Using Thought Records to Challenge Distorted Thinking: A Step-By-Step Guide

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A thought record is a major tool in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) that guides us, step by step, through the process of challenging distorted, automatic thoughts.

If you’ve been following my recent blog posts, you’ll know that in order to even recognize automatic thoughts as they’re occurring, you first need to practice mindfulness.

You’ll also know that in order break down the distorted thinking patterns within automatic thoughts, you need a basic understanding of cognitive distortions.

Your success in using thought records to challenge distorted, automatic thoughts relies heavily on a strong foundation of mindfulness and understanding cognitive distortions, so if you haven’t read my previous blog posts on these topics, click here, here and here to review them now, BEFORE moving on to today’s post on thought records.

For those of you who are already up to speed on mindfulness and cognitive distortions, keep reading!

In today’s post, I’m going to demonstrate how to complete a thought record. As the name suggests, it’s a written record or log of automatic thoughts, made up of six columns.

Fortunately, you don’t have to scour the internet for a thought record template, because I’ve got one for you! Free! Click here to have it delivered to your inbox.

Got your template and ready to practice? Let’s go!

For this practice example, let’s say you just got out of a performance review, and you got a lot more “meets expectations” or “does not meet expectations” than anticipated or desired.

You walk out of the performance review and notice yourself having the following automatic thoughts:

“I’m a failure.” “I’m going to get fired.” “They regret hiring me.”

Write these in the second column, under Automatic Thought.

In the first column, under Situation, we describe the situation that provided the context for the automatic thought. You could, for example, write something like:

2:30pm, Wednesday, coming out of performance review with supervisor, got more “does not meet expectations” than I thought I would

Try to be as specific and objective in this section as possible.

Next, under the Feeling column, write the feelings linked to the automatic thoughts. In this case, the feelings might include:

Ashamed, hopeless, scared, angry at myself, shocked

You may want to rate the intensity of each emotion on a scale from 1-10 and write this number next to each corresponding feeling. For example:

Ashamed (7), hopeless (4), scared (7), angry at myself (5), shocked (8)

Now for the good stuff! Identify which cognitive distortions are present in these automatic thoughts, and write them down in the Cognitive Distortions column. You may want to refer to the List of Cognitive Distortions to guide you thought this step. For example:

“I’m a failure” = labeling, all or nothing thinking, magnification

“I’m going to get fired” = fortune telling, catastrophizing

“They regret hiring me” = mind reading

Next, you will come up with alternative thoughts to counter and challenge your automatic ones. For people who have a hard time talking to themselves in a nice voice, try to imagine what your best friend or Mister Rogers would say. Alternatively (see what I did there?), you can work from the basis of the cognitive distortions you’ve just identified. Write these in the Alternative Thought column. For example:

“I’m a failure” = Just because I didn’t do so great on one performance review doesn’t mean I’m an failure. It’s not fair to label me as a failure when I have achieved many things and worked hard (maybe citing some examples). It’s just one performance review and there is always room for improvement. In fact, the whole point of these reviews is not for everyone to tell me I’m perfect, but to provide constructive feedback. I’m learning and growing and sometimes there a bumps in the road, but this doesn’t define me.

“I’m going to get fired” = No one said anything about getting fired. Aside from this review, I haven’t received any serious complaints. I can’t predict what will happen in the future, but I have no strong evidence right now to suggest that I will for certain be fired. And if someday I am fired from a job, I will deal with the situation then.

“They regret hiring me” = Did my supervisor specifically say or write this in my review? If not, I cannot presume to know for certain that this is what they are thinking. I cannot read minds (though I’d like to), so I’m not going to automatically assume the most hurtful conclusion without some solid evidence to back it up.

In the final column, Feeling Reappraisal, write any feelings you have in response to these alternative thoughts. If you are still experiencing some of the same feelings you did before, you can write them again, re-ranking their current intensity level. For example:

Calmer, disappointed, ashamed (5), hopeless (2), scared (4), angry at myself (3), shocked (6)

It is alright if your feelings do not go away completely after finishing a thought record. Look for some change, even a tiny one, and make sure to acknowledge it.

The purpose of thought records and mindfulness is not to erase all negative thoughts from your brain, but to learn how to more easily recognize them when they occur, identify your “favorite” cognitive distortions, and be able to challenge these thoughts with more objective, compassionate ones.

As with everything, practice makes perfect. Sign up for my free Automatic Thought Record template and try to complete at least one thought record a day this week. Let me know how it’s going for you in the comments below!

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