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Look After Your Mind No. 5
Tricks of the Mind 2

Last time we began to explore the idea that certain kinds of thinking can be unhelpful and in fact detrimental to our emotional wellbeing. These so-called ‘cognitive distortions’ often happen quite automatically - they are habits that have developed over time. Perhaps we learned them unwittingly from our parents (in my case Mum and Dad were dreadful worriers, and I picked up the tendency to be the same from them through my childhood and teenage years); though our culture also has a powerful effect - just look at the sensationalist headlines that frequently appear in some tabloid newspapers. Fortunately once we become aware of these habits we can begin to train ourselves out of them.


Further common unhelpful habits of thought include:

Catastrophising. This is where our thoughts automatically jump to the worst that could possibly happen. Also known as ‘maximising or minimising’, some people tend to exaggerate the magnitude of trivial events, such as some minor error we have made, or shrink the importance of significant issues such as a personal achievement. Catastrophising can be countered by deliberately considering a range of possible outcomes and striving for a sense of balance in reflecting on issues and events that involve us.


Personalisation. In other words, taking things personally. So we might pass by some people laughing and think they are laughing at us. Or we are unavoidably late for a dinner engagement and feel a sense of blame that we kept the hosts waiting, or if the food is overcooked. Again, a calm and deliberate reassessment of possible causes and ways of reacting begins to challenge this unhelpful habit of thinking.


Taking on other people’s pain. This is also called a ‘control fallacy’. It shows itself commonly as a tendency to feel that we are the helpless victims of fate, creating a kind of mental inertia that there is nothing we can do about our circumstances. In other words we feel externally controlled.


While this may indeed sometimes be true, it’s always worth considering whether direct positive action can be taken to alter the situation.

A variation of the control fallacy is to feel that we are responsible for other people’s happiness or woe. This is not the same as empathy (understanding the feelings of others), but tends rather to be more of a passive ‘wallowing’ in feelings of guilt or a misplaced sense of accountability. Calm reflection on the reality of the situation helps to correct this way of thinking.

More next time.


Steve Bowkett
ssue 398
January 2018

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