Distorting reality: Seven ways to misinterpret what is happening
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 Becks 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 you tend to see all the things that are wrong but ignore the positives, then you are filtering. Here are some examples:
Do you ever find yourself seeing all thats going wrong in your life but ignoring the things that are going right? Its 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 wouldnt 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:
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:
Another way of jumping to a conclusion is to treat beliefs about the future as though they were realities rather than just predictions:
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:
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:
Personalising can make you feel self-conscious, guilty, or responsible for events you may not have caused including other peoples problems and emotions.
Keeping in touch with reality
How can you stop distorting 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.
Sometimes it is hard to know for sure just what is going on. You wont 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.