In my work as a clinical psychologist, I frequently see people who are convinced that they cannot change their thinking. Indeed, such change involves hard work. We have all developed patterns of thinking that have reached the level of habit. It is almost automatic. Unfortunately, many of these ways of thinking are traps.
They are traps in the sense that they often do not lead us to a solution to the problem that we are confronting. Instead, they encourage us to avoid situations, to give up before we need to and to apply simplistic solutions to complicated problems. From a pragmatic point of view, they do not work.
The first step in changing thinking patterns is to recognize the ones that we have, and especially to focus on the ones that we have that don't work. We have discussed in some detail in a previous blog "Catastrophic Thinking," the tendency to assume the worst and spend much of our time thinking and planning about how we are going to deal with the terrible events that we are quite sure are going to befall us before any of them even occur. Catastrophic thinking is defined simply as ruminating about irrational worst-case outcomes. Needless to say, it can increase anxiety and prevent people from taking action in a situation where action is required. This can be especially true in a crisis situation.
Catastrophic thinking, like other thinking traps, needs to be disputed. In order to do this, you must first identify the thinking for what it is.
Here are three other patterns of faulty thinking:
Confirmation bias. This involves accepting only information and data that support your current beliefs and values. This is the classic "don't bother me with the facts." You don't have to look very far to find this type of thinking rampant in our society. Just look at some of the debates that have occurred over the last few years regarding global warming and evolution.
A second faulty pattern of thinking that can be a thinking trap is "all or none" thinking in which events are seen as either black or white. There is no gray. No flexibility. Indeed, these patterns of thinking encourage rigidity and not resilience.
A third pattern is over-generalization. This is a tendency to see a single temporary event as a general permanent state of affairs. Eric Byrne years ago talked about this as one of the classic dirty-fighting tactics that couples use in an argument. They often accuse each other of "never" or "always" when that simply is not an accurate description of what has occurred. We all know that no one can be that consistent. Like other thinking traps, they do not work very well. In an argument with someone, they simply are a way of putting yourself one-up and the other person one-down. What is the outcome? The other person simply gets angry or hurt and tries to rebalance the contest, which is what it has turned into by now, by saying something equally outrageous.
A faulty thinking pattern, like any old habit, does not die easily. A first step in changing it is to recognize it for what it is and to commit ourselves to try very hard not to make use of it. This may be especially difficult when we are feeling angry or upset. It is at these times that our strong feelings may lead us back to these old patterns.