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How to Break Cognitive Distortions

Picture this: you spend months thinking about how your life is going to change once...

  • you go to college

  • you graduate

  • you get pregnant

  • your children are no longer little

  • this pandemic is over

  • you just have more time!

  • you get a new job

  • you get married

  • you start dating

  • you make more money

  • you're in a "nicer" home

  • your parents are healthy again

  • ....[insert any big life event]

Sound familiar? Far too often we spend all this time thinking of what will be, but then by the time we get there, things aren't the way we expected. Our life didn't change in the way we thought it would. Our habits are still our habits. Our struggles are still our struggles. We still think the same way we did before.

We tend to chase greener grass, without taking the time to water our current grass. Instead of chasing greener grass, I want to encourage you to water your own grass, by addressing your cognitive distortions, ultimately chase mental + emotional + behavior change!

If I had to guess, you likely use some of the same thinking every time you make a decision/something hard happens/you don't understand something. Some of it may be healthy thinking, and some of it may include various cognitive distortions. There are nine cognitive distortions I want to address. By identifying what cognitive distortion(s) you fall prey to, you will be well equipped to change your thought process, and thus your habits & behaviors! You will learn how to water the grass where you currently live.

Emotional Reasoning: Allowing feelings to guide our interpretation of reality.
  • What Happened: Jenny said, "Hospitals are overreporting Covid-19 deaths." Your grandpa just died from Covid-19.

  • What you Think: You feel hurt & angry. Jenny hurt you & is mean.

  • Reality: You feel hurt & angry. Your grandpa died from Covid-19 and you are dealing with grief & pain. Jenny didn't hurt you, nor does what she said show she is mean. Rather, your grandpa's death has left you sad, dealing with heavy emotions of grief & pain.

  • A Note from the Experts: "Noticing these feelings might help us come to understand ourselves better, but it will not improve our mental model of the way the external world works. It’s important to remember that our feelings do not reveal to us anything more than how we feel. They are different from our intuitions. They are different from our instincts. Confusing feelings with thoughts, or feelings with reality, is a cognitive distortion" (1).

Catastrophizing: believing something that happened will lead to a catastophe.
  • What Happened: There is a pandemic called Covid-19. Some people are dying.

  • What you Think: You/a family member/a loved one will die. You live in fear daily.

  • Reality: There is a pandemic. You or a loved one could die from Covid-19, but death in life is inevitable. Worrying about when it will happen is a misuse of our thoughts and time. Instead, we should take precautions to live safely amidst a pandemic, without giving way to daily fear.

  • A Note from the Experts: "Our imaginations are powerful tools for protecting us against harm. When we construct in our imaginations a cascade of events that eventually leads to catastrophe, that might be a way of keeping ourselves physically and psychologically safe from harm. That doesn’t mean it’s true" (1).

Overgeneralizing: Believing that just because something happened once, it will always happen. Taking a specific experience and drawing a general, overarching conclusion.
  • What Happened: You watched an influencer with 1 million followers talk on her Instagram stories and say she "received horrible service at the Starbucks on 15th Avenue."

  • What you Think: The Starbucks on 15th Avenue is known for its horrible customer service.

  • Reality: This influencer had horrible service. But she's just one person. Maybe every other worker at 15th Avenue Starbucks offers great customer service, maybe they don't...but the point is we DON'T KNOW.

  • A Note from the Experts: "It is a mistake to think that something that happens once will happen alwaysalways. A specific experience, in a particular context, does not provide sufficient evidence to draw a general conclusion" (1).

Dichotomous (All-Or-Nothing) Thinking: It involves thinking in terms of always or never...leaving no room for a middle ground. (This is something I talk about often with clients).
  • What Happened: You ate two cupcakes.

  • What you Think: You ate horribly all day. You should just eat the rest of the cupcakes because you ate horribly today.

  • Reality: You ate two cupcakes. You also ate eggs + sautéd spinach + onions for breakfast, a large kale + quinoa salad for lunch, and chicken + sweet potato fries + pineapple for dinner. You didn't ruin your whole day of eating.

  • A Note from the Experts: "These extremes simplify the reasoning required to come to terms, or make sense, of our negative emotions. The construction of a false dichotomy (either… or) is a cognitive shortcut — i.e., a substitute for thinking — that sometimes helps us manipulate those around us into behaving in ways that will help us feel better. You can detect this type of thinking when you hear adverbs that leave no room for exception, like 'totally, completely, utterly, absolutely.' The exaggeration of sometimes to always/never is a cognitive distortion" (1).

Mind Reading: Assuming someone is thinking something before they even say it/or assuming something they said also means a load of other things they did not say.
  • What you Happened: Your mom said, "I am sad you can't come home for Thanksgiving."

  • What you Think: My mom is so selfish. She's always trying to guilt me into things. She doesn't understand what's going on in my life. She thinks I could come if I wanted. I couldn't have come! The flights were outside my budget and I had to work!

  • Reality: Your mom is sad you can't come to Thanksgiving. She will miss your presence. That is all she said.

  • A Note from the Experts: "There are some people with whom we have so much experience that we can know their thoughts. For example, in some passive-aggressive families, children learn to interpret their parent's sarcasm or suggestions without the parents having to trouble themselves to explain themselves. This confers (to the parent) the real advantage of being able to change their mind later, and claiming that the child misunderstood, or misinterpreted the parent. The effect will be to raise a child hypervigilant for hidden meanings that do not exist, were not stated, and might even be the opposite of reality. Although it is true that we can empathize with others whom we know well and use our imagination to access what they might be thinking, projecting thoughts onto them and attributing the projection to others is a cognitive distortion" (1).

Labeling: Labeling is the correspondent of overgeneralizing. It is "assigning global (negative) traits to yourself or others" (1).
  • What you Happened: Ken approves of a certain policy.

  • What you Think: Ken is a racist, misogynist, bigot.

  • Reality: Ken approves a certain policy you disagree with.

  • A Note from the Experts: "Just because someone belongs to a category, doesn’t mean they embody all the traits that are stereotypical of that category. Like dichotomous thinking, labeling is a cognitive distortion that oversimplifies what we understand about people and the world" (1).

Negative Filtering: Emphasizing the negative data/evidence. This impacts our view of the world.
  • What you Happened: Janice forgot your birthday.

  • What you Think: Janice is THE most inconsiderate person!!! UGH!

  • Reality: Janice forgot one, just one of your birthdays.

  • A Note from the Experts: "You might have experience with someone that suggests they are reliable, timely, and keep their commitments. However, if you label them, overgeneralize, and claim they are totally inconsiderate the first time they forget to send you a birthday greeting, you are engaging in negative filtering —i.e., amplifying the negative signal until it overwhelms the positive" (1).

Discounting Positives: "A complement to negative filtering is rationalizing away positive evidence, as if it was false or doesn’t count" (1).
  • What you Happened: Janice forgot your birthday.

  • What you Think: Janice is the most inconsiderate person!!! UGH!

  • Reality: Janice forgot one of your birthdays, but she remembered the last ten birthdays.

  • A Note from the Experts: "Both negative filtering and discounting positives are powerful approaches to ignoring evidence that result in cognitive distortions" (1).

Blaming: Placing blame on other people/places/things for what happens in your life.
  • What you Happened: You slipped on the snow/ice in your driveaway and broke your leg.

  • What you Think: It's all your spouse's fault you broke your leg. If they would have shoveled & salted the driveway, you wouldn't have broken your leg!

  • Reality: You slipped on the snow/ice and broke your leg. Your spouse didn't shovel/salt the driveway. It's not your spouse's fault you broke your leg.

  • A Note from the Experts: "When we are children, sometimes our parents, teachers, or other role models will seek to control our behaviors or our emotions. These attempts (often successful) can give children the impression that they do not control their own minds, and this erroneous impression often persists to adulthood" (1).

Each one of these cognitive distortions vastly impacts how we view life. Cognitive distortions impact our choices, behaviors, habits, and ultimately life. By identifying (& pivoting) when one of these cognitive distortions enters our thought process, we will begin to cultivate healthy thinking, and thus likely healthy habits an behaviors!



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