Thinking About How We Feel About How We Think
By Alyssa G., ERG Coach
Sometimes it’s really hard for me to believe, but it has been almost exactly one year since I graduated from college. One year since I was launched, wide-eyed and terrified, from the challenging cushion that is the world of academia. Since then, I’ve adapted slowly to the demands of adult life: balancing budgets with paychecks, work with relationships, productivity with rest. In all of this, a certain amount of anxiety has been (some might say inevitably) stirred; the sort of anxiety all students face in transition, whether it’s from elementary school to middle school, or from middle to high school, and beyond. As a psychology major, I found myself turning to a particular branch of study that I never paid all that much attention to in the past: cognitive therapy.
Cognitive therapy, while extremely different from cognitive training, shares many ideas and strategies with what we do here at ERG. Cognitive therapy is based on the idea that there is more of a connection between how we think and how we feel, than there is between what happens to us and how we feel in response. For example, a cognitive therapist would not ask you how that fight with your spouse made you feel. A cognitive therapist would, instead, have you isolate the thoughts that led to the fight in the first place, and evaluate their validity. It seeks to dig deeper into our minds for the underlying causes of the manifestations of our behavior. By the same token, cognitive training also digs deeper into the cognitive realm of our psyches, seeking to address the causes of academic deficits, rather than focusing on the effects alone.
David D. Burns, a renowned cognitive therapist and bestselling author, has based his theories of cognitive recovery largely around a list he created of what he calls the “Ten Common Cognitive Distortions.” These refer to ways of thinking that our minds come up with to make us believe things that, in reality, aren’t actually true at all. They are as follows:
1. All-or-nothing thinking: You see things in black and white categories. If your performance falls short of perfect, you see yourself as a total failure.
2. Overgeneralization: You see a single negative event as a never-ending pattern of defeat.
3. Mental filter: You pick out a single negative detail and dwell on it exclusively so that your vision of all reality becomes darkened, like the drop of ink that discolors the entire beaker of water.
4. Disqualifying the positive: You reject positive experiences by insisting they “don’t count” for some reason or other. You maintain a negative belief that is contradicted by your everyday experiences.
5. Jumping to conclusions: You make a negative interpretation even though there are no definite facts that convincingly support your conclusion.
Mind reading: You arbitrarily conclude that someone is reacting negatively to you and don’t bother to check it out.
The Fortune Teller Error: You anticipate that things will turn out badly and feel convinced that your prediction is an already-established fact.
6. Magnification (catastrophizing) or minimization: You exaggerate the importance of things (such as your goof-up or someone else’s achievement), or you inappropriately shrink things until they appear tiny (your own desirable qualities or the other fellow’s imperfections). This is also called the “binocular trick.”
7. Emotional reasoning: You assume that your negative emotions necessarily reflect the way things really are: “I feel it, therefore it must be true.”
8. Should statements: You try to motivate yourself with shoulds and shouldn’ts, as if you had to be whipped and punished before you could be expected to do anything. “Musts” and “oughts” are also offenders. The emotional consequence is guilt. When you direct should statements toward others, you feel anger, frustration, and resentment.
9. Labeling and mislabeling: This is an extreme form of overgeneralization. Instead of describing your error, you attach a negative label to yourself: “I’m a loser.” When someone else’s behavior rubs you the wrong way, you attach a negative label to him, “He’s a louse.” Mislabeling involves describing an event with language that is highly colored and emotionally loaded.
10. Personalization: You see yourself as the cause of some negative external event for which, in fact, you were not primarily responsible.
What I find extremely interesting is that, after reading this list, not only do I recognize more than a handful of these distortions in my own thinkingÔÇöI see them in my students’ thinking all the time! Some of the ones I see the most are all-or-nothing thinking, disqualifying the positive, emotional reasoning, should statements, and labeling.
For example, students will work up to a level of a procedure that is particularly challenging for them, and then they’re off! “I haven’t mastered this skill with my first tryÔÇöclearly, I’m a failure. Clearly, I can’t do it. Clearly, I’m stupid.” Have you ever noticed this sort of thinking in your child, sibling, friend, or even yourself? This example illustrates all-or-nothing thinking, emotional reasoning, and labeling. This student believes that because he hasn’t achieved this one goal, he is incapable of achieving all goals. He thinks that because he feels in the moment like he can’t do it, that he actually can’t. And, he’s labeling himself as stupid to boot!
(Hint: this type of thinking is not a recipe for success.)
As a supportive observer, such as a parent, teacher, or trainer, it can be very frustrating to watch your student, who is so talented and capable, disqualify everything positive about her achievements (there we go, another distortion!) after hitting one roadblock. But what can you do about it? Unless you happen to be a trained cognitive therapist, you end up sounding like a very positive, but not very helpful, broken record: “You can do it! Just try! You can do it! Just try!” As wonderful as positive support is, when a student is feeling defeated, they sometimes equate the idea of trying with the idea of failing. (Trust meÔÇöit hasn’t been that long since I was a student, after all!)
Fortunately, as trainers, we have some amazing tools at our disposal to help us out in such circumstances. Burns suggests that, in response to all-or-nothing thinking, you break the situation down into smaller parts. Here at ERG, we use this exact strategy, but we call it setting “mini-goals.” While achieving a mini-goal may not make a student graduate to the next level, they are equally as celebrated as any other achievement. They teach the student how to not be overwhelmed by looming, seemingly impossible tasks by breaking them down into smaller, more manageable challenges. The fact is, everyone is different. Everyone learns and adapts differently, and will go through our program at extremely individual paces. Mini-goals are a necessary survival toolÔÇöfor cognitive training procedures, for academic goals, and for life.
This week, we challenge you to identify the kinds of cognitive distortions you can see in yourself and/or your child (you may find that you both experience the same distortionsÔÇösomething about apples falling from trees, perhaps?). Does your child overgeneralize that one C- to his entire academic career? Have you been trying to get your child to buckle down using should-statements, to no avail? Do you think your child’s fear of failure has her fortune-telling her future away? We’d love to hear your story. And even moreÔÇöwe’d love to show you how we address these distortions every day in our program, and how we can help.