How To Stop Negative Thinking From Ruining Interpersonal Relationships

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Negative thinking and self-talk — or cognitive distortions — is one of the best examples of self-sabotage that can lead to social isolation and depression.

As a psychologist specializing in the treatment of eating disorders, I see a lot of this sort of cognitive distortion.

Many adult patients weighing under 100 pounds insist that they were "too fat" and could not go to their best friend’s wedding, despite being in the entourage.

When self-worth is tied up in how much you weigh, how smart you are, how rich you are, or how glamorous your job is, it makes it hard to keep it real in a relationship.

Being more mindful of these errors in thinking, which is the focus of Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) frees you up to be yourself in relationships.

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Here are 3 ways your negative thoughts ruin your relationships, and how to stop cognitive distortions from doing major damage.

1. Catastrophizing: magnification and minimization.

"What if I don't get this project in on time? My boss will fire me. "

Those who catastrophize give more weight to a perceived failure, weakness, or threat, but less weight to a perceived success, strength, or opportunity.

It's usually different from the weight assigned by others that the person is often accused of "making a mountain out of a molehill."

When people engage in catastrophizing as the way they see the world, they expect disaster to strike at the drop of a hat, referred to as "magnifying or minimization."

The problem is that they begin to live their lives as if a disaster is about to strike.

So, if the person working on a deadline realizes that he's not going to be done on time, he may magnify the problem and the potential negative outcomes and minimize the value he adds.

He may engage in all-or-nothing thinking and become defensive with his boss, believing that he'll get fired anyway, so it doesn’t really matter.

This behavior can become a self-fulfilling prophecy, especially if the boss interprets the behavior to be hostile for no apparent reason.

Another way that catastrophizing ends up as a self-fulling prophecy is giving up without trying: "I don’t have what it takes to be a good father/boyfriend/wife/student, so I'm not even going to try."

We all catastrophize from time to time.

Thanksgiving is "ruined" because someone brought the wrong cranberry sauce and the turkey took a bit longer than expected. But if we let it ruin the event for us, we've lost sight of what Thanksgiving is all about.

Some of this is normal. The problem is if it happens all the time — or if we base our behaviors on the assumptions that we are making — and those assumptions turn out to be wrong.

A good clue that your catastrophizing is wearing thin for family and friends. If you find yourself in a bad mood a lot, but you notice that people aren’t rushing to share the experience with you, then you may be stuck in this cognitive distortion. 

So, how do you get off the hamster wheel of anxiety when you sense disaster looming? Ask yourself the following questions:

  • "Is it really as bad as I am making it seem?"
  • "Has it been this bad before and not ended in disaster?"
  • "Am I blowing this out of proportion?" (This is key.)

2. Labeling and mislabeling.

"Overweight people are lazy, and since I'm overweight, I'm lazy."

"Women are too emotional."

Labeling is an error of thinking characterized by generalizing one or two negative qualities and applying them to every situation without any consideration for context.

In DBT terms, labeling is an example of the sort of judging that actually raises cortisol levels, making us feel anxious and helpless.

When something bad happens once, a person who has this error of thinking will ignore all other successes and label themselves or others with this nature of failure for all time.

They use linear thinking — A causes B.

"I overate and gained two pounds, which means that I have no willpower or self-discipline. I'll always be fat and ugly."

"I've only lost unwanted weight in the past by restricting and then purging what I eat, so that's the only way I'll be able to lose weight going forward.

Global labeling has no complexity or nuance. There's no room for the exception to the rule or the impact of circumstances.

When projected outward towards others, global labeling can really represent some of the worst kind of thinking, like stereotyping and prejudice. Expect snap judgments and relationship problems when someone is thinking this way.

If you're labeling yourself, you are damaging your self-esteem. You owe it to yourself to shake this error of thinking.

So how do you do that?

  • Take a DBT training program, which will help you to suspend judgment in general.
  • Ask yourself, "Am I giving an accurate account of what happened? Am I providing context? Or am I just negatively labeling myself and others?"
  • When considering your thoughts about others, ask yourself, "Am I considering this person as an individual? Or am I lumping them into a group based on only one or two characteristics or experiences I’ve had with them or other people like them?"

This is particularly important these days with politics being so polarizing in the U.S. Some families can't make it through a meal without someone leaving in a huff of anger.

RELATED: How To Stop Negative Thoughts From Controlling Your Life

3. Emotional reasoning.

"If I feel this way, so it must be true."

This distortion of emotional reasoning can be summed up by the statement above. For example, if you fear flying in a plane, then planes must be dangerous.

Whatever a person is feeling is believed to be true automatically and unconditionally. They are usually very well-defended in their beliefs that trying to shake the belief is virtually impossible.

This is because emotions are extremely strong in some people and can overrule any rational thoughts and reasoning.

If a person feels stupid and boring, then they are stupid and boring. If an adult anorexic feels fat, even when they weigh less than an eight-year-old child, they are fat.

One of the offshoots in U.S. society of the predominance of this type of thinking is the new colloquialism of people stating a thought as a feeling: "I feel like the sign should be on the outside of the building where more people could see it."

This is not a feeling. It's a thought, belief, or an opinion. It's not a feeling.

But because we've all come to place such high value on feelings being a form of truth, instead of an actual feeling, we're reinforcing this logical fallacy by stating all thoughts as feelings.

I think the other reason we do this in the U.S. is that we are actually afraid to state an opinion, but we are OK with stating a feeling. Who can argue with a feeling?

The problem is we are stating an opinion as a feeling. It’s nuts!

I notice this much more with women than with men, and I believe it's because women have found ways to express their thoughts without offending anyone.

Another version of this is putting "just" in front of every thought — "I just think it would be better…"

Or you combine the "just" with the "feeling thought" — "I just feel that we can make our point better if we..."

Seriously?

That's why understanding the difference between thoughts and feelings is essential to having healthy relationships while you live your life to the fullest.

RELATED: How To Stop Comparing Your Life To Everyone Else's

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Renae Norton is a psychologist and offers an alternative to inpatient treatment for severe cases of anorexia, bulimia, or a combination of the two. For more information, visit her website, Eating Disorder Pro.

This article was originally published at Eating Disorder Pro. Reprinted with permission from the author.