Get Out of the Distorted Thinking Trap

by annie

"Oh no! I must have done something wrong and now I'm really in trouble. I wonder if I said something wrong in our staff meeting today? Did I send all those letters he told me were important? I thought I got them all typed and mailed. What could it be? Why does he want me to be sure and stop in at the office tomorrow? There was something in his voice. Now wait a minute! All the other times I thought there was something I'd done wrong, it ended up being nothing. Maybe this time it will be the same. But what if...?"

Well, I did go to his office, which ended up in my being treated to lunch. This time my boss knew I was going to be facing a difficult time and just wanted to let me know he was there for me.

Does this sound familiar? I ran across a list of distorted thinking patterns, some of which are drawn from the fields of cognitive/behavioral therapy, and found I have been through all of them to some degree. I have revised the list and included ways I've tried to change that you may find helpful. Don't be discouraged if you see yourself in many of these patterns. Instead, use this information as a tool to help isolate problems in your own thinking, and work on changing one at a time. It may be helpful to process these with a professional therapist. I personally believe that recognizing these thinking patterns and changing them is vital to our emotional recovery. How many do you relate to?

The Blame Game

"The Devil made me do it!" Others are responsible for how you feel and act; or, my own pitfall, I take responsibility for how others feel and act. Both are damaging to relationships and emotional health. The way to beat it: Take responsibility for your own feelings and actions and hold others responsible for theirs.

Black or White'All or Nothing

One mistake and you feel like a total failure; you trust someone completely or not at all; you are either all bad or all good. To change this type of thinking: Discover there is a big, new gray world out there. You and I are a mixture of good and bad, and more in-between the two. It's okay to be good at some things and not-so-good at others. We can learn to trust in degrees, a little at a time, until trust is earned. We can explore other options in any given situation, not just either/or.


"All men are abusers." To combat this type of thinking: Explore where the generalization comes from and think to yourself, "Just because all the men I grew up with abused me doesn't mean all men are abusers." Give yourselves truthful messages about it.

Mind Reading

"He should have known I was upset." You pass someone in the store and she doesn't acknowledge your presence. You think to yourself, "She is mad at me about something," and drive yourself crazy trying to figure out what you did that caused her to be mad at you. (One time someone thought this about me. The truth was, I didn't even see her there.) Changing this may sound simple, but it takes continuous, conscious effort. Say what you mean, and mean what you say; say it, don't just think it and expect someone to know. Take what others say at face value. Don't try to read between the lines or read into what was said something that may not have been there at all. If you question something someone says or does, ask them straight out and believe what they say in return. Also, learn to give the benefit of the doubt.

Filtered Thinking

Your boss compliments the way you handled a customer, then hands you the letter with the minor mistake. When you leave, your thoughts are consumed with the mistake and you're sure he's mad at you. You don't even remember the compliment he gave, let alone those in the past. You berate yourself for being too slow, not proofreading well enough, and you feel like a complete failure. To change this thinking: Make a conscious decision to commit the positive messages to memory. (I have to write them down.) When you find yourself feeling negative about a situation, go over the actual words spoken'all of them'and take them at face value without interpretations.


The "What if?" Game: "What if my husband gets in a car accident today? He did look at me differently and came back to give me another kiss before he left." I've done this. I also read recently about the poisonous recluse spider. I was sure I had read the article because I was going to get bit like the others in the story and would need to know to tell the doctor. To change this: Realize there is nothing you can do about what will happen in the future. Enjoy today and don't try to second guess what tomorrow will bring. You can also think of all the times you were sure disaster was coming and it didn't. (I haven't yet been bitten.)


"She is sure angry. I must have done or said something wrong." What others say and do is a reaction to me. To change: Ask the person outright, or think of other options, "She sure is angry. She may have had a fight with her rebellious teenager, or perhaps she just got out of bed on the wrong side." You can even get to the place where you can just be comfortable with another's feelings and tell yourself if it has something to do with you, it is that person's responsibility to tell you. You don't have to second guess them.

Control or Be Controlled

You may feel externally controlled'see yourself as a helpless victim of fate or of another person; or you may feel you are personally responsible for the pain and happiness of everyone around you. To combat these beliefs: Realize you don't have to let others control you. You can make choices for your life. You are not helpless, even though you may feel as if you are. This works in the other direction as well. You don't make someone else happy or unhappy. You don't have that kind of power. Others are responsible for their own lives, their own happiness, and their own pain. They can, and need to, make the same choices you do.

The "I Shoulds" and "You Shoulds"

"I really should be done with this abuse recovery by now!" You believe there is an ironclad list of rules about how you and other people should act or feel. To stop the "shoulds" in your life: First, look carefully at the word "should" whenever you find yourself thinking or saying it. Try to reflect back on where it came from. Most "shoulds" have nothing to do with right or wrong. Consciously replace the word "should" with something like, "I want to do this because it is the right thing for me to do," or "I wish you would send me flowers once in a while, because when you do, I feel special to you and it lets me know you're thinking of me."

Emotional Reasoning

You believe what you feel must be real. If you feel stupid and boring, then you must be stupid and boring. To change: We really feel what we feel, but that does not mean the messages that may be causing the feelings are true or accurate. Remember that feelings are not always based on facts and do not in themselves constitute fact. Without discounting feelings, try to take a look at them and see where they might be coming from.

Being Right

You are continually on trial to prove that your opinions and actions are correct. Being wrong is unthinkable and you will go to any length to demonstrate your rightness. How to recover: Realize no one can be right all the time. Try to discover why it is so important to always be right. What would it mean to be wrong'and to admit you are wrong. It doesn't really matter that much who is right. It is usually not a life or death situation. No one is going to hold it against you for being wrong. Its also okay to have differences of opinions. If we all felt and thought the same way, it would be a very boring world. Embrace differences. Let yourself be challenged by them. Be flexible in your opinions. Facing differences openly will allow you to solidify what you believe, help you to change erroneous thinking, or bring an awareness that on many issues what you believe is not necessarily the most important thing.

The Sacrifice/Reward Game

"I spent all those long, hard hours that I could have spent doing something else and no one even acknowledged it. I didn't even get a 'thank you'." You expect all your sacrifice and self-denial to pay off, as if there were someone keeping score. You feel bitter when the reward doesn't come. In the future: Check out your expectations and your motives for service before taking on any task. Ask yourself if this is a reasonable expectation and a healthy motive. If you have expectations, be up front with them. Don't expect others to know what you want or need. You may find that you have been involving yourself in situations where you were not wanted or needed, but you took it on yourself to be involved. This can lead to resentment on both sides.

"That's Not Fair!"

"Its not fair that I have to do all the work in this relationship. I have to spend all this emotional energy, money, and time working on my issues, and my abusers are going on as if nothing ever happened. They're getting off scott-free." You feel resentful because you think you know what's fair, but other people won't agree with you. What to do? Realize that no one said life would be fair. You can only work on yourself, try to be fair to others, and know that you will reap the benefits of the right choices made.

Sometimes seeing the humorous side of my behavior helps me face my dysfunctional ways of coping and relating. If I don't take myself so seriously, I don't get so consumed with guilt and shame, making it easier to deal with and work on changing those patterns. Perhaps it can help you, too.