May 22, 2000 -- Philosophers and poets have long known that your thoughts
can be your own worst enemy. As Shakespeare wrote in Hamlet, "There is
nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so."
Cognitive therapy helps people recognize when their own negative thoughts
are pushing them into depression or anxiety. Experts at the Beck Institute for Cognitive
Therapy have identified a dozen common thinking errors that can skew your
judgment and make it hard to appraise your situation realistically.
"If you believe these negative thoughts," says Leslie Sokol,
director of education at the Beck Institute for Cognitive Therapy in Bala
Cynwyd, Pa., "they can turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy. That's why
it's a good thing to take stock of your beliefs -- especially when you're under
How do you know if you're falling victim to your own distorted thinking?
Here are six of the common thinking errors identified by cognitive
All or nothing thinking: You don't see middle ground. You assume if you
don't get the promotion, the company wants to ease you out the door.
Reality check: You've had two promotions in the last five years -- more than
anyone else in your department.
Overgeneralization: You extrapolate your future based on a single event.
You figure that if you failed the bar exam on the first try, you're just not
cut out to be a lawyer.
Reality check: Many people take the bar exam more than once. If you convince
yourself you're going to fail, you'll have no motivation to study.
Minimizing and maximizing: You inflate your errors and discount your
accomplishments. You made two typos in your presentation and tell yourself
you've blown the whole assignment.
Reality check: Your boss said it was a good report.
Fortune-telling: You predict that things will turn out badly, no matter
what you say or do. Your new boyfriend does not call you as promised before a
business trip, and you spend the week convinced he's breaking up with you.
Reality check: You know he's busy. Besides, it will take you both a few more
months to get to know each other and decide if you're a good match.
Emotional reasoning: You get lost in your emotions. You spill food on
yourself at a restaurant and feel like a jerk, so you assume other people see
you that way, too.
Reality check: You're sensitive to other people's feelings -- and that's why
others like to be with you.
Shoulds and oughts: You focus on other people's expectations of you,
instead of on your own needs. You feel you ought to help a co-worker with his
project -- even though it will make you fall behind in your work.
Reality check: Your co-worker has an assistant who might be glad to pick up
some overtime. You can suggest that he ask his assistant for help.
Valerie Andrews has written for Intuition,
HealthScout, and many other publications. She lives in Greenbrae,