Just because you think something doesn't make it true. Yet, you likely believe your brain when it casts doubt on your abilities or when it tells you that people don't like you even though there's little evidence supporting such statements.

In psychology, we call those irrational thoughts cognitive distortions. And those distortions can rob you of mental strength.

Your inner monologue influences how you feel and how you behave. Learning how to develop healthy self-talk is the key to building mental muscle and creating your best life.

While there are several types of cognitive distortions, David Burns categorized them in his book, Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy. And there are seven types of thinking errors that will take the largest toll on mental muscles:

1. Personalization

As much as you might like to think you don't assume the world revolves around you, there's a good chance you personalize things sometimes. If someone doesn't call back, you might think, "She must be mad at me," or if a co-worker is grumpy, you might assume, "He doesn't like me." But, personalizing issues will affect your responses and your relationships in a harmful way.

2. Catastrophizing

Catastrophic thoughts can easily turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy. Thinking, "I'll never pass this test," might prevent you from studying because you decide there's no sense in trying. And while you're taking the exam, you might be so discouraged and anxious that you can't concentrate--which ultimately causes you to fail.  

3. Filtering Out the Positive

Ignoring the good and focusing on the bad gives you an unrealistic look at life. But, it's easy to recall only the bad things that happened and to put your energy into the things--or people--you dislike. But, developing a more realistic and balanced outlook requires you to look at both the negative and the positive.

4. Overgeneralizing

If you fail to close one deal, you might declare, "I'm bad at sales," but taking a specific situation and generalizing it to your bigger life is likely to be inaccurate. But believing your overgeneralizations will limit your choices and decrease your effort.

5. Mind-Reading

You never really know what other people are thinking. But, it's easy to make assumptions by thinking things like, "My boss thought I was an idiot for rambling at that meeting," or "My mother-in-law thinks I'm selfish." Those conclusions can affect the way you interact and communicate with others. But there's a good chance your assumptions are completely off-base.

6. Emotional Reasoning

Emotions usually aren't grounded in reality, but it's easy to confuse your feelings for gut instinct. Telling yourself, "If I feel this anxious about launching my own business, I wasn't meant to be an entrepreneur." But acting contrary to your feelings--like facing your fears--helps you build mental strength.

7. Unreal Ideal

Social media makes it difficult to avoid the unreal ideal. But comparing yourself to someone who is more successful or someone who has more than you do, isn't healthy. It discounts all the advantages someone else may have granted--and all the obstacles you may have encountered along the way.  

Replace Irrational Thoughts With More Realistic Statements

When you learn to recognize your thinking errors you can begin challenging those thoughts. Look for evidence that both supports and refutes your inner dialogue and you'll see that your thoughts aren't completely true.  

You can also look for exceptions to the rule. Ask yourself, "Do I always mess up when I'm in interviews?" Then practice replacing that thought with something more realistic, such as, "Sometimes, I don't answer interview questions fully, but I answer others in a way that reflect my experience and expertise."

Your goal shouldn't be to fill your head with exaggeratedly positive thoughts. But, you can strive to develop a more realistic and productive inner dialogue.

Changing your thought patterns requires effort in the beginning. But exercising your brain builds more mental muscle. Over time, you'll notice big changes--not just in the way you think, but also in the way you feel and how you behave. 

Published on: Mar 5, 2018