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CBT Technique for Dealing with Mind Reading -Understand the Alternatives

In total I am looking initially at a number of cognitive behavioural therapy techniques for creating balancing thoughts to deal with distorted or negative thinking patterns. So far I have introduced four of them. The 5th CBT technique is about Understanding the Alternatives when you form an explanation or interpretion of a specific situation or event. This can be particularly helpful if you have a tendency to what in cognitive behavioural therapy is known as mind reading - jumping to conclusions about what other people are thinking. It can also be helpful if you have a tendency to catastrophise or think the worst is going to happen, as there may be alternative possibilities which are not quite so bad!

Let's look at an example:

Example of Mind Reading

John is at lunch with his friend Mike and has been talking about the fact that he (John) has taken some time off work recently, as he has been feeling completely exhausted. Mike responds to what John is saying simply by making short comments such as 'Sure' and 'Mmm' but doesn't really engage with what John is saying.

John jumps to the following conclusion: Mike thinks I'm pathetic because I have taken time off work just because I'm not feeling exhausted.

Using the Understand the Alternatives Technique

John asks himself:

  1. What alternative explanations/interpretations are there [of Mike's response/behaviour]
  2. What is the evidence for and against each interpretation?
  3. How likely is it that each interpreation is true?
  4. What can I say to myself on the basis of 1-3 to put my original interpretation in perspective?

After going through questions 1-4, John comes up with the following balancing thought to say to himself to counter his worries about John's responses:

"It may be that Mike does think I'm pathetic - I can't rule it out, but he's not usually that critical of me. A more likely explanation is that he had something on his mind so wasn't fully listening to me or maybe he wasn't quite sure what to say so he didn't say too much.'

As can be seen from the above balancing thought, you may not be able to reach a definitive conclusion about the correct explanation for the event (although of course sometimes you can check up on the facts or you may decide to ask someone what they meant rather than agonise about it if that is practical) but you may realise that your initial thought is not the only explanation and this can help you to be more balanced in your approach.

Tip: Remember uncertainty is a part of life - in many situations you won't be able to exclude uncertainty altogether. If you can live with the possibility that there may be more than one possible interpretation of a situation then that may help you to deal with it better.

If you have a tendency to black and white thinking (imagining that there must be a clearcut either/or explanation of a situation or event) remember that this is not always the case!

What to Do Next: Next time you get stressed out because you have a particular interpretation of how someone is acting or of what is going to happen in a situation or of what it's significance is, try to 'Understand the Alternatives' by asking yourself the four questions listed above. If you are still convinced of the truth of your original explanation then try any of the previous techniques described for dealing with your negative thought, such as Face Your Fears.


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