You know that nagging voice inside your head? The one that doesn’t stop and likes to tell you that you’ll never be good enough?
Or it shows up unexpectedly to remind you of previous times you’ve failed, so there really isn’t a point in trying again.
Yeah, that voice.
It has a name. It’s called a cognitive distortion and it’s out to steal your happiness.
Cognitive distortion is a fancy term for fixed, automatic thinking patterns that many of us have and have become so accustom to that we barely take notice, and yet they can cause an immense amount of distress.
These thoughts can completely color and shape our perception of the world and our place in it. Even further to that, cognitive distortions can fuel depression and anxiety by getting us caught in an endless cycle of negative thinking accompanied by negative, often painful emotional reactions.
Understanding Cognitive Distortions
Simply put, cognitive distortions are negative, exaggerated and often very unhelpful thinking patterns that can get you stuck.
They cause us to have irrational or distorted views of reality and then result in associated negative emotions.
Spend too long with a cognitive distortion and you’ll find yourself ruminating that life isn’t fair, or that everyone in your office thinks you’re not qualified for your job.
These thoughts can lead you to feel strong emotions like guilt, shame, embarrassment or sadness over things that likely aren’t true or realistic — or remotely in your control.
Types of cognitive distortions include:
- Always being right — with no possibility of being wrong.
- Blaming — refusal to take responsibility for outcomes and looking to others to take the blame.
- Disqualifying the positive — ignoring all the positive and focusing on the negative.
- Emotional reasoning — as opposed to using a logical, fact based approach.
- Fallacy of change — which is using social control to get others to do what you want.
- Fallacy of fairness — the belief that life should be fair.
- Mental filtering — focusing entirely on the negative.
- Jumping to conclusions — assuming an outcome without having all the facts and information.
- Labeling and mislabeling — assuming that a person’s actions are a reflection of their character, rather than an attribute.
- Magnification and minimization — making a big deal out of small situations and/or downplaying the positive.
- Overgeneralizing — assuming that one experience is reflective of all experiences.
- Personalizing — attributing blame to yourself, even in situations where you have no control.
- “Must” or “should” statements — expecting the world to be different than it actually is.
- Black and white or all or nothing thinking — things are only all good or all bad with there being no middle ground.
It’s easy to see why getting caught by a cognitive distortion (or two or three) can leave you wracked with negative emotions that potentially have the power to shape every part of your experience.
Getting Rid Of Cognitive Distortions
The good news is that cognitive distortions don’t have to be a part of your day to day life. You can get rid of cognitive distortions and these type of negative, automatic thoughts.
The first step is to identify your thought patterns and understand which type of cognitive distortion you’re dealing with. Before you can fix a problem you need to understand its root cause.
Once you’ve got a handle on what you’re thinking, only then are you able to directly counter it with a more realistic and accurate thought pattern.
For example, say you were passed over for a promotion after putting in a lot of overtime and your boss told you directly that it came down to financial resources, and his ability to only choose one of your eight person team to be promoted this fiscal year.
Instead of taking him at face value, you begin to think that you’re somehow defective and undeserving, and will never make the cut.
You then start to tell yourself that this is also a reflection of your character and that you’re inherently a bad person. Weeks of depressed thinking and anxiety follow.
If you were to reframe this situation you would acknowledge your disappointment and still recognize your hard work as admirable. You would trust your boss and the decision he made as being a matter that you have no control over, so you’re not responsible for it.
If you’re not responsible and your boss’s hands were tied then your inaccurate assumptions about your character are wrong.
So the basic, and very simple way to get rid of a cognitive distortion is to:
- First identify the cognitive distortion and the associated thinking pattern, and
- Challenge it directly using logic, and cognitive reframing.
You can do this work on your own or with a therapist. Building your own awareness to identify these thought patterns and then the skills to reframe them is not only immediately helpful for alleviating your current situation — but it also sets you up with strategies for the long term.
Cognitive distortions are common but they don’t have to be a part of your life each day. By learning to identify your negative thinking patterns and then reframing each, it’s possible to move away from these thoughts towards a healthier perception of the world. This can result in fewer negative emotions and a more balanced approach to living.