This is part 3 of twelve articles for Assertive Communication Series.
Everybody thinks. And we are usually pretty convinced our thoughts are absolutely correct. Unfortunately, many (if not all) people with normal intelligence and without any psychological disorders do tend to think in a distorted way. To be fair, this happens in lesser or greater extent, and in specific situations. We are not saying people’s thoughts are always irreparably twisted. But here are some common examples from everyday life, and you will see how thoughts influence our feelings and our relationships.
- Black and white thinking
“You never consider how I might feel!”
“I’m stupid. Probably the dumbest person in the world.”
Any of these patterns sound familiar? Let’s be honest, we all like to stick an adjective to a person or an action. It is easier that way, the world is simple – everything is either good or bad. However, if we question each of these statements, we must admit none of them is completely true. No one is perfect (luckily, or we would all be identical), you probably aren’t stupid at all (just used to thinking you might be), and none of the “never” and “always” statements are ever fair… or correct. Black and white thinking is a cognitive habit that usually leads a person to feeling lonely, disappointed, and betrayed. Precisely because living people cannot always be anything, not good, not bad; and if anyone expects them to be, they are to face great frustration.
A patient in a psychiatric institution found a way to commit suicide there. The woman’s sister rushed to the hospital, completely frantic. Her first reaction was:” How could she do this to me?!”
Not only in such extreme stressful situations do people interpret the world as if it were rotating around them. This cognitive style is fairly common. Personification is a thinking habit that causes a person to explain everything that happens in their surroundings as if it was aimed to hurt them. However, the world is better seen from a bird perspective.
- Self-fulfilling prophecy
“Oh, I am going to make a complete fool of myself!”
“I know the party is going to be so boring…”
“They’ll never hire me.”
If a person is not being assertive, she tends to fall into the cycle of self-fulfilling prophecies easily. The mechanism is simple. If you believe that you will fail in getting a job you wanted, you will be so concentrated on this fear that it might handicap you, and you may indeed face failure. What is especially dangerous about this way of thinking is the fact that the realization of such negative prediction comes along with a blow to your confidence. So the next time you will be even more inclined into believing you will not succeed, and so on, all the way into the complex of lesser worth.
- Magical thinking
Most of us are superstitious to some level. You might accept some general beliefs, passed on to you by the culture you were raised in. Or you might have developed your own private superstitions. Did you ever have the lucky pen for your exams? This is called magical thinking – attempting to somehow control a situation by performing certain cognitive or motoric maneuvers. Mentally healthy people know that the pen does not have the power to produce good grades for them. But they feel safer that way. And we could say – well, what’s the harm of knocking on wood every once in a while, right? Well… The danger of this cognitive set lies in the fact that it might reinforce a certain life style; a life style in which the support is searched for in actions that have no power to really influence anything. You should strengthen your capabilities and your self-confidence instead.
These are the most common cognitive distortions nearly everyone can recognize in their thinking at times. You might be fully rational… except when you go to a job interview – then you put on your lucky suit. You might be so assertive, and so objective… except when you fight with your partner – then you yell “you always…!” and “you never…!” all the time.
Practice shows that there is a strong correlation between cognitive distortions and assertiveness – less assertiveness, more thinking mistakes. And the more cognitive distortions a person has, the harder it is to stay assertive, develop oneself, and build healthy relationships! Thinking mistakes are the easy way out – take the right one instead.