Overcoming Distorted Thinking Patterns to Reach Goals

Asperger’s & NLD Career Letter, January, 2018

Many of the clients I coach experience cognitive distortions that hamper their job search or ability to get along with co-workers. The term refers to a habitual pattern of negative thinking that results in the misreading of people and situations.

A cognitive distortion works like this: Something happens and a person immediately forms a negative conclusion as to why. The person then acts on the conclusion without considering whether the conclusion makes sense.

Kyle was seeking an entry level position in Web site design. In one month of job seeking he had participated in three interviews. When he did not receive a job offer, Kyle concluded that he had “no talent” and that “no one will hire me.” We analyzed the situation logically, and more realistic explanations emerged: the other candidates may have had more experience; Kyle might need more practice with interviewing skills; his expectations about a job search were incorrect (most job searches take several months).

Dr. David Burns identified 10 common patterns of distorted thinking in his classic book, Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy (1). He discovered that changing the way we think about events in our lives can reduce feelings of anxiety, depression, and other negative emotions. Do you recognize any of these patterns in your thinking?

  1. Polarized (all or nothing) thinking: seeing people and situations in absolute terms, such as good or bad, right or wrong, smart or stupid.
  2. Catastrophizing: the tendency to exaggerate the potential for negative outcomes. Your boss points out one error in an assignment, and you decide that he’s getting ready to fire you.
  3. Shoulds:” a strict set of rules about how people, including yourself, are supposed to act or do things, with exaggerated consequences if a rule is violated. Ellen thinks that colleagues should always meet deadlines, or be fired.
  4. Personalization: assuming that you are the reason that someone behaved in a certain way, without considering other explanations: “Todd didn’t say hello to me because he doesn’t like me.”
  5. Jumping to conclusions: Mind reading, where you conclude that someone is reacting negatively to you, without any evidence that this is true: “Dan didn’t fix my computer because he wants my projects to be late;” or fortune telling, which is anticipating what could go wrong as an established fact: “The project will fail and I’ll lose my job.”
  6. Labeling: assigning negative labels to yourself or other people without having evidence to support that conclusion: “My co-workers are selfish and unsupportive because they wouldn’t cover for me;” or “The division head is an idiot for not giving me the promotion.”
  7. Filtering: paying attention only to negative information and filtering out positive information. Jill obsessed over one “needs improvement” in her performance review, and ignored the overall rating of “exceeds expectations” and the recommendation that she receive a raise.
  8. Disqualifying positives: insisting that positive experiences don’t count: “Anyone could have received the award.”
  9. Emotional reasoning: the belief that your feelings are the truth: “I feel stupid, so I must be stupid;” or “I’m worried about losing my job, so they must be ready to fire me.”
  10. Overgeneralization: global statements about one-time events. Because you entered one wrong formula into a spreadsheet, you believe that you’re no good at budgeting. Or, you get off at the wrong subway stop and believe that you cannot use public transportation.

Distorted thinking patterns originate with the thought you have about an event, not the event itself. Your thought leads to an emotion, and you react based on that feeling. The first step to changing a distorted thinking pattern is to connect your thoughts to the behavior you want to change.

Kyle realized that he over-generalized the interview experience to mean that he would “never” be hired. Next, he challenged the negative thought and replaced it with one that was more realistic. His new thought was, “As I improve my interviewing skills, employers will understand my capabilities and I will be hired.”

Developing a new pattern of thinking takes time and practice. It is critical that you believe a new thought to be true, or the process will not work. Focus on the positive outcome associated with the new thought. Set a goal and begin taking action. Kyle’s goal was to have a job within 3 months. He started reading about job interviewing, and we practiced how to respond to questions in our coaching sessions. Three and a half months later, he was hired.

1 Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy, D.D. Burns (1980, 1999, pgs. 42 – 43), Avon Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

Copyright 2018, Barbara Bissonnette, Forward Motion Coaching