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Published on May 5, 2020

4 Steps of Cognitive Restructuring to Help You Think Clearly

4 Steps of Cognitive Restructuring to Help You Think Clearly

Humans are guilty of having less than rational thoughts. We do it all the time. We might assume the worst is going to happen or jump to conclusions before we have all the information. Cognitive restructuring helps people become aware of their irrational thoughts so that they can correct them and replace them with more rational ways of thinking. This can help to alleviate symptoms of anxiety, depression, stress, anger, and trauma.

Cognitive restructuring is a major part of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, which was developed by Aaron Beck in the 1960s. Beck linked his patients’ symptoms with their distorted thinking and hypothesized that if he could help his patients recognize their distorted thinking, he could help them alleviate their mental health symptoms.[1] David Burns then popularized Beck’s ideas in the 1980s with his book Feeling Good.[2]

Cognitive restructuring is at the heart of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. It is the four-step process that helps people recognize their distorted thoughts in order to change them.

Cognitive Distortions

I spoke with Margot Escott, LSCW[3] about how she uses cognitive restructuring in her therapy practice in Naples, Florida, and she explained that she begins the process by making her clients aware of the types of cognitive distortions.

Escott hands her clients a list of cognitive distortions[4] and asks them to spend a week thinking about which ones resonate with them.

The following are examples of various cognitive distortions:

Mental Filtering

This happens when a person picks out only one (usually negative) detail of a situation and focuses only on that.

Black and White Thinking

When this occurs, a person cannot see any middle ground and perceives a situation as all or nothing.

Overgeneralization

Overgeneralization is very common and happens when a person jumps to a conclusion without enough information.

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Catastrophizing

This way of thinking comes about when a person thinks the worst outcome will occur.

Personalization

Generally occurring in people with low self-esteem or paranoia, this happens when someone thinks that everything people do or say is about them.

Should Statements

These statements come about when someone compares themselves and others to perceived universal standards.

Mind Reading

This can happen when someone assumes what someone else is thinking without verification.

Fortune Telling

People are generally very concerned about the future, and this can lead some to assume how things will unfold, usually in a negative light.

Emotional Reasoning

This happens when a person assumes their emotions reflect how reality actually is.

Labeling

Labeling comes about when someone makes broad statements or generalizations about themselves or others based on situation-specific behavior. Example: If you make a mistake and conclude that you are dumb or a failure.

Each list of cognitive distortions is different, but this will give you a general idea of the kind of irrational thinking cognitive restructuring aims to correct.

The 4 Steps of Cognitive Restructuring

When you seek to engage in cognitive restructuring, there are 4 major steps you will need to follow.

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1. Make It Conscious

The process starts by making our automatic thoughts conscious. The first step requires you to take a kind of inventory of your potentially problematic ways of thinking. Before you can change your thoughts, you have to become aware of how you’re thinking—no judgment or correction yet.

You can take an inventory of your automatic thoughts for a week or you can explore them in therapy with a trained professional. Escott asks her clients to tell her which cognitive distortions they noticed after one week.

Either way, the first step is essential because we can’t correct problematic, automatic thinking without becoming aware of what we’re thinking in the first place.

2. Evaluate It

Next, it’s time to get rational. Once you’ve taken an inventory of your thoughts, you can start to sort out which ones seem rational and which ones don’t.

For example, if you say something like, “I’m never going to meet my life partner,” you can lump this thought into the unproductive/unhealthy/negative category because you aren’t a fortune teller and certainly don’t know whether or not you’ll meet someone.

Step 2 establishes that this is a thought worth changing.

3. Get Rational

Once we’ve identified a thought as problematic or unhealthy, we can identify why it’s problematic in the first place. This is when we ask those tough therapy questions:

  • Why do I think this?
  • Is it true?
  • How often is it true?

The idea behind step 3 is to identify how our thinking is a cognitive distortion and what the reality actually is.

4. Replace It

Finally, we replace the cognitive distortion with a more rational thought. Our automatic thoughts are habitual, so the idea isn’t to stop cognitive distortions but to catch ourselves when we’re distorting reality and quickly replace the distortion with a more rational thought.

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If I catch myself thinking that my boss hates me, I need to remind myself that I’m mind reading. Then, every time I catch myself in the act of mind reading that my boss hates me, I can replace that distortion with something like, “I don’t know whether or not my boss hates me unless I ask, but I do know that I got a positive performance review and a raise last month.”

The idea is to replace cognitive distortions with more rational ways of thinking, but this requires a lot of reflection and self-awareness. You can certainly try it on your own, but it’s often better to have a trained professional guide you through the process.

Example of Cognitive Restructuring

Let’s say I catch myself catastrophizing. I notice that I sometimes I say that I will lose my job and not be able to pay my bills and then lose my home and my family.

Cognitive restructuring asks me to confront that cognitive distortion.

The first step is for me to become aware of that thought and catch myself every time I slip into catastrophizing.

Next, I ask myself if it’s true. I certainly can’t know if that’s true because I don’t know the future. This is where mindfulness practice comes in handy.[5] According to Escott, mindfulness is a great way for people to practice living more in the present moment, which can also reduce some cognitive distortions, such as catastrophizing.

Now, I don’t know whether or not I will lose my job. I can’t even answer how often this cognitive distortion is true, so I move on to step 3.

Now it’s time to reflect. Why do I think I’m going to lose my job? Maybe my parents lost their jobs, which added a lot of stress to the family when I was a child. Maybe I feel like an imposter and am not confident about some of my financial decisions.

In step 3, I come up with something more rational. I can start telling myself that I don’t know whether or not I’m going to lose my job. All I can focus on is doing the best job I can. If there is a chance I will lose my job, I can spend time networking on LinkedIn instead of catastrophizing. I can also tell myself that linking the loss of my job with losing everything is not rational. I can make a list of all the things I could do if I actually did lose my job that would prevent me from losing the other things in my life.

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Finally, I replace “I’m going to lose my job” with a more rational thought each time I catch myself catastrophizing. I might remind myself, “I don’t know the odds of me losing my job, but I do know that I have seniority and just got a raise. And if I do lose this job, I could always go back to working at my father-in-law’s store.”

It’s probably better to be pithier when you’re replacing automatic distortions, but this gives you a good idea of how to get started.

Effectiveness of Cognitive Restructuring

Science has shown that cognitive restructuring works. In one study[6], cognitive restructuring was more effective in reducing anxiety and worry than a control group and a group that was taught relaxation techniques.

The idea is that cognitive restructuring forces people to fix their automatic thoughts. Escott explains that this process is effective because our thoughts become our feelings, which affect our overall well-being.

Cognitive restructuring addresses the root of the problem: our cognitive distortions. So the next time you catch yourself overgeneralizing or catastrophizing, take a step back. Ask yourself if that’s really true and how often it’s true. Develop a more rational line of thinking and then replace the distortion with a more realistic thought.

Cognitive restructuring may not be as easy as 1, 2, 3, 4, but if you’re willing to get reflective and self-aware and do the work, it can have measurable effects on reducing your anxiety, trauma, stress, anger, and depression symptoms.

I want to reiterate that Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is a modality best done by trained professionals. For those of you who need help or want to get deeper into Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and cognitive restructuring, please search for trained mental health professionals in your area.

More Tips on Changing Your Thoughts

Featured photo credit: Benjamin Davies via unsplash.com

Reference

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Clay Drinko

Clay Drinko is an educator and the author of Theatrical Improvisation, Consciousness, and Cognition.

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Published on July 29, 2020

How to Build Strategic Thinking Skills for Effective Leadership

How to Build Strategic Thinking Skills for Effective Leadership

Have you been thinking of how you can be a more strategic leader during these uncertain times? Has the pandemic thrown a wrench at all your carefully laid out plans and initiatives?

You’re not alone. The truth is, we all want some stability in our careers and teams during this disruptive pandemic.

However, this now requires a bit more effort than before and making the leap from merely surviving to thriving means buckling down to some serious strategic thinking and maintaining a determined mindset.

Is There a Way to Thrive Despite These Disruptions?

Essentially – yes, although you need to be willing to put in the work. Every leader wants to develop strategic thinking skills so that they can enhance overall team performance and boost their company’s success, but what exactly does it mean to be strategic in the context of the times we live in?

If you happen to be in a leadership position in your organization right now, you are most probably navigating precarious waters given the disruptions caused by the pandemic. There’s a lot more pressure than before because your actions and decisions will have a much greater impact these days not just on you, but also to the people who are part of your team.

Companies often bring me in to coach executives on strategic thinking and planning. And while pre-pandemic I would usually start by highlighting the advantages of strategic thinking, nowadays, I always begin these Zoom coaching sessions by driving home the point that this pandemic has now made strategic thinking not just an option but an absolute must.

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Assessing and making plans through the lens of a good strategy might require significant work at first. Nevertheless, you can take comfort in the fact that the rewards will far outweigh the effort, as you’ll soon see after following the 8 strategic steps I have outlined below.

8 Steps to Strategic Thinking

As events unfold during these strange times, you’re bound to feel wrong-footed every now and then. Being a leader during this pandemic means preparing for more change not just for you, but for your whole team as well.

As states and cities go through a cycle of lockdowns and reopening, employees will experience the full gamut of human emotions in dizzying speed, and you will often be called on to provide insight and stability to your team and workplace.

Strategic thinking is all about anticipation and preparation. Rather than expending your energy merely helping your company put out fires and survive, you can put the time to better use by charting out a solid plan that can protect and help you and your company thrive.

Take the following steps to build solid initiatives and roll out successful projects:

Step 1: Step Back, Then Set the Scope

One of the things that leaders get wrong during their first attempt at strategic thinking is expecting that it is just another item on a checklist. The truth is, you need to take a good, long look at the bigger picture before anything else. This means decisively prioritizing and stepping away from tasks that can be delegated to others. Free up your schedule so you can focus on this crucial task at hand.

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Then, proceed with setting the scope and the strategic goals of the project or initiative you plan to build or execute. Ask yourself the bigger question of why you need to embark on a particular project and when would be the right time to do so.

You need to set a timeline as well, anywhere from 6 months to 5 years. Keep in mind that your projections will deteriorate the further out you go as you make longer-term plans.

For this reason, add extra resources, flexibility, and resilience if you have a longer timeline. You should also be making the goals less specific if you’re charting it out for the longer term.

Step 2: Make a List of Experts

Make and keep a list of credible people who can contribute solid insight and feedback to your initiative. This could range from key stakeholders to industry experts, mentors, and even colleagues who previously planned and rolled out similar projects.

Reach out to the people on this list regularly while you work through the steps to bring diverse insight into your planning process. This way, you will be able to approach any problem from every angle.

Bringing key stakeholders into this initial process will also display your willingness to listen and empathize with their issues. In return, this will build trust and potentially pave the way for smoother buy-in down the line.

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Step 3: Anticipate the Future

After identifying your goals and gathering feedback, it’s time to consider what the future would look like if everything goes as you intuitively anticipate. Then, lay out the kind and amount of resources (money, time, social capital) that might be needed to keep this anticipated future running.

Step 4: Brainstorm on Potential Internal and External Problems

Next, think of how the future would look if you encountered unexpected problems internal and external to the business activity that seriously jeopardize your expected vision of the future. Write out what kind of potential problems you might encounter, including low-probability ones.

Assess the likelihood that you will run into each problem. To gauge, multiply the likelihood by the number of resources needed to address the problem. Try to convert the resources into money if possible so that you can have a single unit of measurement.

Then, think of what steps you can take to address these internal and external problems before they even happen. Write out how much you expect these steps might cost. Lastly, add up all the extra resources that may be needed because of the different possible problems and all the steps you committed to taking to address them in advance.

Step 5: Identify Potential Opportunities, Internal and External

Imagine how your expected plan would look if unexpected opportunities came up. Most of these will be external but consider internal ones as well. Then, gauge the likelihood of each scenario and the number of resources you would need to take advantage of each opportunity. Convert the resources into money if possible.

Then, think of what steps you can take in advance to take advantage of unexpected opportunities and write out how much you expect these steps might cost. Finally, add up all the extra resources that may be needed because of the different unexpected opportunities and all the steps you committed to taking to address them in advance.

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Step 6: Check for Cognitive Biases

Check for potential cognitive biases that are relevant to you personally or to the organization as a whole, and adjust the resources and plans to address such errors.[1] Make sure to at least check for loss aversion, status quo bias, confirmation bias, attentional bias, overconfidence, optimism bias, pessimism bias, and halo and horns effects.

Step 7: Account for Unknown Unknowns (Black Swans)

To have a more effective strategy, account for black swans as well. These are unknown unknowns -unpredictable events that have potentially severe consequences.

To account for these black swans, add 40 percent to the resources you anticipate. Also, consider ways to make your plans more flexible and secure than you intuitively feel is needed.

Step 8: Communicate and Take the Next Steps

Communicate the plan to your stakeholders, and give them a heads up about the additional resources needed. Then, take the next steps to address the unanticipated problems and take advantage of the opportunities you identified by improving your plans, as well as allocating and reserving resources.

Finally, take note that there will be cases when you’ll need to go back and forth these steps to make improvements, (a fix here, an improvement there) so be comfortable with revisiting your strategy and reaching out to your list of experts.

Conclusion

A great way to deal with feelings of uncertainty during this pandemic is to anticipate obstacles with a good plan – and a sure road to that is practicing strategic thinking.

In the coming months and years, you’ll need to continue navigating uncharted territory so that you can lead your team to safe waters. Regularly doing these 8 steps to strategic thinking will ensure that you can prepare for and adapt  to the coming changes with increasing clarity, perspective, and efficiency.[2]

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