You may not realize it, but much of what you feel and the actions you take can be explained by your thoughts. It’s hard to recognize the influence our thoughts have over us, because we all have that internal voice chattering away all day, and without conscious effort, we let much of what it says to us go uncheck and unchallenged. Don’t think lack of awareness equates to lack of impact, though; whether we realize it or not, this chatter shapes the way we view ourselves, others, and our world. Often times, we get a messed up view of ourselves. This occurrence is referred to as cognitive distortions.
Cognitive distortions are specific, inaccurate ways of viewing the world that many people (whether they have a diagnosable mental health condition or not) tend to engage in. Cognitive distortions can be thought about like this: imagine you are looking into a mirror that has been dropped and broken. Is the image reflected to you accurate? Yes, you will likely be able to make out the image of your own reflection, but the way the glass breaks will determine what you see in that broken mirror. Perhaps this broken mirror reflects back a large, bulbous nose, or makes your face appear lopsided. Perhaps it distorts the symmetry of your features and makes you look more like Quasimodo from the Hunchback of Notre Dame than yourself. Would we trust the image that a broken mirror displays to us to be a full, complete, and accurate picture? Of course not.
Allowing cognitive distortions to dictate our thoughts and feelings is much like believing the reflection in a broken mirror: the image we’re getting is distorted, and we can’t very well make good choices with distorted misinformation. Read on to find out what some of the most common cognitive distortions are, and how to challenge them!
A person engaging in mental filtering takes the negative details and magnifies those details while filtering out all positive aspects of a situation. For example, if a typically straight-A student gets a poor grade on a test, they may magnify the importance and impact of this sub-par grade and totally forget (read: filter out) the rest of their stellar grades. Would it make sense to judge yourself based on the exception, rather than the rule? Obviously not.
All or nothing (or “Black and White”) Thinking
With this distortion, things are either “black-or-white” — all or nothing. A common one I see is that people think they’re either perfect or a total failure. There is no middle ground. A person with polarized thinking places people or situations in “either/or” categories. The problem with Black and White thinking is that the world is complex and messy. More often than not made up of shades of gray. For example, someone can be a “good person” but occasionally tell a lie or accidentally hurt someone else’s feelings.
In this cognitive distortion, a person comes to a general conclusion based on one situation or piece of evidence. For example, if an individual is in a relationship that ends poorly, they could engage in overgeneralization by thinking to themselves “Well, I guess I’ll always get hurt if I enter into a close relationship with someone else”. This may mean that they swear off getting into relationships altogether going forward. One rotten egg shouldn’t spoil the rest of the dozen!
Jumping to Conclusions
A person who jumps to conclusions believes that they know what another person is feeling and thinking. So much so that they often don’t bother actually to check if they’re correct with the other person! This can lead us to make many assumptions that could be way off. It could lead to some pretty unhelpful behavior. For example, if a colleague at work is a little short with us one day, and we jump to the conclusion that they’re upset with us, we may start avoiding them or act timid or uncomfortable in their presence. This could lead to the other person being confused and making assumptions about reasons for our strange behavior… and the cycle of jumping to conclusions would continue! Instead, asking for clarification from the other person or sharing what we’re thinking and asking if we’re correct side-steps the whole process!
This one is exactly what it sounds like. It comes from the word catastrophe, which is defined as “an event causing great and often sudden damage or suffering; a disaster”. When someone catastrophizes, they imagine the absolute worst-case scenario and assume that it is the most likely outcome for a situation. Sure, disasters happen; but when we look at day-to-day life, disasters are statistically rare and usually the least likely outcome that actually will occur. For example, if you get a B- on a test, will you likely get kicked out of school? Probably not.
One of my favorite quotes in regards to thoughts is: “Just because you think something, doesn’t mean it’s true”. However, this is precisely what emotional reasoning would have you believe! Whatever a person is feeling is believed to be true automatically and unconditionally. If a person feels stupid and lazy, then they take these feelings as evidence that they are, in fact, stupid and lazy. Emotional reasoning can be so persuasive that it does not make room for logic and actual reasoning… which are vital tools in combatting cognitive distortions.
People often use labels for themselves, and these come in a few forms. Sometimes people label themselves with adjectives, such as “I’m an idiot” or “I’m a bad person”. Another form of labeling involves using words like “should” or “must”. For example, “I should be better in school.” I have a phrase for individuals who use this label chronically: that they “should all over themselves!” And no one wants that. When you tell yourself that you “should” do something, if you don’t end up doing that thing, it often results in feeling like you broke a rule or failed to meet a goal. One solution is to rephrase this labeling to make more room for reality; instead of saying that you “should” do something, say “it would be helpful to” instead.
If you find yourself engaging in inaccurate or distorted thinking, give us a call today. One of our highly trained Cognitive-Behavioral Therapists can help. Their specialty is helping people become aware of, challenge, and change distorted thinking. This helps those people get a clear picture of what’s going on in their life. Often, just being able to do this can help bring some relief from symptoms of anxiety and depression.