We constantly interpret what goes on around us — what others do or say, events we observe, and things we read in the newspaper or see on TV. We also interpret things that have happened in the past, or which may happen in the future. In addition, we interpret our own actions, and even the physical sensations and emotional changes happening inside us.
By interpreting, I mean that we draw conclusions about what we think is happening. Sometimes our interpretations are correct, but often they are wrong.
Seven ways to get things wrong
Psychiatrist Aaron Beck has studied and listed the ways people can get things out of perspective. His research shows that our feelings are in proportion to how we describe events and situations, rather than to the actual intensity of those things themselves. The main ways in which we can misinterpret things that happen, adapted from Dr Beck’s list, are presented here.
People often see things in extremes, with no middle ground — good or bad, perfect versus useless, success or failure, right against wrong, moral versus immoral, and so on. By doing this, they miss the reality that things rarely are one way or the other but usually somewhere in-between. In other words, there are shades of grey. Another name for this distortion is all-or-nothing thinking. It involves self-talk like:
‘If it’s not perfect, then it’s useless.’
‘If you don’t love me, then you must hate me.’
‘Either I succeed, or I’m a total failure.’
‘If I mess up this part, I may as well give up the whole thing.’
If you tend to see all the things that are wrong but ignore the positives, then you are filtering. Here are some examples:
‘I can’t see anything good about my situation.’
‘I don’t have any good points.’
‘There’s no hope.’
‘All I get is pain.’
Do you ever find yourself seeing all that’s going wrong in your life but ignoring the things that are going right? It’s easy to take the positives for granted because they are part of everyday life. What about, for instance, the fact that you are capable of reading this book? What other positives can you bring to mind that are so basic you wouldn’t normally be conscious of them?
People often build up one thing about themselves or their circumstances and end up thinking that it represents the whole situation or happens all the time, or is part of a never-ending pattern. For example:
‘Everything’s going wrong.’
‘Nothing I do ever turns out right.’
‘I’ll always be a failure.’
‘There’s no hope.’
There are various ways in which we can jump to a conclusion without enough evidence. One of these is mind-reading — making guesses about what other people are thinking:
‘She ignored me on purpose.’
‘You don’t really love me.’
‘They think I’m boring.’
‘You’re only saying that because . . . ‘
Another way of jumping to a conclusion is to treat beliefs about the future as though they were realities rather than just predictions:
‘I’ll be depressed for ever.’
‘I’ll never get another job.’
‘Things can only get worse.’
Yet another way to leap to a conclusion is to tell yourself that because you feel a certain way, this is how it really is:
‘I feel like a failure, so I must be one.’
‘If I’m angry, you must have done something to make me so.’
‘I wouldn’t be worrying if there wasn’t something to worry about.’
‘Because I feel unattractive, I must be.’
Emotional reasoning can, for example, keep you thinking anger is ‘justified’, sustain a vicious circle of self-downing, or make worrying feed on itself.
You can also jump to a conclusion by thinking that something is directly connected with you:
‘Everyone is looking at me.’
‘That criticism was meant for me.’
‘It must have been me that made her feel bad.’
‘He didn’t return my greeting. What did I do?’
Personalising can make you feel self-conscious, guilty, or responsible for events you may not have caused — including other people’s problems and emotions.
Keeping in touch with reality
How can you stop distorting reality?
For a start, catch yourself doing it. Know the cues to watch for: looking at things in extremes, only seeing negatives, building up the bad points in a situation (be it past, present or future), ‘reading’ other people’s minds, predicting the future, assuming that what you feel is reality, and relating everything back to yourself.
Watch especially for rigid thinking. When you find yourself resisting other ways of viewing something, this could be a sign that you are locking yourself into a narrowed, distorted viewpoint.
Stop using words which exaggerate — like always, forever, totally, all, everything, everybody, nothing, nobody, never and the like.
Get things back into balance — by looking for the side of the picture you have been filtering out. Make a list, for example, of the positives and the negatives. If you cannot find both, you know you are distorting reality. Few things are either one way or the other — so keep listing.
Develop the habit of sticking to the facts — as far as you can unearth them. When you think you might be jumping to conclusions, ask yourself, ‘What evidence do I have for assuming this? Is it the most likely explanation for the facts available? Are there any others which may be just as valid?’
If you are worrying about something, rate the chances of it happening on a scale of, say, 0–100 per cent. Being this specific will help you clarify vague predictions.
Finally, if it is possible, check out your interpretation of something you are concerned about and see how it compares with reality.
Getting things back into perspective
Take a look at the list of typical distortions below. Alongside each, to show ‘in-perspective’ thinking, is a more realistic alternative.
I’m a total failure. I failed this time.
Everything’s wrong. I’m facing some problems at present.
It’s got to be done perfectly or not at all. I’d prefer to get it just right, but less than perfect will do.
This is totally wrong. I disagree with some aspects of this.
She made me angry. I don’t like what she did, but I made myself angry by the way I viewed it.
She did it because she hates me. I don’t know why she did it. There’s more than one possible explanation.
Everyone will think I’m stupid. Some people may be critical of me.
I’ll never be happy again. Sure, things aren’t so good now. But how do I know what the future holds?
All I get is pain. I get a lot of pain. But there are also some good things that happen — if I’d only be prepared to notice them.
Sometimes it is hard to know for sure just what is going on. You won’t always have enough information to be certain. But it is important to at least recognise that there may be more than one way to interpret a given situation. By doing so you can avoid jumping to erroneous and possibly harmful conclusions.
That could be the best way to avoid distorting reality: retain a healthy scepticism about it.