Personal Development Psychology

7 Thinking Patterns You Use to Distort Reality

Written by Thibaut Meurisse

Are you using your thoughts to create the life you desire or is the way you think having a negative impact on your life? Unfortunately, most of us fall victim to distorted and disempowered thinking patterns that rob us of joy and cause unnecessary suffering.

If this sounds like you, there is no need to feel bad. Life doesn’t come with a manual that tells us how to control our thoughts and formal education doesn’t teach much if anything regarding that sort of thing.

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In this article, I will share seven common thought patterns that cause us to see situations in a distorted, negative way that is liable to cause misery, pain, and suffering. Make sure you aren’t sabotaging yourself with this sort of thinking and, if you are, find out why.

Discounting the Positive

It’s amazing how harsh we can be on ourselves, and this tendency makes it easy to forget the good things in life. Do you find yourself constantly zeroed in on the negative aspects of everything you do or obsessing over parts of yourself that you find undesirable? If so, you aren’t alone. I’m guilty of thinking this way, too, as are many other people.

For instance, you might receive compliments regarding a speech you’ve given and think, “Sure, they’re saying my speech was good, but that’s just because they are too nice to tell me the truth.”

This mindset can be quite damaging because it saps your motivation and gives you a reason to give up and stop moving forward. The following is a list of tips that can help you focus on the positive and become more objective and less judgmental about your accomplishments:

  • Accept compliments and don’t waste your energy questioning the sincerity of those who show appreciation
  • Write down all the positive comments you receive from others and review it whenever you’re feeling low.
  • Ponder everything you’ve accomplished in your life and make a list of it. Review the list whenever you feel the need to.

Assuming Your Feelings Are Always True

Do you feel like a loser because you’ve failed an exam? Do you think you feel ashamed because you weren’t able to accomplish something you intended to? No matter how real your feelings may seem, they are just emotions. They might feel intense or overpowering, but emotions have nothing to do with reality. They are simply the result of your interpretations (both conscious and unconscious) of what happens to you.

Learn to disassociate yourself from your emotions. Avoid saying, “I am” and try to give your emotions a different label. Instead of saying “I am angry,” for instance, say, “I am experiencing anger” to separate yourself from your feelings. Labeling emotions diminishes the response of the amygdala, the part of the brain that is responsible for the flight or fight response. It also increases activity in the prefrontal cortex, which contributes to rational thinking. Don’t try to suppress your emotions, simply acknowledge and observe them with detachment whenever possible.

Thinking You’re Psychic

You tend to assume you know what other people think about you. A example of this would be deciding an inexplicably quiet coworker doesn’t say much because she dislikes you. “I know what she thinks about me. I saw the way she looked at me,” you might think. “She doesn’t like me.”

In reality, you don’t know what she thinks about you. You can’t accurately assume what anyone thinks so take off your hat Sherlock Holmes! This coworker could be shy or having troubles of which you are unaware.People have misunderstood my words, actions, or attitude on many occasions. If other people can misjudge us so easily, then we can just as easily misjudge them.

When you try to read someone else’s mind or discern, you’re just projecting your thoughts about yourself onto them. Your self-image has a huge influence on how you believe others think of you. If, for instance, you are highly critical of yourself, chances are that you imagine people around you are highly critical of you as well. When this happens, you simply see the world in your version of reality. It can easily cause you to create a world where you feel your teachers, colleagues, or friends don’t appreciate you.

Worse yet, these feelings could become a self-fulfilling prophecy. When you believe that someone doesn’t like you, you’re likely to act differently around this person, and this alone may cause him or her to actually start disliking you!

Miscommunications and inaccurate assumptions can wreak havoc on relationships. If you sincerely want to know what people think about you, ask them! On a similar note, don’t expect the people in your life to know what you’re thinking.

Shoulds and Musts

Take a piece of paper and write five sentences that start with the phrase “I should”. Then ask yourself why you believe that you should do these things? Words we use every day have a tremendous influence over our lives. Words like “should” or “must” may seem innocuous, but they limit our choices in life. If you have too many “shoulds” in your life, it usually means that you have many expectations regarding how you must behave. These expectations stem from your belief system, which is often the result of what your parents or society have told you that you should/must do. If this belief system doesn’t align with who you truly are, you risk being a slave to expectations, “shoulds”, and “musts”, all of which put a damper on happiness.

After all, if you don’t behave the way you should, then you will likely punish or beat yourself up. That’s why “could” is a much more preferable word choice. “Could” gives you more freedom and isn’t so stifling. Instead of saying, “I should have done that,” for example, you could say, “I could have done that”.

Overgeneralisation

Overgeneralisations include thoughts like “I lost my job, I will never find a job again” or “I always do the wrong thing.”

Beware, when you find yourself using words like “never”, “always”, or “all the time” you are likely to overgeneralise. These three phrases are so absolute that they are rarely an accurate description of reality. More often than not, they are the result of subjective interpretations, which can be very destructive.

I recommend you to start take notice of the way you use these words when you talk to yourself, but also when you talk to your partner or other people. These kinds of words are usually not the words you want to use if you wish to create harmonious relationships.

Chain Reaction of Negative Thoughts

Have you ever taken the time to analyze what exactly happened the last time you felt depressed? Most of the time, the reason we get depressed is because we fail to interrupt an increasing flow of negative thoughts. Unfortunately, just one seemingly insignificant negative thought can be enough to create a chain reaction that turns into a downward spiral.

One day when I was a bit down I asked myself why and tried to discern the trigger event. I soon realized that the root of my low mood was a seemingly insignificant thought of which I wasn’t even particularly aware.

For instance, knee pain would negatively influence my mood so subtly that I would slip into destructive thought patterns faster than I could get a handle on them. It would go from “Why don’t I have a girlfriend?” to “I would like to do this or that, but I’m not smart enough.” Next was “I wish I could be as smart as my friend X” then “My friend Y is so confident, but he didn’t do anything to deserve it”. It was a downward spiral.

Does it happen to you, too? Analyze your most recent thoughts and try to pinpoint the very first thing that triggered your feelings. Was it really a big deal? Please don’t torture yourself with the worst version of yourself and your life by focusing your energy on all your problems at once. When handled on an individual basis, most problems aren’t that big of a deal. Refuse to link all of your problems to one another!

Adding Your Opinion to Facts

If we were to stick to the facts when thinking things over, we would avoid a great deal of grief. However, we’re often unable to avoid adding our little comments and opinions to the facts at hand. For most of us, these comments and opinions tend to be negative and only serve to make us feel bad.

An example of adding opinions to facts is evident in the phrase, “I lost $100,000 in the stock market. I’m a total failure!” The reality is that you lost $100,000 in the stock market. That part is factual. Your supposed status as a failure, however, is nothing more than your opinion.

A great way to stop bombarding yourself with damaging, self-critical opinions is to make a game of separating facts from opinions in your daily life. When you are hard on yourself, ask yourself whether the things you’re telling yourself are facts or opinions? You can extend this game to others as well. When people criticize you, ask if the person in question is telling you a fact about yourself or giving you their opinion.

Did you recognize your own thinking in any of these thought patterns? If so, how do you plan to stop distorting your reality and create a more positive mental state?

About the author

Thibaut Meurisse

Thibaut Meurisse is the founder of  whatispersonaldevelopment.org. Obsessed with improvement, he dedicates his life to finding the best possible ways to durably transform both his life and the lives of others. Check out his FREE e-book "The 5 Commandments of Personal Development" or order his new book "Goal Setting: The Ultimate Guide To Achieving Goals That Truly Excite You"