From Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy by David Burns
You arbitrarily jump to a negative conclusion that is not justified by the facts of the situation. Two examples of this are "mind reading" and "the fortune teller error."
Mind Reading: You make the assumption that other people are looking down on you, and you're so convinced about this that you don't even bother to check it out. Suppose you are giving an excellent lecture, and you notice that a man in the front row is nodding off. He was up most of the night on a wild fling, but you of course don't know this. You might have the thought, "This audience thinks I'm a bore." Suppose a friend passes you on the street and fails to say hello because he is so absorbed in his thoughts he doesn't notice you. You might erroneously conclude, "He is ignoring me so he must not like me anymore." Perhaps your spouse is unresponsive one evening because he or she was criticized at work and is too upset to want to talk about it. Your heart sinks because of the way you interpret the silence: "He (or she) is mad at me. What did I do wrong?"
You may then respond to these imagined negative reactions by withdrawal or counterattack. This self-defeating behavior pattern may act as a self-fulfilling prophecy and set up a negative interaction in a relationship when none exists in the first place.
The Fortune Teller Error: It's as if you had a crystal ball that foretold only misery for you. You imagine that something bad is about to happen, and you take this prediction as a fact even though it is unrealistic. A high-school librarian repeatedly told herself during anxiety attacks, "I'm going to pass out or go crazy." These predictions were unrealistic because she had never once passed out (or gone crazy!) in her entire life. Nor did she have any serious symptoms to suggest impending insanity. During a therapy session an acutely depressed physician explained to me why he was giving up his practice: "I realize I'll be depressed forever. My misery will go on and on, and I'm absolutely convinced that this or any treatment will be doomed to failure." This negative prediction about his prognosis caused him to feel hopeless. his symptomatic improvement soon after initiating therapy indicated just how off-base his fortune telling had been.
Do you ever find yourself jumping to conclusions like these? Suppose you telephone a friend who fails to return your call after a reasonable time. You then feel depressed when you tell yourself that your friend probably got the message but wasn't interested enough to call you back. Your distortion?--mind reading. You then feel bitter, and decide not to call back and check this out because you say to yourself, "He'll think I'm being obnoxious if I call him back again. I'll only make a fool of myself." Because of these negative predictions (the fortune teller error), you avoid your friend and feel put down. Three weeks later you learn that your friend never got your message. All that stewing, it turns out, was just a lot of self-imposed hokum. Another painful product of your mental magic!
This is one of my shiniest and well worn weapons against myself. I like to think I'm being so insightful and intuitive... prophetic even! It's all just a trick my mind plays. This has been one of the hardest cog-dis for me to consistently identify and change. I guess I need to get out my little notebook and write down all my negative thoughts so I can overcome this one.