Our beliefs are no more than a point of view that may not be true.
Wilding & Palmer
In order to prove our thoughts to be rational, or irrational, we challenge them by offering up a few other alternatives for the same event. Think about what other alternatives thoughts we can have for it – “Maybe I failed my test because I did not spend time studying for it.” Being able to see possible thoughts side by side allows us to rationally ask ourselves – which one actually happened? More importantly, we need to ask ourselves for evidence.
- What is the evidence that supports the initial thought?
- What is the evidence that goes against the initial thought?
- What is the evidence that supports the alternative thought?
- What is the evidence that goes against the alternative thought?
It may turned out that your initial thought was rational, and you have proven it to be grounded in reality. Or you may find that an alternative thought is more grounded.
Psychologists have identified these ungrounded thoughts as thinking errors. Once we make them, we tend to stick to them, just like we stick to our beliefs. If we can recognize the common thinking errors, it will make it easier to challenge them.
- Generalizing the specific – We come to a general conclusion based on a single incident or piece of evidence. You fail one test and decide you can never succeed. You use words such as “always”, “never”, “nobody”, and “everyone”.
- Mind reading – We “know” what other people are thinking, and why they act the way they do. Do you find yourself saying “I don’t think she likes me”, “I know they don’t want to invite me to happy hour because I’m boring”.
- Filtering – We magnify what we want to focus on, positive or negative, while filtering out all other aspects of the same event.
- Polarized thinking – We think of situations or events in extremes. If I’m not perfect, then I must be a failure. There is no middle ground.
- Catastrophizing – We expect disaster, and start with the “What ifs?”. We ask what if the worst possible thing that can happen, and then decide we cannot cope.
- Personalization – We think everything that other people do or say is a reaction to us.
The Power of Why
In order to go into a deeper level to uncover our beliefs, and challenge them, we need to keep digging. Our beliefs may be rooted in a traumatic event in the past, or a buildup of information over time. Our thoughts are only on the surface, and by asking why, we can get to the true belief that has stayed hidden all along.
- I should not apply for the promotion
- Because I probably will not get it
- Because I am not good enough for anything
- Because I've always been a failure
- Because I've always disappointed my parents
To challenge the belief of “I am not good enough for anything”, we need to start looking for evidence in the deepest layer.
- Was there a time that your parents are proud of you?
- Was there a time that your were praised for your accomplishments?
- What are you good at?
- What makes you a good candidate for this promotion?
There is no impossible dreams, just out limited perceptions of what is possible.
Beth Mende Conny
Wilding, Christine and Palmer, Stephen. Beat Low Self-Esteem with CBT. Ohio: McGraw-Hill, 2010.
Whitten, Helen. Cognitive Behavioral Coaching Techniques for Dummies. England: John Wiley & Son, Ltd, 2009.