6 Thinking Errors That Can Ruin Relationships
Have you ever found yourself calling it quits on a friendship or intimate relationship to later discover you completely misread or misunderstood the situation and lost your sanity on the person for no real reason! Maybe you’ve even wrecked a family relationship and now find yourself estranged all on a misunderstanding!!
Here’s what’s crazy: How we experience reality depends almost entirely on our thoughts and perceptions about the situations we face. Fun example… I teach a dual enrollment Psychology class and recently had my students anonymously complete a personality attribution scale on me. Now of course I got some nice and sweet responses. But one thing that really caught my attention was this: exactly 27% of the class rated me as lenient, and conversely, exactly 27% rated me as strict! Now you bet I gave them a hard time for that one! But how does one explain such a dichotomous response?! Drum roll….. PERCEPTION!!!!! They were each filtering their understanding of me through the lens of their own thoughts and life experiences. It is quite likely that the ones who rated me as lenient recently had a very strict teacher; and the ones who rated me as strict may have come from an overly lenient or passive teacher.
When you really think about it, your perceptions and the way you think about or interpret your reality can totally influence your emotions, which in turn can influence your judgments and your actions. If you completely misread a situation, you may find yourself in an unnecessary rage, or worse; with an assault charge. And in general, how often do we judge a person or a circumstance from a skewed perception? How often do we experience hurt, fear, or anger in our relationships based on our thoughts and interpretations of a situation with the ones we love?
Which brings us to the next question…specifically, WHERE do perceptions come from?? Research in cognitive theory states that they come from your THOUGHTS and BELIEFS that have developed over time through other past experiences. So like sunlight passing through a prism is refracted into a rainbow, reality is filtered through the prism of your thoughts and beliefs, and is refracted into your perception.
So what can we do??! A good place to start is in evaluating how you think and perceive reality, and then beginning to challenge faulty or unhealthy ways of thinking. Truly, no one is immune from thinking errors. I teach them and I still make them. However, its power can literally destroy an otherwise happy day, or worse…ruin or even END relationships worth saving. So while there are actually several different types of thinking errors, here are 6 pertinent ones to relationships:
Assuming is when we make a decision or judgment call based completely on un-tested evidence. For instance, I may decide not to go to a party because I assume it will be lame and I will not have a good time. Likewise in relationships, I may assume my friend or family member didn’t show up for something important to me because they are mad at me, or even that they are just a selfish jerk. However, I could be completely missing the potential for simple human error; such as a calendar fail or an emergency and a dead phone battery. If I automatically jump to an assuming conclusion, I can immediately send myself into deep rage or even deep hurt or feelings of betrayal when there may not be evidence to justify my assumption.
2) Dwelling on the negative/Rejecting the positive
This is an easy one to fall into. When we experience a bad event, it is much easier to remember and focus on all the negative aspects of the event instead of the positive. But where this becomes a thinking error is when we continue to dwell on, and repeatedly saturate our memory with only the negative aspects of a situation. Truly, the more you think about something that upsets you, the more upset you feel! And then not only that, you may start to literally REJECT the positive. If you are feeling down and your mom tells you how amazing you are, and then you tell yourself she HAS to say that because she is your mother, then you are rejecting the positive. If your wife mowed the lawn for you but the lines came out crooked and you lose your mind on her, you are rejecting her positive efforts to participate in the outdoor household chores! Dwelling on the negative and rejecting the positive may occur simultaneously or separately; but either way, it is unhealthy because you are not keeping an equal balance between the negative and positive aspects of all situations. When you do experience an overwhelmingly negative event, try finding the positives in it. If your spouse or significant other is driving you crazy, make a list of all the things you love about them! 🙂
Now this is a popular one that often takes place in close relationships (spouse to spouse, parent to child, etc.). This is when that person does something to offend or hurt you, and you storm off and slam the door waiting for them to apologize for whatever they did. However, no matter how close you are to someone, no one can read your mind, and frequently, I have watched couples enraged with each other over this false notion. “He should have known what he did!!!” And vice versa, we cannot read other’s minds. I’ll never forget a teen client I had a few years ago that was constantly getting into fist fights, and basically lived in handcuffs. Almost every time we spoke and I asked him how the fight started, he nearly always told me the person “looked” at him wrong. He was making both the thinking errors of assuming and mind-reading by believing a certain “look” meant the other person was negatively judging him and desiring to aggressively engage. And he couldn’t even effectively describe the “look”! He said he just “knew” that is what they were thinking.
This thinking error is when we automatically assume responsibility for another person’s actions. This is unhealthy because 1) you could be misperceiving the magnitude of your role in it (like thinking your friend stood you up for lunch because they secretly don’t like you and just couldn’t tell you to your face), OR 2) actually believing their unhealthy actions are YOUR fault (well he wouldn’t have hit me and thrown me into the wall if I hadn’t been so rude to him- I have actually had clients think like this!)
Opposite of personalizing, this thinking error is when we hand off the responsibility of our own actions to someone else…we blame them. This can become dangerous because everyone is responsible for their own actions, no matter how someone has treated them. Ultimately what you DO with the pain (real or perceived) is on you. People trapped in codependent relationships often live in the circle of personalizing and blaming. Addicts and abusers often fall into the error of blaming as victims and enablers fall into the error of personalizing.
This is when we take a small situation and completely blow it out of proportion. As a young music student, I clearly remember bombing a piano recital and then feeling like my life was over and I could never again show my face in the light of day. But was my life really over? No. Was I the only child to ever bomb a piano recital? No. Would anyone other than me even remember that moment all these years later?? Not likely. Similarly, many of us catastrophize small disagreements and deem them a sign of a relationship’s end. I had a client many years ago who determined that she could no longer deal with one pet peeve of her spouse and ultimately divorced him over it. Shortly after the divorce, she realized her mistake as she entered and exited other relationships, ultimately finding a more realistic comparison of what should really end a relationship versus how insignificant that pet peeve actually was in the grand scheme. Through tears and a coinciding clinical depression, she admitted her regret but sadly, it was too late to change it; and she was forced to reap the consequences of that catastrophic thinking error.
So remember… NO ONE experiences reality as it actually is; our thoughts, our beliefs, and our past experiences guide our perceptions of our current experiences, which can in turn influence deep emotion and ultimately, our decisions and our actions. Be ever aware of this truth as you encounter daily living and conflict in your relationships. Ask yourself, am I making a thinking error here? What other explanations could there be for this person acting this way? Could THEY have misinterpreted ME? Recognize how your thoughts and beliefs can literally define who you become; and ultimately make the necessary changes to your thoughts so that in turn, you can not only experience greater emotional and behavioral health, but also more stable and satisfying relationships.