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Challenging Maladaptive Thoughts

There are two broad ways people can approach handling the distorted, maladaptive thoughts that contribute to their social issues. The recommendation you'll see most often is identifying, challenging, and replacing them. This article will cover that. I'll start by describing how exactly to challenge your thoughts, then give some perspective on how the practice fits into a larger program of dealing with your issues. In a second article I talk about the idea of accepting and rolling with your maladaptive thoughts. For most people a mix of both approaches will probably help. It's not a matter of siding with only one or the other.

The notion that people can improve their lives by getting some control over their unhelpful, negative thoughts is very common. I don't think I really have to explain how if you hold inaccurate beliefs about the world, they'll lead you to think and act in ways that subtract from your life. Most people intuitively understand this and have come to that conclusion on their own. The idea also comes up in a boatload of pop self-help writing.

As a formal psychological treatment, the concept of changing maladaptive thoughts is the heart of soul of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. This approach suggests a number of practical applications based on the view that a person's mood, thoughts (cognitions), and behavior can all influence each other. Most of the ideas below are summarized from it. Of course, whole books have been written about this area, so I can only give little snapshots of the full theory and approach. If you want to do more reading on the topic there isn't a specific book I'd recommend. There are many available that all cover the same ground.

Understand how your thinking can go awry

Before you can start spotting and challenging your maladaptive thoughts you've got to know what to look for. I wrote several articles that go into more detail about the types of negative thoughts people with social problems can experience:

Some basic terms and concepts

If you do much reading about this area it won't be long before you run into terms like 'Negative Automatic Thought' and 'Schema'. The article below quickly explains them:

Some Basic Concepts About How Maladaptive Thoughts Appear And How They're Organized

Cognitive Distortions

These are general errors in thinking about and interpreting a situation that cause someone to see it in an inaccurate, unhelpful way. For example, a person may look at a complicated, nuanced subject in overly simplistic Black and White terms, or take one isolated incident and assume it tells them more than it really does. For more information read:

Cognitive Distortions And Socializing

Attributional Style

This is also known as Explanatory Style. People who struggle with issues like shyness and depression often have a different way of explaining to themselves why certain things happened. They brush aside positive events as one-off flukes that happened because of outside forces. They see negative events as being reliably brought on by their enduring personal flaws. Most people tend to explain things in the opposite way. They take credit for their successes and have no problem considering how their failures may not be entirely their fault. More details in this article:

Attributional Style And Socializing

Worries And Inaccurate Beliefs

No fancy psychological theory behind this one. Sometimes our thoughts get in the way of our interpersonal success simply because we have inaccurate worries and beliefs about how the social world works. For example, thinking that other people are really judgmental and picky about what they look for in a friend.

Beliefs And Worries Which Sustain Shyness, Insecurity, And Social Anxiety
Worries People Often Have About Making Friends And Plans
Common Limiting Beliefs About The Social World

Identify your maladaptive thoughts

This step and the next are something you can informally do in your head, but they're a lot more effective if you make a proper written exercise out of them. There are lots of pre-made forms out there that can facilitate this. Do a Google Search for 'Thought Record'. You can make your own versions as well. Another thing to know is that you're not going to be able to identify and debunk all your negative thoughts in twenty minutes. It's an ongoing process.

There are two ways you can start delving into your maladaptive thoughts and beliefs. The first is just to sit down and try to think of them. It's a little directionless, but most people will still come up with a lot of results. A tip to root them out is to follow your negative emotions (e.g., anxiety, discouragement, resentment) and see where they lead you. For example, someone may start thinking about their college classes, feel a bit nervous, then go on to identify some negative beliefs about how they think the other students would make fun of them if they asked a question during a lecture. Of course, not every unpleasant feeling has negative thinking lurking behind it, but on the whole looking into emotions is a useful strategy.

The second approach is to start with a specific social situation you struggle with, and then examine your thoughts around it. Often you'll uncover some unrealistic thinking that is holding you back. You could consider a behavior you have trouble initiating. What thoughts are keeping you from doing it? You can also look back on a social interaction you recently had. Say you tried chatting to some co-workers during your lunch break. How do you feel it went? What discouraged or self-critical thoughts are you having?

Challenge the validity of the thoughts you've identified

This step can take a while. To begin, you want to shift your perspective. When dissecting each thought, imagine it's something a friend told you they were feeling about themselves, or a statement your worst enemy made to you. We often uncritically accept ideas from our own minds that we would reject instantly if they came from an outside source.

Next, ask several questions of the thought and see how well it holds up. There are a lot of possibilities. These are just a few:



Behavioral experiments

At times you can test the accuracy of your thoughts and beliefs in the real world. You won't always have the courage to do so right away, but the results can be illuminating, and often do more to dispel a bit of maladaptive thinking than hours of logic. For example, a student may have always taken it for granted that if they tried to make small talk with people at a campus bus stop that they would be seen as a freak. They could conduct the experiment of quickly chatting to twenty people and observing how they react (twenty is a big enough sample size). They may find that three of their fellow students were rude, nine chatted back to them briefly, and eight seemed eager to have a longer conversation. Not everyone was super friendly, but it still disproved their belief that *all* people would be offended by a stranger talking to them.

Before conducting any behavioral experiments you should be familiar with how maladaptive thoughts work and have some practice in identifying and analyzing them. While doing the experiment you'll likely have some distorted thoughts, and you'll want to apply those skills. Otherwise the whole experience may backfire and just reinforce a line of thinking that you're already struggling with.

Replace the maladaptive thoughts with more realistic, balanced alternatives

The key words here are 'realistic' and 'balanced'. The idea is not to skip around being blindly Positive, ignoring reality, and seeing everything as happy-happy and perfect. An unrealistic negative thought might be, "Everyone at this party will hate me. I'll never make any friends in this city!" An equally unrealistic overly positive thought may be, "I'm an amazing person! Everyone there will love me instantly!" A balanced thought could be, "Some people will probably like me, and others won't, which is something my past experience has shown me. The ones who aren't into me probably won't be mean, just kind of indifferent. I can handle that and will concentrate on the ones who seem friendly." An optional step is to take your new, more balanced thought and pare it down into a succinct, snappy, motivating statement that you can repeat to yourself as needed. For example, the thought above could be turned into, "If I keep at it I'll be able to find the right friends for me."

As I mentioned earlier, tone is just as important as content. Even if what you're telling yourself is technically balanced and true, there's no need talk to yourself as if you're an incompetent piece of crap. You can desire to improve yourself while being compassionate and understanding about your struggles at the same time. Sometimes people think they have to be really hard on themselves to get anything done.

Continually practice replacing your maladaptive thoughts as they come up

If you have interpersonal issues I'd bet you have at least a decade's experience of habitually thinking about yourself and your social abilities in a negative light. That's not a pattern that's going to be undone in a week. You have to practice catching and disputing your maladaptive thinking. You need to apply what you learned doing the exercises and notice and replace your thoughts when they come up in the real world. For example, you may be at a club and suddenly stop having fun and get the urge to go home early. Why? You might have had a thought like, "I don't belong here. My friends don't really want me around. They just invited me out of pity." If you can quickly nip that thinking in the bud your night can go on.

You don't necessarily have to sit down for an hour every day and do full-on written exercises, but you should continually be on the alert for the ways your own mind is trying to sabotage you. With time your thinking really can change. You'll never completely be free of unhelpful thoughts, no one is, but your outlook can become a lot more confident and positive. You'll also become a lot more familiar with the directions your mind tends to go, and can learn to cut off a lot of negative thinking before it happens.


With the how-to part out of the way, here are some thoughts on the overall effectiveness of this approach:

Limitations of the thought challenging approach

Learning about and challenging your negative thoughts will undeniably take a bite out of your problems. I can't imagine a case where it wouldn't benefit someone to learn the core Cognitive Behavioral Therapy concepts this article covers. It's all an important component of a larger strategy. However, I think sometimes the usefulness of challenging negative beliefs gets a little over-hyped. It can't single-handedly fix everything. Some fluffy self-help books are especially guilty of portraying the approach this way.

First, to really get a handle on their issues most people also need to face and get comfortable with their fears, as well as implement some positive lifestyle changes. If they're lacking in some specific aspects of their social skills or knowledge, they may need to get more hands-on practice too.

Secondly, disputing your thoughts will only do so much to eliminate them. The method tends to work best on milder worries and inaccurate beliefs. In those cases being exposed to an alternate viewpoint may be enough for them to disappear. For example, someone may stress about texting new friends to keep in touch, because they worry it makes them look desperate. Being told that's not true and most people won't see them way is all they need to feel better. The approach is also good for debriefing, that is looking at a social interaction after the fact and not being too hard on yourself ("No, when I couldn't think of what to say while chatting to Morgan on the phone, it didn't necessarily mean I'm a failure with no hope.")

Where thought challenging is less effective is for dealing with situations that cause a great deal of anxiety or insecurity. Again, applying the approach is infinitely better than doing nothing and swallowing all your maladaptive thoughts whole, but it won't totally eliminate them. The complication is that larger fears or insecurities generate so many negative thoughts that you'll never get rid of them all. New ones keep coming, or there are so many in play at once that by the time you've diffused Maladaptive Thoughts #9, #10, and #11, the earlier ones have regained their 'strength'. It's like an endless game of Whack-A-Mole. The thoughts associated with bigger fears are also more likely to fall into that, "I know there isn't logically anything to be scared of, but I still feel nervous" category.

Thought challenging also comes up against its limitations with deeply ingrained maladaptive beliefs that just feel true, even when a ton of logic or counter-evidence is thrown at them. For example, someone may have had a rough childhood and believe in their bones that they're flawed and unlikable. Quickly telling them, "But you've got a bunch of friends who love you" isn't going to shift that opinion. It's not that the principles of challenging thoughts don't work at all, it's just that deeper beliefs need to be slowly ground down over time. A person who has them also has to accumulate a ton of real-world experience that runs counter to them, and may need to directly tackle the pain and shame at their center.