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What We Think We Know
Have you ever tried to predict the future? Or thought you knew what someone else was thinking without having to ask?
I know I have. And I often assume the worst. I’ve thought, “I just know this is going to fail.” In psychological terms, this is called fortune-telling.
And I’ve thought, “I just know they’re talking about me!” This is called mind-reading.
But there’s a funny thing about jumping to conclusions. We often land in the wrong spot, misreading situations or people entirely.
That’s what Part 5 of my series on Cognitive Therapy is all about.
Fortune-telling and mind-reading often go hand in hand. Check out these examples:
Jack is worried about a project that went south at work. He’s thinking: “I just know my boss is fuming (mind-reading). He’ll probably fire me now (mind-reading). My career is ruined (fortune-telling). My life is over (fortune-telling)!”
Kayla is worried about her boyfriend. She’s thinking, “He’s upset about something (mind-reading). We’ll probably get into a huge fight about it (fortune-telling). And then we’ll break up (fortune-telling). My life is over (fortune-telling)!”
These negative thoughts create three problems.
First, mind-reading and fortune-telling often interweave their own story, creating a false fabric of reality.
We think to ourselves, “It all fits, so it must be true.” But our false reality is masking the truth.
Second, we create self-fulfilling prophecies this way.
If we expect to fail, then we probably will fail. If we expect to fight with someone, then we usually end up doing exactly that.
Anticipating the worst often leads to experiencing the worst.
Third, our conclusions land us in a whole lot of emotional stress.
They can escalate into anxiety or even panic.
They can also destroy future hope, because our final conclusion is often, “My life is over.”
We may laugh at the melodrama, but such hopelessness can bring on the darkest thought of all: suicide.
Almost 800,000 commit suicide worldwide every year, placing it among the top 20 causes of death globally. The stark reality behind these numbers is, someone takes their own life every 40 seconds.
Depression is the leading predictor of suicide attempts in developed countries around the world.
It’s been said that suicide is the ultimate fortune-teller error. We look into the future and draw one of two conclusions: either a) “I would be better off dead,” or b) “The rest of the world will be better off without me.”
But we can’t see the future.
To draw these conclusions, you or I must believe that nothing we have ever done in the past, nor anything we may do in the future, is worth staying alive for. No relationship is worth staying alive, nor any bond of love, commitment, belief, or faith.
It’s important to understand that these thoughts distort our ideas of what’s happening now as well as how we see the future. Cognitive therapy can help us get rid of these distortions.
Four Principles of Cognitive Therapy
In this series, we’re applying four principles of cognitive therapy to specific distorted thoughts.
PRINCIPLE #1: Do Your RESEARCH.
For fortune-telling, we can ask:
- How do we really know what’s going to happen?
- Are there other ways the situation can go?
- What’s our part? Do we have any control in making one thing happen over something else?
For mind-reading, we can ask,
- How do we really know what they’re thinking? What exactly did the person say or do that led us to our conclusion?
- Are there other ways to interpret their actions?
- Is our conclusion consistent with what we know about the person?
PRINCIPLE #2: Be a REALIST.
Second, we can be more REALISTIC about our conclusions. Depressed or anxious thinking patterns are often inflexible, meaning we follow our negative thoughts down a dark, narrow rabbit hole.
We can get trapped our own dark and narrow conclusions, believing they are the only way to interpret what is happening. It can help to remember that there are always other ways to look at things.
Jack is worried about his work project. But are there other realistic outcomes, beside his boss getting so mad that he fires him? Yeah, sure. Jack could talk the project over with his boss, getting constructive feedback and offering ways to improve on the next one.
Kayla is worried about tensions with her boyfriend. Are there other realistic outcomes, beside breaking up? Yeah, sure. She could ask him what, if anything, is wrong between them. Then they can work together to make things right.
These are both better alternatives that crawling through dark, narrow rabbit holes on our own.
PRINCIPLE #3: Find the Right RATIO.
Third, we can find the best cost-benefit RATIO. Most of us have a spotty track record at best when we jump to conclusions.
And they’re hazardous to our emotional health, often landing us squarely in conflict, anxiety, and sometimes despair.
This is a heavy cost, compared to the bleak benefit of sometimes being right.
Do we think the cost is worth it?
PRINCIPLE #4: Follow the Golden RULE.
When we are tempted to mind-read, it may be worth asking,
- “Are we judging others in ways that we ourselves wouldn’t want to be judged?”
- “If I were on the other side of this, how would I want to be treated?”
My personal answer is, “I would not want someone else to jump to conclusions about my thoughts, even if they think they know already.”
Ben Franklin once said, “To succeed, jump as quickly at opportunities as you do conclusions.”
We all have an opportunity to believe the best of each other. We can choose not to assume, but to ask. Not to talk, but to listen. Not to put words or actions in others’ mouths or minds, but to respect their ability to do this themselves.
For the best mental health, let’s learn to look before we
leap to conclusions.
 World Health Organization. (2017). Depression and other common mental disorders: global health estimates. https://www.who.int/mental_health/prevention/suicide/suicideprevent/en/
 Nock, M. K., Hwang, I., Sampson, N., Kessler, R. C., Angermeyer, M., Beautrais, A., … & De Graaf, R. (2009). Cross-national analysis of the associations among mental disorders and suicidal behavior: findings from the WHO World Mental Health Surveys. PLoS medicine, 6(8), e1000123.
 Beck, A. T. (1979). Cognitive therapy of depression. New York: Guilford press. 12, 210-211.
Dr. Pamela Coburn-Litvak has published research articles on exercise and stress in Neuroscience and Neurobiology of Learning and Behavior. Her latest book, Leaving the Shadowland of Stress, Anxiety, and Depression, was published in 2020.
After receiving a Ph.D. in Neurobiology and Behavior from the State University of New York at Stony Brook, she served as both Assistant Professor of Physiology & Pharmacology and Special Assistant to the Vice President for Research Affairs at Loma Linda University in Loma Linda, California. She then joined the Biology department at Andrews University and developed courses in human physiology as well as the neurobiology of mental illness. She also founded Rock @ Science LLC, a company that specializes in health and science education and web development. She co-developed the brain and body physiology segment of the Stress: Beyond Coping seminar with its creator, Dr. William “Skip” MacCarty, DMin.
Dr. Coburn-Litvak currently lives in California with her husband. Their two daughters are mostly grown and attending school elsewhere.
When she’s not studying or teaching about stress, she enjoys stress-relieving activities like puttering around the garden, taking nature walks with her family, knitting, cooking, and reading.