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Ways We Think That Can Make or Break Us – Part 1

Carrie Steckl earned her Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology with a Minor in Gerontology from Indiana University – Bloomington in 2001. She has spent over ...Read More

Which comes first – a thought or an emotion? I tackled this question in my post about bottom-up and top-down emotions. In essence, some situations (danger, surprise, etc.) evoke our fight-or-flight response and we feel emotions such as fear or panic before we even have time to think about what’s happening.

But these circumstances are (thankfully) rare. In day-to-day life, we are confronted with countless, less urgent challenges to which we can respond in myriad ways. During these more common times, I am convinced that our thinking patterns generate our emotional responses.

Not that we are consciously aware of this. Many of our thought patterns are so ingrained that they activate at the slightest match-up between past and current circumstances. But this doesn’t mean that deleterious thought patterns can’t be changed. We just need to consciously take a good look at what we are telling ourselves.

Dr. David Burns uses the term “cognitive distortions” to describe these unhelpful thinking patterns. Here are five of them, along with an example of each (some of which are all-too-familiar to the brain of yours truly).

All-or-Nothing Thinking - Seeing things in black-and-white categories.

Example: “If I make no mistakes, I’m a good spouse/parent/friend/person, but if I mess up just once, I’m a total failure.”

Overgeneralization – Viewing one negative event as representing a pervasive pattern of defeat.

Example: “The meeting today was not productive; therefore, this project will never succeed.”

Mental Filter – Singling out a negative detail in a situation and dwelling on it to the point of only being able to see life through that detail.

Example: “I can’t believe I forgot the whipped cream for the dessert. Even though the rest of the five course dinner was perfect, my mistake ruined the whole night.”

Discounting the Positive – Rejecting positive experiences by rationalizing that they are not valid.

Example: “That was just pure luck that I got Sarah to eat her cereal; I really have no idea what I’m doing as a mother.”

Jumping to Conclusions – Making a negative assumption without any solid evidence.

Example: “Since I haven’t heard from the employer yet, I’m sure I didn’t get a job interview.”

These are only five of the ten cognitive distortions I’m going to tell you about, but I see each one as so compelling (and all-too-common) that I don’t want to give them all to you at once. Consider these five. Do you recognize any of them in your own thinking patterns? Start paying attention to your thinking – and what you find yourself saying under your breath – and note if you engage in any of these distortions more than others. You’ll learn about the rest of them in my next post, along with ways to adjust those destructive patterns so that our thinking works for, instead of against, our well-being.


Burns, D. D. (1999). Feeling good: The new mood therapy. New York: Harper.

Keep Reading By Author Carrie Steckl, Ph.D.
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