Browsing the archives for the cognitive restructuring tag.
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All About Broken Ideas and Idea Repair


Idea repair, called “cognitive restructuring” in the psychological literature, is a powerful tool for feeling better and for making it much easier to make good choices. We may hardly notice it, but it’s human habit to constantly comment about what’s going on around us with thoughts that help us make judgments and put things into a framework we can understand. But some of these comments are harmful to us because they’re misleading or even false. They encourage us to make bad choices, keep negative emotions going, and generally get in the way: these are broken ideas (or “cognitive distortions”). Here are some of the key articles on this site that for understanding broken ideas and learning idea repair.

Broken ideas and idea repair” explains what broken ideas and idea repair are, why they’re valuable, and the basics of how to use idea repair.

How to Detect Broken Ideas” demonstrates how to notice when broken ideas are causing trouble and how to find out what kind of broken idea you’re dealing with. 

Examples of Broken Ideas (Cognitive Distortions)” shows the categories of broken ideas and some typical broken ideas for each category.

How to Repair a Broken Idea, Step by Step” provides a guide to repairing broken ideas.

To get some perspective on broken ideas, you might be interested in reading “What Really Messed-Up Thinking Looks Like.”

For a better understanding of “should statements,” see ‘Good “should” and bad “should”.’

Broken ideas that we latch onto a lot early in life can become ingrained as mental schemas. To learn about these, see the resource page on mental schemas.

Idea repair is useful in a lot of different situations, and it comes up in quite a number of articles on this site. Here’s a link to all Willpower Engine articles on broken ideas.

Photo by Quod


Tools for Feeling Better, Part I

Handling negative emotions

I’ve mentioned in some recent articles that I’m doing my best to remember and make good use of whatever tools I have to make good choices. Some of the most useful tools of this kind are for getting past negative emotions: anger, depression, frustration, anxiety, avoidance, despair, and so on.

Here are five of the best tools I know of for handling bad states of mind. I’ll post another article or two in the near future with more.

Idea repair: Negative emotions that keep going even when no new bad things are happening are usually maintained by specific kinds of thoughts (as talked about, for instance, in Jenefer Robinson’s book Deeper Than Reason: Emotion and Its Role in Literature, Music, and Art). Idea repair, called “cognitive restructuring” in psychology circles, is the process of detecting flawed thoughts and reframing them so that they become constructive and stop causing pain.

Mindfulness: A key ingredient in sorting out negative emotions and one of the requirements for idea repair and other positive processes, mindfulness is simply being aware of what’s going on both around and inside us. We can’t be mindful all the time, but there are certainly situations in which we become more sane, happy, focused, and relaxed just by using this one idea.

Meditation: Although some people meditate for spiritual reasons, others do it just for the immediate personal payoff in serenity, self-awareness, and clarity. It’s not difficult to get started.

Understanding schemas: Mental schemas are flawed patterns of thinking and behavior that are usually learned when we are young but stick with us into adulthood, often causing trouble for us on a daily basis. There are a variety of them, including, for example, Abandonment, Mistrust, and Emotional deprivation. If we find any schemas in ourselves, we can learn to understand and overcome those schemas, clearing away a lot of emotional drag and clutter in the process.

Emotional antidotes: Buddhist inquiry into human emotion, which is a time-honored and conscientious tradition, has come up with some kinds of emotional experiences that can be used to reverse negative emotions. I explain something of how this works in my article “Antidotes to bad moods and negative emotions.”

For more tools, see the follow-up articles: Part II and Part III.

Photo by Michael Flick

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Shouldn’t We Just Do What Comes Naturally?


Last week I was helping teach a newer student at Taekwondo class, and was showing her a stance she hadn’t done before, in which the body faces in one direction and the feet point in two other directions. “If it feels weird,” I found myself saying, “then you’re doing it right.”

There’s a reason for this: the muscles that help a person stand like that aren’t ones that get much use, so it takes some time and some practice before the new position becomes comfortable. But this stance is very useful in Taekwondo, and what feels weird at first gradually becomes comfortable and habitual.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve often heard advice like “just listen to your body,” with the assumption that if we just do what comes “naturally,” we’ll get the best possible result. And there are advantages to that kind of approach sometimes. First mindfulness and self-knowledge are key components of self-motivation. And second, if nothing gets in the way, often our bodies send us useful signals.

But there’s also a serious problem with just doing what comes naturally: what feels “natural” to us is a combination of instinct plus habit, and habit can transform all kinds of behaviors. Our eating cycles, our romantic preferences, the way we do our work and interact with other people, and pretty much every other complex behavior we have is built on natural inclinations, but only under layers and layers of past experiences and accustomed behaviors.

This is due to our “neural plasticity,” which means that the brain is constantly rewiring itself so that repeated behaviors and experiences feel more and more natural and come more and more easily. This means that if I eat doughnuts every morning, eating doughnuts is likely to start feeling very comfortable, normal, and necessary for me–even if it’s completely out of synch with what my body actually needs. And if I get used to taking a run every day after work, then that will get increasingly easier and more comfortable. The same is true for returning phone calls, doing homework, getting into arguments, watching TV, meditating, or any other good, bad, or netural habit. How long will that take for a habit to form? According to this study, it varies a lot, but something that’s done daily will be likely to turn into a habit some time between 1 and 7 months after we start. (If it’s not done daily, it will take much, much longer.)

So if we want to change a behavior, to redefine what comes naturally, there are two key steps we can take.

1. Work out the broken ideas we might have that are getting in our way, a process cognitive psychologists call “cognitive restructuring,” and

2. Deliberately set up and practice behaviors that feel weird at first.

Photo by crowolf

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What Really Messed-Up Thinking Looks Like

Handling negative emotions


The following are not my actual thoughts, I’m happy to say. However, they do demonstrate the different kinds of broken ideas. Each of them could be repaired.

So I know this post is going to suck1, but … wait, you must already be thinking I’m a complete idiot if I say my post is going to suck2. No, no, I shouldn’t be telling myself I know what you’re thinking3! And I shouldn’t say “shouldn’t!” Oh man, I did it again, I’m such a dork4! No, hold on, I can’t call myself a dork in my own post, that’s awful, that ruins the entire post. 5 It ruins the entire site6! And if this site sucks, my entire life sucks7! And this post is making me sick, which means it must suck8. Writing like this ruins all of my posts9. People may tell me they like my posts sometimes, but that’s just because they pity me10. If I didn’t suck, people would always leave comments11. I think I’ll go eat dirt12.


1 Fortune telling
2 Mind reading
3 Should statement
4 Labeling
5 All-or-nothing thinking
6 Magnification/minimization
7 Overgeneralization
8 Emotional reasoning
9 Mental filtering
10 Disqualifying the positive
11 Personalization
12 Actually, this isn’t a broken idea, because there’s nothing unrealistic about deciding to eat dirt if you really want to. However, I think personally I’ll pass.

Photo by Freekz0r

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Specific Steps We Can Take Toward Accepting and Moving On

Handling negative emotions


In a recent post, I talked about the importance of being able to resign ourselves to certain truths in our lives if we want to move forward. To put this another way, sometimes our ideas about how things “should be” holds us back, and accepting the world as it really is can free us of those ideas. Here are some specific areas where acceptance can help lighten the load. Probably none of these will be new to you, but learning to accept them better is the kind of thing that can benefit any of us.

There will always be a certain amount of suffering in the world, and some of it will come to each of us–but we can help alleviate the suffering of others and can work toward being able to take it in stride when suffering comes directly to us.

The world outside us won’t always be the way we want it to be: people will drive dangerously, decisions will be made that we don’t think are best, and sometimes people will be treated unfairly or unkindly. However, we ourselves can strive to do things as much as possible the way we would want others to do them.

There are limitations to how much we can change or fix in our lives at one time, and there’s no single, magic solution to all problems.

Striving to do something difficult will usually mean some failures along the way. Failing is a normal part of the process of reaching a goal. Major life changes rarely can be accomplished overnight and without a few setbacks.

In order to get to what’s really important in our lives, sometimes we have to let go of things that are less important, for instance plans we might have had or desires we meant to fulfill. Letting go of unimportant things pays off handsomely in giving us resources and attention to focus on the important ones.

A technique called “cognitive restructuring” or “idea repair” can aid constructive thinking in these areas. You can find more information about this process in my posts on broken ideas.

Photo of Brisbane traffic by neoporcupine


Broken ideas and idea repair

Handling negative emotions, States of mind

As a rule, our culture tends to think of emotions as things that well up inside us in a way that’s more or less completely outside our control. We can avoid emotional situations, this point of view goes, or we can suppress them, but they are what we are, and thinking doesn’t enter into it.

mimeI’d like to demonstrate some very useful ways this is completely wrong. I’ll do it using, of course, a mime.

Let’s say our mime–for convenience, we can call him Raoul–is on his way to the park to do a little street performance on a sunny May afternoon. For his performance today, Raoul has purchased three dozen imaginary eggs, which he plans to juggle, balance on his nose, perform magic tricks with, etc. He is carrying the imaginary eggs in mime fashion when he slips on an imaginary banana peel on the sidewalk and crashes to the concrete, right on top of his eggs. Now Raoul is a mess, covered with imaginary egg. All of his eggs are ruined, so there go his performance plans for the day, and to top it off, the people in his otherwise fair city are so rude and thoughtless that they leave imaginary banana peels lying all over the place. Oh, and to make it worse, since it was an imaginary banana peel, clearly it was another mime who did it!

We would expect Raoul to get upset in one way or another. He could sit there, covered with smashed eggs, weeping, or he could fling the gooey, imaginary cartons around in fury, shouting silent curse words. And we probably wouldn’t blame him for this, because through someone else’s carelessness, he’s a mess and his day is ruined.

Now, it’s true that immediately when this happens, Raoul’s brain will start making associations, and brain chemicals will start influencing his behavior–notably adrenaline in response to the unexpected fall and the problems that it has suddenly caused. That helps set the stage, but at the same time Raoul’s brain is likely to be generating what are called “automatic thoughts”: emotionally laden and potentially misleading judgments about what has happened. They might include things like:

“I’m screwed! I needed those eggs for this performance, and if I don’t perform I won’t have enough money to pay the rent tomorrow, and then I’ll probably get kicked out of my apartment!”

“What kind of sick #$!(@ leaves imaginary banana peels lying around all over the sidewalk?”

“This is a disaster!”

These kinds of automatic thoughts are also called “cognitive distortions,” because they are a kind of thinking that encourages belief in things that aren’t true. I’ll use a different term for them, though: “broken ideas.” A broken idea is anything you think up that misleads you. But what’s misleading about the above? Isn’t Raoul just silently telling it like it is?

In all honesty, he isn’t. Raoul’s broken ideas are broken only subtly, but they’ll lead him down a path he doesn’t want to take. For instance, his predictions about being evicted are very likely wrong, even if he isn’t able to come up with every penny of the rent money on time, and the fact that he’s trying to predict the future rather than just evaluate his options is a major red flag. We can’t predict the future in most cases, so basing our actions on assumptions about what will happen tends to lead to badly-chosen actions. Anyway, even in the worst case scenario he can always show how he’s trapped in a box and unable to leave the apartment. This is one of the powers mimes have.

He’s also telling himself he needs the eggs for the performance, when in fact he probably just wants the eggs for the performance, and can either buy more eggs or do a different routine.

And he’s also labeling the banana peel leaver as a (please pardon me for repeating this bad language) “sick #$!(@,” which dehumanizes the person and could lead some real interpersonal problems (like being hit over the head repeatedly with an imaginary stick) if Raoul decides the perpetrator must have been a particular someone he knows and acts toward that person as though they were purposely going around and leaving imaginary banana peels for people to slip on.


So what’s wrong with these ideas is that they’re inaccurate, and more to the point, they tend to lead Raoul in the direction of making bad choices, like going to drown his sorrows in imaginary beer, or marching off to throttle a colleague who is a known banana afficianado. What would make Raoul happiest at the moment would be to somehow find a way to free himself of his anxiety and frustration at the incident, get him to think through what he’ll need to do to go ahead with his performance, and as soon as possible to get him to the park to charm half the passersby and infuriate the other half with his mimetic ways. This way his day could very rapidly get back on track, and no other trouble would need to come of the banana peel fiasco.

How does Raoul do this? We’ll tackle this in much better detail in other posts, but the basic steps are:

1. Relax, step back from the situation, and breathe
2. Use idea repair
3. Get on with your life

Idea repair, which takes some practice to learn but can be wonderfully effective once you have the basics down, is the process of reworking broken ideas to reflect the truth of the situation. For instance, “What kind of sick #$!(@ leaves imaginary banana peels lying around all over the sidewalk?” could be repaired to something like “As much as I wish they didn’t, sometimes people will leave imaginary banana peels on the sidewalk, so I’ll be better off if I’m on the lookout for them.”

Similarly, “This is a disaster!” could be repaired to “This is inconvenient and embarrassing, but if I take the right steps, I can get my day back on track.”

You might be amazed how much stress and distraction idea repair can sometimes clear away. I certainly have been ever since I first learned about the technique a decade or so ago.

Of course there’s much more that could be said on the subject, but that brief summation will have to do for now. I’ll leave you with this final comment from Raoul:


Huh. Well, that’s what I get for trying to quote a mime.

Mime photo by thecnote; banana peel photo by Black Glenn.

Postscript: As you may have noticed, I’m experimenting with a lighter writing style for posts. Up until now I’ve been making efforts to write seriously because I’m dealing with serious subjects, but I’ve come to think that a little humor might do more good than harm. I’d appreciate any comments you might have on this style of post.

LATER NOTE: I followed this article up in October with How to Detect Broken Ideas and How to Repair a Broken Idea, Step by Step.


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