger thought of peace. A thought of hatred must be destroyed by a more powerful thought of love. Thoughts of war bring destruction to all harmony, well-being, restfulness and content. Thoughts of love are constructive of brotherhood, peace, friendship, and happiness. – Ibid., p. 7.
From all the points above, it’s clear that just like a song we can’t get out of our head, negative or destructive types of thinking can become ingrained. Yet conscious efforts to implant, grow, and reinforce positive thoughts can cause negative, limited thoughts to diminish and gradually lose their power over our thinking.