What are Cognitive Distortions?
Recently I had some close people in my life pass away, as a result I started externalizing my problems which put me on downward spiral. My positive self talk was now dark and eating away at any positivity I had let. It affected multiple relationships including one closest me. I felt as though what ever I action I took I would lose people. I did not feel worthy of self-love, or any love, so I pushed them away. I distorted all my thoughts and eventually reached the flat effect. I lost everything in this spiral, my job, friends, family and not just from death, from my self-destructive behavior. I distorted my thoughts and turned any positivity into negativity. Later I found out this behaviour is the root of most psychological disorders: Cognitive distortion.
Generally, the most of us can trust the little voice in our head, but for some it’s an inner battle. The little voice is no longer our friend, it seeks and works hard to justify negative thinking. Instinctively we, as humans, are hardwired to seek out problems and be alert to danger. Over time we lose track of that little voice and like an untrained dog it runs rampant causing distortions to our reality. Over time the neurons that fire with this behaviour wire to this behaviour and it's not habit.
As we have wired together this new thought pattern it's all too easy to complicate our relationships, cause drama, and make overly simple assumptions. These assumptions can lead us to bouts of anger, depression, anxiety and sometimes excessive happiness.
What is cognitive distortion?
As mentioned above cognitive distortion is literally what the name suggestions: a distortion of our mental cognition. In layman terms we take the world around us and turn any rational idea into an irrational idea. They are thoughts or beliefs that are not real but we have succumbed to that little voice which has convinced us that this irrational reality is our new personal reality.
In general psychologists broke down cognitive distortion into 15 main categories. If you seem more in your research that’s okay. I am covering today what I feel are the 15 most common.
What are the most common cognitive distortions?
Mental filtering, or filtering, is when we take a negative thought and amplify it. As we amplify that negative thought, we become tunneled vision and lose sight of all the positive things that are around us. Having a negative thought that you keep dwelling on can harm a relationship and will eventually create an emotional block for future relationships if you allow it to become habit and wired into your brain.
To help fight back on mental filtering start a gratitude journal and write ten good things about that situation or person. This helps our mind zoom out to see the larger picture.
We can write things like: “I am so grateful my partner is supportive.” Or, “I am grateful my partner said good morning”. After you write ten things to be grateful for read it back to yourself and say thank you every time.
Black or White thinking
Black and white thinking, or polarized thinking is when we see things as one extreme or another. Something is amazing, or it’s the complete utter shit. There is no middle ground. Our minds are amazing things, yet they will create shortcuts and generalize something to be black or white. Seeing shades of grey can be rather difficult.
I know I am guilty of this. I will often think to myself, “No one loves me”. Okay let’s analyze this. Does no one actually love me or am I just in an argument now and I am hurt and trying to defend myself? Taking a step back and catching your thoughts is a hard thing to do, especially when emotionally charged. Another example maybe the words, “You can’t do anything right.” To counter this make a list of things you have done right. You made it far enough to read this blog you’re at least taking the right steps. (If you want to give yourself a pat on the back do it, seriously, even if you’re work just do it and smile.)
Over generalizing our problems
I mentioned above the statement “No one loves me”. While yes that is a black and white extreme, it is also placing everyone into the same generalization. We may also see one set back and think it will happen over and over. One event is often seen as a never-ending downward spiral of bad events.
We are our own toughest critics. In fact, if you let a child choose their punishment after being bad, and they know they are bad, most children would choose a punishment more severe than they deserve. We hold ourselves to one standard while we hold others to a more relaxed standard.
Start by changing your standard to be the same one you would give a close friend. Would you go to a friend and say, “You’re going to screw up like you screw everything.”, of course NOT! So why would you think it’s okay to do this for yourself. It’s not.
Look back at life and see all the times you had success. You have always moved on from your failures and have grown.
Jumping to conclusions.
You’re not a fortune teller or mind reader so don’t jump to conclusions. Often those who jump to conclusions will act as though they know what the other is thinking or what the person means by their words. One person will say one thing and you will go and turn it and make it mean something else. That other person may say something along the lines of, “You know I really meant this” and you reply, “No, I know what you meant, said it already”.
Another example of jumping to conclusions is holding a grudge without ever seeing any concrete evidence or even asking the other.
You’re not the other person. Accepting that the other may actually have meant what they have said will go a long way. Other distortions may lead you to believe that your way is the right way. They said it, it’s their words. Accepting this is tough but we must train our brains to be in our best interests.
Magnification (Catastrophizing) or Minimization
Catastrophizing is when we bring things into proportions they do not need to be. We make things worse than they need to be. A small mishap may end up being the biggest problem. We will start finding more and more things that have gone wrong to blow the situation way out of proportion to what it really is.
When we begin to realize that mishaps are a normal part of this world we can being to care less and start accepting them for what they are. If a light bulb in your house goes off, it’s not the end of the world we simply go and get a new light bulb or change one for a fixture and move them around until every fixture has one single burnt out bulb. The point is controlling our thoughts I hard but seeing things in a true perspective that shit happens can bring a lot of peace to you and others around you.
Personalization is when we make everything wrong to be our fault. If you’ve distorted your thinking you may say the world is out to get you, everyone is against you, everyone is smarter, or it’s your fault that person didn’t open the door for you. You take everything personal and fail to realize we are all people. Just because someone didn’t hold a door open for you and you think it’s your fault stop and reanalyzed the situation.
Where they wearing headphones and didn’t hear footsteps? Where you an odd distance away from the door that maybe it would make you feel awkward (Canadians will get this)? Where they busy with another thought or other cognitive distortion?
In another situation you failed a school project where there were three people working on it one project. If your group failed as a whole you are one third problem if that, maybe another didn’t pull their full weight etc. There’re many issues that come to play and it may give you a breath of fresh air to know it’s not all your fault.
Emotions are not facts and are hardwired into us. They just “are”, yet many of us will use the feelings that accompany our emotions to create a distortion in our cognition. We will be using our feelings and reason with our inner voice to rationalize with ourselves to make them true. You may say to yourself,” I feel this way so it must be true”; This is an example of emotional reasoning.
Reasoning with yourself is a hard thing to do. Start by taking a few deep breaths and then grab your journal as I suggest putting this on paper. This way you can really take a look at it and filter your thoughts. Just because you feel something to be true doesn’t always make it true. Start by writing down your thoughts you want to change. Once you’ve done that dig deeper by looking at the pros and cons of your thought pattern. Will this negative thought help you? And lastly, write your new thought.
This is a tough one to crack as when we feel our emotions it’s actually a chemical response. We must break the chemical and neurological responses.
Fallacies of Change
When we distort our mind, we may expect others to change for us to better suit us. It is only then when those people change that we will find happiness. This statement is an irrational and damaging thought pattern. Happiness does not rest on others, it rests in how we see and view the world. The truth is we cannot expect others to change it is only us who can change how we see others.
Giving thanks in your journal to those around you can start changing your cognition and really viewing people for all the good they do in our lives. Slowly you will see that by looking inward we can see that not everyone is going to change, we need to change how we see them.
Labelling or mislabelling
Many will say that labelling is a form of cognitive distortion. I am going one further and adding mislabelling. By adding a label or labelling others incorrectly is distorting how we view the world. Let’s say we use the previous example of someone not opening the door for you, immediately in your head you say your self, “Wow he’s a grumpy old man”. You just labeled this man as grumpy, if he’s not grumpy then you just mislabeled him.
People, in general, don’t mean to harm others or treat others poorly. We don’t know many things about those around us, who they lost, their culture, values, etc. If you catch yourself labelling, or mislabelling, ask yourself, “is this fact or an opinion”. If it happens to be an opinion then it's easier to rationalize with yourself that maybe this man is not grumpy.
Always being right
If you have this cognitive distortion you are likely putting others on trial more often than not. You will fight to the death to be right even if it means you hurt others and push them away. You may also spend hours on the internet fighting with commenters just to prove you are right.
Take a step back and center yourself as you practise deep breathing for 30 seconds. You don’t want to “flip your lid” and hurt a relationship. Give yourself a cool off period by going for a walk and getting active in another activity.
A lot of us are brought up on the notion that hard works means big rewards. As such we expect an award as though it comes from heaven. This is a false certainty that a person’s sacrifice and self-denial will eventually pay off. If for any instance you don’t get a reward you a turned into a depression, frustration, bitterness, or a multitude of other emotions.
You may not get the reward you’re looking for but you have grown as a person. Sticking through a hard task may have grown you as a person. Take a look at the positive changes you have in your life because you have word hard. Maybe you grew in self discipline to get more done, maybe you learned better ways to cope with stress. Sometimes rewards come in the oddest of times.
I have listed on fifteen out of many cognitive distortions. Many of which are the preamble to major disorders and may be severely damaging to ourselves and others. It’s no easy task to admit to ourselves that we may have one or more of these distortions and it’s even harder to catch out thoughts. Be find and diligent. Not everything has to happen immediately.
Even if you do not have depression or anxiety it doesn’t hurt to check your thoughts from time to time. You may catch yourself from sliding into a negative mind frame.
Sometimes we let our minds distort us into a negative way of life. Working on ourselves to change how we see the world can help us grow our relationships, rekindle love and be a better version of ourselves. It is important to keep in mind that although we may not have some thought distortions, others may have it. Forgive them for they don’t know what they have.