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Common Physician Thought Distortions, Overview

Piggybacking on the Optimizing Our Mindset as Physicians series, I’d like to bring to light some common thought distortions to which we are not immune. Dr. Ali Novitsky, my original and ongoing physician coach, and her husband, Dr. Mark Novitsky, a psychiatrist, were the first to introduce this concept at a conference I attended a few years back. 


I was aware that there were times I and those I worked with were wrong in our assumptions, but I didn’t have the framework to classify and recognize them as distortions.


Thought distortions are also called thought errors or cognitive distortions. Essentially, they are well-worn patterns of thinking that are inaccurate but recurrent. They are like little glitches in our mental processing. And as the well-worn neuropathways they’ve become, we accept them as true. They are not intrusive; they are inactive.


Everyone has their own most common errored-thinking, including us as physicians. We can actually have multiple ones happening at once. 


This matters because it adds to our unnecessary suffering in a career already fraught with challenges. These distortions cause us to lean more negative in our thinking. Also, thought distortions negatively reinforce themselves and often cause a negative emotional spiral which can impact our mental health.  


The good news is that you can learn to catch them and form new, more accurate, and helpful thinking patterns. There are often settings and situations that activate cognitive errors more commonly. You can begin to observe what those are for you. I know lack of sleep and being jet-lagged are two of my triggers. Also, circumstances, in which I’m feeling a bit insecure, ramp up the likelihood of those error patterns for me.


The presentation by Dr. Novitsky offered the 5 most common in physicians.  I’ve added to that original list based on my experience coaching. In no particular order:


  1. Should and should not statements
  2. Polarized thinking
  3. Mental filter
  4. Dismissing the positives
  5. Jumping to conclusions
  6. Catastrophizing
  7. Mind reading
  8. Personalization
  9. Over-generalization


Over the next few weeks, I will unpack each and how it impacts us at work (and outside of work) and give you tips to recognize and start the work of diverting your mind’s well-worn patterns toward healthier ones.


Until then,

Have a joy-filled week!  Tonya

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