Over the last few weeks, my Perspectives co-contributors Dr. Rob Lees and Eryn Wicker have introduced several kinds of cognitive distortions. These include the bad mental habit of “fortune telling” and superstitious thinking and the negative impact these habits can have on our thoughts, feelings, and behaviours. What cognitive distortions all have in common is that they contribute to us feeling down, helpless, defeated and less resilient. We can fall into the overgeneralization trap very easily. If I hit a red light at Five Corners I might think “I always get this red light.” I need to balance this out by consciously recalling all the times the light is green and I cruise through the intersection without needing to stop.
Yesterday I was in Vancouver and I overheard a parent saying to her daughter, “Don’t lose this backpack; you always lose things.” I do not know this young girl, so perhaps at eight years old she has lost everything she’s ever owned. It is possible that her bedroom is completely bare, and every plaything, item of clothing, and toothbrush had disappeared. However, what is more likely is that over the course of her life, she had lost some items. Perhaps last year she left her backpack on the bus, and her sweater at the park, and her PE strip at school a few times. The overgeneralization her mother is exhibiting consists of taking examples (whether one or 100) and applying them as a blanket over this girl’s entire previous experience and into the future. I don’t want to, ahem, over generalize and assume this mother in the throes of back-to-school shopping always models this cognitive distortion for her daughter. However, consistent overgeneralization is not a healthy habit and makes it very easy to believe in a negatively skewed view of the world.
Challenging mental bad habits is one of the most important things we can do for the children and young people in our lives to help them. The young person who gets called a name and then says, “Everyone thinks I’m clumsy” can be gently challenged whether this is true or not. We can shrug things off more easily and keep trying when we tell ourselves more balanced self-talk like, “Shannon must be having a bad day to be calling me names,” or “Miranda and Sheila don’t think I’m clumsy.” Asking, “Can you think of a time when you had juice without spilling it?” is a good place to start.
These bad mental habits can become pretty sneaky, and appear almost automatically in our minds. Start a bad mental habits detective club with a child or young person in your life and see if you can replace over generalizations with more balanced and positive thoughts. Recognizing and correcting the negative messages in our minds with more accurate and positive ones can have a terrific impact on our mental well-being.
Marie Amos, MA, Registered Clinical Counsellor, is a Mental Health Therapist with Child and Youth Mental Health of MCFD, Chilliwack.