Ann's Helpful Hints (re: letting go of judgment)

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Antidotes for Unhelpful Thoughts

  1. Identify the Cognitive Distortion.  Write down a negative thought and name the cognitive distortions that apply. This gives perspective on the thought, which can otherwise feel like “the truth.”
  2.  Examine the Evidence. Instead of assuming your negative thought is true, look at the evidence. For example, if you think “I never do anything right,” list some things you do well.
  3. Use Helpful Reminders.  Use helpful phrases to challenge habitual distortions. For example, for mind-reading or fortune telling, remind yourself “I’m not psychic.” Make a list of other phrases that help you, such as “I am doing the best I can,” “One step at a time,” etc. Consider sticking these reminders where you can see them.
  4. The “Double-Standard” Method. Instead of judging yourself harshly, talk to yourself as compassionately as you might to a friend with a similar problem. Also, ask yourself, “How would I react if somebody else did this?”
  5.  Thinking in Shades of Grey. Instead of thinking in all-or-nothing terms, evaluate a situation on a scale of 0 to 100.  Instead of absolute words like “never”, “always,” and “completely,” substitute modulated words like “seldom”, “often,” or “somewhat.” Consider the concept of “good enough” (e.g., “I am doing a good enough job at this”).
  6. List the positives. To deal with the tendency to focus on the negative, make lists of good things that are happening, good things about yourself, and things that you are accomplishing (even little things). Focus on what you ARE doing, rather than on what you’re NOT doing.
  7.  Reality testing.  Ask people questions to find out if your thoughts and concerns are realistic or true. This is a particularly effective response to the distortion of mind-reading.
  8. Challenge Labels.  If you label yourself negatively, such as “a fool” or “a loser,” remind yourself that such absolute terms are subjective and meaningless, and that human beings are too complex to be reduced that simplistically. Also, consider the possibility that  somebody else may have given you that idea about yourself, and that they were wrong.
  9. The Semantic Method.  Substitute language that is less emotionally loaded and less judgmental.  For example, instead of telling yourself, “I should have known better,” you could say, “I didn’t know that.”
  10. Look at the Context.  Instead of automatically blaming yourself for a problem, think about the other factors that may have contributed to the situation. If you regret a previous action, consider that you might have been doing the best you could at the time.
  11. Cost-Benefit Analysis.  List the pros and cons of a negative thought (like “I always screw up”) or a behavior pattern (like isolating when you’re depressed). A simple version of this is to ask yourself, “Does this [thought or action] help me?”
  12.  The Perfectionism Cure.  Allow yourself a quota for mistakes. Recognize that we will all make some mistakes, every day.  Consider this quote from the book Self Esteem: “Between one and three out of every ten decisions people make are ‘wrong’.”
  13. The Equal Time Rule.  To be fair, why not balance out the time spent on negative thoughts with positive thoughts?  For example, if you spend a certain amount of time worrying or catastrophizing about something that then turns out okay, consider spending that much time feeling good about the outcome. Or, if you are focusing on a negative, critical person and worrying about how they might affect you, try to give equal time and power to a positive, supportive person.
  14. The “In Case of Emergency, Break Glass” Technique. Prepare for the possibility that when you are feeling at your worst, coping strategies and solutions might be difficult to remember. Write down a couple of things that might be helpful to remember when you are feeling bad, and put that in a special place. Also, consider telling somebody else about these “emergency messages,” so they can remind you.
  15. The So What? Technique. Consider that an anxiety-producing possibility (even the worst case scenario) might not be as bad as you fear. For example, “So what if this one person doesn’t like me? Not everybody is going to like me.” or “So what if I lose my cell phone? It’ll be an incredible hassle, but I’ll be able to deal with it.”
  16. Thought stopping.  If you notice an unhelpful thought, cut it off immediately. Typical techniques include visualizing a big stop sign, saying “STOP!” to yourself, and giving yourself a sensory cue (e.g., snapping a rubber band you wear around your wrist). A “gentler” version of this is to notice an unhelpful thought and tell yourself, “That’s just a thought.”

What works for you?  Are there strategies that you use that are not on this list?  Which ones of those listed would you like to try?

Handout on Cognitive Distortions

Automatic and Unhelpful Thoughts

a/k/a “Cognitive Distortions” (from Cognitive Behavioral Therapy)

  1. Negative filtering (also known as “Disqualifying the positive”).
    This is when we focus on the negative, and filter out all positive aspects of a situation.  For example, you get a good review at work with one critical comment, and the criticism becomes the focus, with the positive feedback fading or forgotten. You dismiss positives by explaining them away — for example, responding to a compliment with the thought, “They were just being nice.”
  2. All-or-Nothing thinking (also known as “Black-and-White thinking”).
    Things are either all good or all bad, people are either perfect or failures, something new will either fix everything or be worthless. There is no middle ground; we place people and situations in “either/or” categories, with no shades of gray, or allowing for complexities.  Watch out for absolute words like “always”, “never,” “totally,” etc. as indications of this kind of distortion.
  3. Overgeneralization.
    We come to a general conclusion based on a single incident or a single piece of evidence. If something bad happens only once, you expect it to happen over and over again. Example: seeing one incident of rejection as part of a never-ending pattern of defeat and failure.
  4. Mind reading.
    Without individuals saying so, we know what they are thinking and why they act the way they do. For example, you assume that somebody is having a critical thought about you, you don’t check this out, and this affects your actions and feelings towards them.
  5. Fortune telling.
    We believe we know what the future holds, as if we have psychic powers. We make negative predictions, feeling convinced these are unavoidable facts.  Examples of fortune telling: “I am going to fail,” “This situation will never change.”
  6. Catastrophizing.
    This is a particularly extreme and painful form of fortune telling, where we project a situation into a disaster or the worst-case scenario. You might think catastrophizing helps you prepare and protect yourself, but it usually causes needless anxiety and worry.
  7. Magnifying or Minimizing.
    We exaggerate the importance of some things (our mistakes, a critical reaction, somebody else’s achievements, things we haven’t done). Also, we inappropriately shrink the magnitude of  other things  (for example, our good qualities, compliments, what we have accomplished, or someone else’s imperfections).
  8. Personalization.
    You see yourself as the cause of some negative event for which you are not primarily responsible, and you conclude that what happened was your fault or reflects your inadequacy.  Personalization distorts other people’s reactions into a direct, personal response to you.  For example, if somebody seems upset, you immediately assume it was because of something you said or did.
  9. Comparisons.
    We compare ourselves to others, with ourselves coming out short. For example, “I’m not as smart (or good, competent, good-looking, lovable, etc.) as that other person.”   Or, we compare ourselves to how we think we should be, or how we’ve been before.  We might think that comparisons help motivate us, but they usually make us feel worse.
  10. Shoulds.
    We have ironclad rules about the behaviors of ourselves and other people.  For example, “I really should exercise. I shouldn’t be so lazy.” A more effective way to motivate ourselves is to identify positive results, rather than whipping ourselves with guilt.  For example, “When I exercise, I feel better.”  When we use “should statements” about other people (“He shouldn’t act that way!”), we often feel frustrated, angry, and resentful, since we can’t control others’ behaviors.
  11. Emotional Reasoning.
    We take our emotions as evidence for the truth. Examples: “I feel inadequate, so there must be something wrong with me.” “I feel overwhelmed and hopeless, therefore the situation must be impossible to change or improve.” (Note that the latter can contribute to procrastination.)  While suppressing or judging feelings can be unhelpful, it’s important to recognize the difference between feelings and facts.
  12. Blaming.
    We blame ourselves for every problem, or hold other people entirely responsible for a negative situation or feeling. When we focus on assigning blame and figuring out who is “at fault”, we are usually ignoring the complexity of a situation. Also, blaming can result in staying stuck in negative feelings, rather than moving towards action and solutions.
  13. Labeling or Name-calling.
    We generate negative global judgments based on little evidence. Instead of accepting errors as inevitable, we attach an unhealthy label to ourselves or others. For example, you make a mistake and call yourself a “loser,” a “failure”, or an “idiot.” Labels are not only self-defeating, they are irrational, simplistic, and untrue. Human beings are complex and fallible, and in truth cannot be reduced to a label. Consider this: we all breathe, but would it make sense to refer to ourselves as “Breathers”?