Our ability to think produces wonderful images. We can enjoy good memories, plan for our next barrel race, reflect on accomplishments and think about loved ones. Essentially, we can conjure up any pleasant notion that we would like. However, there is also a “dark side” of our thoughts that can cause us to dwell on unpleasant memories, be discouraged about perceived lack of progress, believe negative things about ourselves, or worry about uncertainties in the future.

Thoughts become destructive when they begin to form themes that are ingrained, negative, and limiting in the way we interpret ourselves and events. The following is a short list of examples:

Cognitive Distortion



Dichotomous Thinking

Categorizing something as either all good or all bad.

“That was a great run. I am the best barrel racer ever!”


“That was an awful run. I am never going to pull a check.”


Imagining the worst-case scenario with an unlikely extreme outcome.

“What if I get a flat tire on my way to the next race? My horses will be stranded for hours on the side of the road, then I’ll be late so I won’t be able to run and without that run I will drop in the standings so all my winnings thus far will be pointless.”

Maximizing and Minimizing

Placing too much emphasis on negative events and/or not enough importance on positive events.

“Sure I won that race, but I’m still not any good because the toughest competitors weren’t there.”


Believing events are directed at ourselves when they are not related to us.

“The announcer mispronounced my name on purpose.”


“They always find a way to put me at the bottom of the draw because they don’t like me.”

In each of these examples, the thought becomes unhelpful to our overall goals and emotional experiences. Even positive distortions, which can make us feel invincible for a time, can have detrimental outcomes. If you think, “That was a great run. I am the best barrel racer ever,” you are bound to be disappointed because everyone gets outrun at some point in today’s tough competitive environment. To determine if your thought is unhelpful, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Does it help me reach my goals?
  • Does it help me to feel good about myself?
  • Is it based on actual facts or evidence?
  • Would a loved one tell me this?
  • Would I tell someone else this?
  • Is this thought reasonable?

Thoughts are running commentaries in our minds that help us to decipher and understand our experiences. Metacognition is our ability to observe this commentary. When we are aware of our thoughts, we have the power to decide which ones we will actually believe. When we believe a thought, we are “fused” with it and it becomes reality. For example, if you think, “I am never going to pull a check,” and you are fused with this thought, you will likely start to behave in ways that make this come true. You may be less inclined to train daily, ask for assistance, or enter that next race.

However, you can “defuse” from unhealthy thoughts. Cognitive defusion is the act of recognizing that a thought is only a thought and making a conscious decision about whether to believe it. Here are several methods that may be used to defuse from unhelpful thoughts:

  • Place “I am having the thought that…” in front of whatever your thought is. For example, “I am having the thought that the announcer mispronounced my name on purpose.”
  • Sing your thought or say it in a ridiculous voice so it is less credible.
  • Imagine someone you don’t like is telling you the thought.
  • Say to yourself, “There’s that darned thought again.”
  • Visualize your thoughts as flowing across your mind and allow them to keep on rolling out of awareness without focusing on them.
  • Imagine your thought is broadcast on the radio and turn down the volume.
  • Repeat a triggering word (e.g., failure, worthless, etc.) aloud over and over again as fast as you can for one minute until it becomes a muddled sound and loses its meaning.

When you no longer accept an unhelpful thought as true, you have the opportunity to replace it with a more useful style of thinking. For example, “Sure I won that race, but I’m still not any good because the toughest competitors weren’t there,” can become, “I’m proud I won that race. I know that the toughies weren’t there, but I’ll see how I match up next time.” Helpful thoughts lead to a more positive emotional experience (in this case, celebrating accomplishments) and effective behavior (working hard to continue improving), which then create more helpful future thoughts. When replacing unhelpful thoughts, make sure that your new thought is actually beneficial instead of your old thought in a new package.

Your thinking style has been developed over years, so changing it takes time and training. Be patient with yourself and the process. I’ll try to do the same.

Dr. Kathy Korell-Rach, Ph.D. is a licensed Clinical Psychologist and owns Country Counseling, LLC in Loveland, Colo. For more information, visit countrycounselingllc.com. She competes for Bar Three Stables by running homegrown horses sired by nationally ranked barrel horse sire Smoke N Sparks. Email comments on this article to [email protected].
Disclaimer: This information should not be considered a therapeutic intervention and no client-therapist relationship is established by reading this article.


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