Thought Mistakes (Virus Definitions)

The basic principle is to argue with your negative thoughts. Doing it in writing is better than doing it in your head. How do you argue with your thoughts? Write one down and then imagine your worst enemy said it to you, and then argue against it. Read more about the basic technique here.

When you’re arguing with your statements, it helps to have specific things to look for in your statements. You can look for specific common mistakes in your negative thoughts — to work from a list and check your statements against the list. This is the way a computer’s antivirus program works.

With most antivirus programs, you constantly get updates. These are definitions of new viruses. As new viruses are created, the antivirus people make a definition of it. Then the antivirus program scans your computer looking for those specific definitions — basically checking the content of your computer against its list of virus definitions.

What if we could do something similar with our antivirus program for your mind? What if you had some “virus definitions” and all you had to do was scan your thoughts looking for them?

Cognitive scientists have made several such lists. They are all fairly similar and cover the same ground because the human brain only makes mistakes in certain specific, definable ways. So your virus definition list doesn’t need to be constantly updated.

Shortly I will give you a list of the finite number of common mistakes people make when they explain setbacks. At the end of this chapter will be the list by itself, so you can use it more easily. Right now we’ll go through each thought-mistake one at a time and explain what it is.

With this list you can search through your own negative thoughts and see if you’re making any of the mistakes. To see clearly what you’re trying to do, let’s imagine you’re searching through someone else’s negative thoughts and finding mistakes in them.

Imagine you receive a letter from your closest male friend. He is on vacation and you haven’t seen him in a month. But in his letter, he clearly has had some sort of crisis. He is despairing and upset. One of the paragraphs of his letter goes like this:

I realized nobody really cares about me and I’ve never done a good thing in my whole life. I have problems I can’t do anything about. Nothing I do will make any difference.

Let’s say you can’t call him because he’s in the Australian outback or something. You have to write him back. What would you say? Among other things, you would want to straighten him out on a few things, wouldn’t you? First of all, you know of at least one person who really cares about him: You. You would want to point out his exaggerations and overstatements and tell him his point of view is only narrow because he is upset right now. He’s not seeing the whole picture. He’s ignoring some genuine positives in his life.

You may try to do it nicely, but you will try very hard to point out that some of his thoughts are mistaken.

When you are cleaning out your own mind when you feel bad, you are essentially doing the same thing. You’re finding mistakes in your negative thinking — mistakes that make you feel worse than you really should. When you look at a negative thought and realize it is mistaken, you feel better — instantly.

Imagine another situation. You have two kids and a spouse. You are always telling them to lock the door when they leave the house. Today you come home from work to find nobody home and the house unlocked. You start to get mad, thinking about what you’re going to say when you suddenly realize you were the last one to leave the house, and you forgot to lock it.

Do you realize how fast your emotions would change? The instant you realized you were mistaken, your emotions would change. The anger would change to embarrassment or even laughter. Instantly.

The same goes with these thought-mistakes. As soon as you recognize one of your thoughts was mistaken, your emotions change.

When you write down your negative thoughts and stare at them and can’t find anything wrong with them, check them against these thought-mistakes. Sometimes it is not obvious what is mistaken about your negative thoughts. That’s what this list is for.

You don’t have to memorize the list. Right now just read through the descriptions to get a good idea of all the different ways the human brain (and its natural way of working) makes mistakes.

1. exaggerating
2. overgeneralizing
3. oversimplifying
4. extremism
5. overcertainty
6. negative guessing
7. self-defeating conclusions
8. false implications
9. choosing the worst possible explanation
10. false helplessness
11. false hopelessness
12. shoulds and musts
13. misplacing responsibility
14. focusing too narrowly
15. harmful judging
16. asking unanswerable questions
17. bias for confirmation
18. using emotions as evidence
19. dismissing facts
20. ignoring alternatives
21. assuming
22. negative bias

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