• Dr. Mario Guzmán Sescosse

Errors in our thinking

More than 2000 years ago, one of the most beautiful and straightforward philosophies arose in Athens, Greece; Stoicism. Its founder was Zeno of Citium, but their most notables were enslaved people, merchants, or emperors of the Roman Empire, who became great philosophers and sages. Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius are among the greatest masters of that philosophy.


Stoicism aims to understand how humans can face vicissitudes and achieve wisdom and conquer eudaimonia. The following maxim of Epictetus explains the central element of this school of thought; "It is not things that torment men, but the opinion they have of them." The Stoics knew that situations were out of our control; at best, we can influence them, but control could be achieved in how we interpret the events we have to face.


I remember when I attended a lady whose son had been kidnapped and murdered, and despite this terrible situation, she continued with her life showing a smile on her face every day. When I asked her about her feelings and thoughts, she replied: "The kidnapping and subsequent murder of my son have been the most painful experience; likely, I will never recover fully from such a terrible experience. I allow myself to cry for 30 minutes every day, write my thoughts in my diary, and ask God to have him with Him. However, I still have two more children and a husband; my children have already lost a brother, and my husband lost a son. Do you believe it would be fair for them to lose their mom and wife submerged in depression? Every day I accept what happened; I take care of the pain and try to face it daily, thinking that I still have two children, a husband, and myself ". The tremendous response that I received from her is a clear example of what Epictetus and the other thinkers believed in ancient Greece and the ancient Roman Empire.


In recent times stoicism has taken resurgence, both in philosophy and psychology. In the latter, it has been done through the pioneering work of Dr. Abraham Lowe, Dr. Albert Ellis, and Dr. Aaron Beck and the school of psychotherapy called Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). Since its emergence, it has been characterized by its effectiveness, orientation towards therapeutic goals, practice, and parsimony. Today CBT is the most empirical therapy globally and has many psychologists, psychiatrists, therapists, and counselors practicing it. It offers solutions to problems ranging from depressive and anxiety disorders to medical issues, learning disabilities, nutritional disorders, personality disorders, etc.


CBT takes up the teachings of the Stoics and elaborates on therapeutic strategies that are useful for patients. Its central postulate is that emotions result from our cognitions (a sophisticated name for "thoughts"). Therefore if our emotions are mismatched, problematic, or very intense, we have to pay attention to what we say to ourselves. Cognitions are thoughts, fantasies, mental images, and even dreams. Their content can be rational (objective, verifiable, evident) or irrational (subjective, lack of evidence, and distorted), the latter being the one that provokes emotional discomfort and constitutes the central component of psychological disorders.


The second postulate of CBT is that our thoughts are irrational due to errors in our thinking or cognitive biases. Suppose the person wishes to achieve emotional stability or overcome psychological disorders. In that case, he must emphasize his thoughts and cognitive biases to transform them into more rational, objective, and proactive thoughts that allow him to face the adversities better and achieve an optimum emotional state.


There are many cognitive biases or errors in our thinking; however, I will present the most common of them with a brief explanation of each one.


1. Catastrophizing: it is a propensity to imagine disasters, accidents, or catastrophes in the future that lead the person to a state of constant concern. The media and social media are experts exploding this bias to attract readers and viewers and thus increase their popularity. Having a sense of protection is important for everyone, but living with fear has a paralyzing effect. This bias is common in anxious people, with thoughts like: "The plane can fail and fall, we would all die." "It's terrible if I make a mistake while speaking in public."

2. Dichotomous thinking (all or nothing) is a polarized way of thinking based on white or black, good or bad, success or failure. People with this bias think: "the second place is the first loser." "If it is not a success, it is a failure." Because these people are so demanding of themselves and others, they are constantly searching for positive reaffirmation because they fear being described as failures, incapables, or losers.

3. Fortune telling: it is the tendency to want to predict what will happen in the future, for example: "There is no way I will go; I will have a terrible time there." "I am not capable enough to get the job; I better not go to the interview." This distorted way of thinking makes the person not achieve their goals, making it a self-fulfilling prophecy, "I knew I would not succeed."

4. Mind reading: it is a way of jumping to conclusions about what others think or feel about the person who has the bias, for example: "I'm sure they will think I'm a failure." "You must be thinking that I'm a fool." "Everyone will think I'm incapable."

5. Overgeneralization: it is a type of thinking that starts from the particular to the general; that is, from a specific situation, a generalization is concluded, "This always happens to me." "He never listens to me." "Men are all the same." "I will never be happy."

6. Disqualifying the positive: it is a way to downplay oneself's virtues and qualities while evaluating others' results as better. A patient who won a prize told me, "It was just luck; I did not deserve it. They gave it to me to make me feel good." Another patient told me, "I will never be a good partner for my husband."

7. Labeling: it is a way to jump to conclusions negatively about oneself or others using labels such as "he is a jerk," "I am a failure," "he is a loser," "she is a snob." This error of thought is a form of dynamic economy where the labels serve so that the person is not exposed to certain situations or people. However, this does not corroborate if the thoughts are correct or not, while we lose the opportunity to have positive experiences.

8. Should statements: this bias is a way to pressure oneself and others to do or achieve things and can serve as a motivator, but when you do not achieve what is traced, you experience intense frustration, for example, "I must always succeed." "You should not make mistakes." "You should have seen that coming and prevented it." They are inflexible and unrealistic imperatives that will cause the person to experience a strong emotional response if he does not achieve them. Low self-esteem and feelings of overcoming are typical results of this bias.

9. Emotional reasoning: is the tendency to believe that our negative emotions reflect reality; for example, a patient used to tell me the following "I feel incompetent; therefore, I am good for nothing."

10. Obstacle bias: refers to negative interpretations of challenges, difficulties in life, and our abilities. It is a way to give up before trying; "I will never be able to achieve it; it is tough for me." "It is better if I do not even try because it is certain that I will fail." This bias lies behind the tendency to procrastinate because the person postpones performance to avoid feeling incompetent in front of the challenge.

11. Personalization: is the tendency to take responsibility for oneself or blame for situations that happen and that was not directly caused by the person; "She is not answering my calls, that means that I offended her somehow." "It's my fault that she feels depressed." "It's because of me that my team did not win."

12. Mental filtering: the tendency to look for information that fits our pre-established beliefs. For example, suppose a person is depressed. In that case, they will tend to focus on the negative side of life (unfortunate news, personal errors, disregard for others, etc.) and leave aside positive, pleasant, and desirable information.


These biases do not operate exclusively in people who are depressed, anxious or have some other psychological disorder. They operate in all of us because our brain is not accurate and often works as a bad judge who jumps to conclusions or dictates sentences without considering the evidence. Therefore, it is desirable that people learn to question their thinking and seek whether they are valid or not, rational or irrational, and what is the bias or error of the thought behind them. Thinking about what is thought is a skill in psychology called metacognition, and changing ideas in more rational, objective, and appropriate ways is part of the cognitive restructuring sought in CBT.


If you attend CBT meetings, your therapist will teach you techniques and strategies to identify these biases in your daily life and to be able to modify them for more objective and balanced beliefs. This will allow you to face the adversities in your life and experience more satisfaction in your work, friends, partner, and any area of ​​life.



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