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life through a clear lens: how to stop distorting your thoughts

A photograph is usually looked, 
but seldom looked into.

Ansel Adams

Thoughts are like photographs. We take an image, something that is what it is, and we can change it. We can get closer or farther from it. We can see it in black in white or in color. We can choose to zoom in on a specific portion of the picture. The ideas and images we photograph in our minds can be altered with different lenses. They can be distorted and changed not only by the variety of lenses we are looking through but also by the various ways we develop the the film. Thoughts are amazing. They can be wonderful and useful, but they can also be very far from what is reality (but what, really, is reality?).

Yesterday, I came across a list of thinking distortions. This was posted by Travllr in a comment section on Yahoo! Answers, so I'm not entirely sure who to credit the information to. Travllr noted that David Burns, in his book Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy, identified the most prominent types of thinking distortions that cause people to upset themselves. I'm not entirely sure if these are his ideas or if he just referenced them in his book. Either way, I'm grateful that I found them. I think I'm guilty of a lot of them and I bet most people are from time to time.

Like taking a photograph, sometimes it's very hard to capture the world, and our interactions with others, as they actually are. It is often hard for us, after images and thoughts and ideas travel through our minds, to have them come out looking the same as they did when they went in. We are all burdened with backgrounds and opinions and life experiences and personalities that affect the way we perceive the world. When you take a moment to think about how different we all are, it's a wonder that we can communicate with each other at all! Take a look at the list of thinking distortions. (Note: I've broken them up a little differently than they were in the comments on Yahoo!) Below each distortion I've written my ideas about how you can avoid each type of distortion to bring clarity and positivity to your thoughts.


13 Thinking Distortions

  1. All or nothing thinking.
    Seeing things in black and white; anything short of perfection is seen as failure.

  2. Over-generalization.
    Seeing a single negative event as a never-ending pattern of defeat. 

  3. Mental filter.
    Dwelling on a single negative detail that colors all reality.
  4. Disqualifying the positive.
    Rejecting positive experiences to sustain negative beliefs.

  5. Jumping to conclusions.
    Making negative conclusions not supported by facts.

  6. Mind reading.
    Arbitrarily concluding others are reacting negatively to you without verification.

  7. Fortune telling.
    Anticipating, and experiencing as an established fact, things turning out badly.

  8. Magnification.
    Exaggerating the importance of things.

  9. Minimization.
    Inappropriately reducing the value of things or qualities of others.

  10. Emotional reasoning.
    Assuming negative emotions reflect the way things really are.

  11. Labeling.
    Attaching labels to yourself and others and describing events in emotionally-loaded phrases.

  12. Should statements.
    Motivating yourself with "shoulds" and "should nots" which results in guilt and anger.

  13. Personalization.
    Seeing yourself as the cause for events which you had no control over.


As I mentioned, I stumbled across these accidentally, which just goes to show that you never know what you'll find when you look around! I wanted to share with you what the commenter, Travllr, wrote about these distortions. S/he called these thinking distortions the "little foxes." When s/he is feeling upset due to a thinking distortion, s/he identifies which of the "foxes" is disturbing her and says to that fox, "Shoo!" Eventually, according to Travllr, tranquility returns once the fox has been scared away. So how can YOU scare these distortions away? Keep reading...


How To Stop Distorting Your Thoughts

  • Be positive. This sounds simple, but keeping up a positive attitude, no matter what's going on in your life, can really help you to see things more clearly and avoid being trapped by distortion. 

  • Be present. Stay in the moment. Think about the now. You are where you are and you are only wasting time if you are focusing on the past (which is over) or obsessing about the future (which might not play out the way you imagine). 

  • Be controlling. You can control the way you perceive a situation and the world around you. It's not always easy, but you have have power to think about things the way you want to think about them -- so try thinking about the positive. 

  • Be mindful. Be aware of what you are feeling when you are thinking. Sit with your emotions and figure out why you are having them. Once you recognize the distortions and can identify them, you'll be more unlikely to be dismissive of your reactions. Pay attention to what you think.


I'm sure there are tons and tons of ways to avoid distorting your thoughts, but these are the ones that seem to resonate most with me. Don't beat yourself up for having distorted thoughts from time to time; it's hard not to. Think about it like a roll of film (old fashioned, I know!). You take a whole roll, all of your thoughts, and there are bound to be a few that are a little fuzzy or aren't aiming quite where you wanted them to. Being more careful and conscious of how you think should help you create clearer thoughts and clearer thoughts mean better communication with others. Keep adjusting your lens and watching the world from different angles and, before you know it, you'll the get picture you've been looking for.