The sad but realistic truth is that recognizing the harmful patterns of your own behavior, which are called cognitive distortions in psychology lingo, is a lifelong project. But there are several great therapy methods that can help you make and maintain progress.
One of these methods is the 5-minute triple column technique, which is easy and yet very effective at targeting your cognitive distortions and teaching you to see them for what they really are. In 2012, a large-scale scientific analysis proved that this technique was an effective treatment of anxiety, stress and anger management.
Before we jump into the technique itself, we first need to understand what cognitive distortions look like and what different kinds of distortions exist.
The 10 most common types of distortions are the following:
1. Polarized thoughts: thinking in extremes, ignoring all sides of a situation. A person with all or nothing thinking would say “I failed the talk I gave at work yesterday” ignoring that it was their first talk ever and a typical first-time performance.
2. Overgeneralization: when a single, unpleasant event is treated as a never-ending pattern of defeat. For example, when a person goes to 1 swimming practice that doesn’t go well and assumes that they will never learn how to swim.
3. Filtering: taking a single detail of in a situation, clinging to it and letting it influence everything that follows. For example, dwelling on a minor unpleasant remark said in your address and letting it ruin your entire day.
4. Disqualifying the positive: when any proof of success is seen as a mere coincidence or as not a success. So, getting an A+ on an exam doesn’t count because it must be an accident and surely not a result of hard work that paid off.
5. Jumping to conclusions: it is exactly what it sounds like. It’s when 1 negative remark is taken to describe the entire dialogue, relationship or situation. Example: “He forgot to clean the dishes, so he must be mad at me for something”.
6. Magnification and minimization: when you’re exaggerating your mistakes and other people’s successes while ignoring your virtues and accomplishments at the same time. So, when you think that you will never be as perfect as this or that actor/actress, for example, you are exaggerating their success and ignoring your own accomplishments.
7. Emotional reasoning: your emotional state defines what you think really happened. For example, when you think everyone saw how nervous you were before speaking in public.
8. Should statements: when you criticize yourself for not behaving otherwise in the past, e.g. "I should have known that was a mistake".
9. Labeling and mislabeling. Based on 1 mistake, you label yourself or another person as something negative. For example, "I can’t get along with Jim so I think he's stupid".
10. Personalization: when you take things personally when in reality they have nothing to do with you. Example: "He was grumpy all evening because he was with me", though in a situation where you had nothing to do with his emotional state.
The 5-Minute Triple-Column Technique
You can do this exercise daily, weekly or whenever you feel like you’re stuck in a rut or notice that you’re anxious, angry or beating yourself up.
This exercise doesn’t have to be written, but many people believe that doing it in writing is more effective. Mix and match and see what works best for you.
Step 1. Make 3 columns on a sheet of paper or whatever device you’re using.
Step 2. In Column 1, you have to write down the negative thought that’s bothering you without editing it and with no self-analysis. If your mean inside voice is telling you “I look ugly in these jeans and I that’s why I hate myself and everyone else should too”, that’s what you have to write down.
Step 3. Read the statement in the 1st column and try to spot one or more of the cognitive distortions we mentioned above. In our example, there are a few, like overgeneralization, jumping to conclusions, and mental filter. Write them down in the 2nd column.
Step 4. Having analyzed your negative thought, write down what you think about it now taking into account the distortions that you spotted. For example, “I don’t think that these jeans flatter my body shape today, but that is just a minor detail that shouldn’t ruin my day. This minor detail is not an objective reason for me to stop liking myself or for other people to do so.”
Of course, you will have to go through each negative thought individually, so you are free to do more than one every day. You can also keep a log and look back at your past negative thoughts from time to time. Personally, I like doing that because after a while these thoughts often seem very silly, which reaffirms the idea that our thoughts are not who we are and not a valid reason for a day, friendship or life ruined. We truly hope you will find this technique useful and benefit from it.