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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.


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I'm thrilled by this article. I use the list of distortions you mention all the time, in managing my thinking and in helping my clients do the same. With consistent use, this tool can create long term changes in the way we think and react emotionally; it's one of the best out there. It's great to see it in an article :)

I love the idea of shooing little foxes...

Great post and I love the whole concept of "Keep adjusting your lens" ... :)

Eduard - Thanks! I'm so glad you liked this post and could relate to it. I also feel that I do a lot of these and I'm doing my best to create long-term changes in my life by being aware of the way I think.

Topi - Me too! I was really happy when I came across that idea because it's such a great visual image.

Fatima - Thank you! I'm so happy you liked the post and the concept of adjusting your lens. I recently got a brand new camera that I'm super excited about so this post fits really well with what's going on in my life right now.

Hi Dani ! - A superb list ! Ah these tricky little foxes.. Just a little remark on Spontaneity :

I have been told – by learned sources – that when a truly musician plays, and his playing sounds so free and spontaneous, that the listener has no idea of the amount of non-spontaneous
work, study, scholarship, analysis, and “planning” required to achieve these spontaneous effects.
I shall not argue the point. I only wish to say that if it is true, it leads me to the amazing realization that spontaneity does not come by itself.

P.S. - Just a add on to thinking :
Intuition verses Reason

I find it remarkable when people argue about this ! Argument involves reason which is already loading the dice. When reason itself is on trial, one can hardly expect reason to be the judge! When people on the side of reason claim reason to be more reliable than intuition, they give reasons to support their belief. Those on the side of intuition tells them that intuition is superior than reason.
Can reason be in conflict with intuition ? Why certainly ! There are false reasons and false intuitions. But valid reason cannot be in conflict with valid intuition, since truth cannot be in conflict with truth. The real question for any person is which is more reliable – his intuition or his reason ! For another person to say “you should trust your intuition” or “you should trust your reason” is obviously foolish; how does he know ?
Well, which should the person trust ? How do I know ? Well how should you decide which to trust ? By consulting your reason or intuition ? I don’t know either.

One thing I do know : Certain people called “rationalists” make the definite claim that the only reliable road to knowledge is through science and reason. This claim is one of the most remarkable dogmas I have ever heard ! I have seen many reasons given to support this claim, but they are unbelievably bad! Yet, the claim maybe true . It may be true but not provable (not even with significantly high probability ). I myself do not know of a single valid reason to support the claim. But my intuition may be wrong. In which case, the claim is true, despite its unprovability by its adherents. I would not be surprised if rationalists recognize the truth of this and claim by virtue of some mystical intuition which I lack.

I enjoyed this post. Not only do we distort our thoughts, but our thoughts distort us! Ingrained beliefs affect our view. Our view affects our reactions. Our reactions dictate the majority of the outcomes we experience. It is important to back-track to the original beliefs, and lose those that don't serve us, in order to more consistently change our view and as a result, our lives! Thanks.

A brilliant post! I love the comparison of thoughts with photographs. It really makes it crystal clear.

Distortion of thoughts is something we can easily do without any awareness - yet it's with great awareness that we adjust our photos.

You've given me a lot to ponder with this - in a very good and profound way. Thank you for the insight!!

I think being open minded and accepting new ideas is a great way to see life through a clear lens too :)

Michael - Thank you for your wonderful insights! You've raised so many great points (and I particularly love your analysis of intuition and reason) and raised a number of great questions. I really appreciate the feedback and the fact that you took the time to add some great ideas to this post. Thanks!

H&W - I'm happy to know you enjoyed it! That's a great point about how our thoughts distort us. It's so true, which is why it's important that we understand then and recognize the power they have in our lives.

Aileen - Thanks! I'm glad the analogy worked for you! I agree that awareness is the key to understand our thoughts and it's so important to recognize this. It's the first step towards seeing life through a clear lens.

Faizal - Great points! Open-mindedness and acceptance really are essential elements for seeing life through a clear lens.

Distortions are an interesting thing. I think one of the most effective techniques combines critical thinking with writing it down. It's the triple column technique by Dr. Burns. I works by arguing with your thoughts in an objective way.

J.D. - Yes, they are. I like the idea of combining thoughts with actual words on paper. Often once you write something down you realize how it may be distorted. Thanks for that tip!

This is such an awesomely important post! If we can't control what goes on with our own thoughts we don't put out amazing clear energy to attract the best to us. The one I have worked on most in the last year is all or nothing thinking and it has made a huge difference in my life. :)

CC - I agree that it's so important to understand how we distort our thoughts (and what we can do to stop doing that). When I really pay attention to my thoughts and reference these possible distortions, I learn a lot about myself and I have an opportunity to transform the way I think.

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