Cognitive Distortions

 

People are not disturbed by things; they are disturbed by their view of things.
Epictetus

Anyone can probably relate to spending a sleepless night worrying about something, only to discover that what you worried about didn't end up happening. The friend you thought was mad at you simply forgot her cellphone at home. The rumors you heard about your boss planning to fire you were spread by your rival. The neighbor who seemed like a total jerk turned out to be a decent guy. Surprisingly, this is the best case scenario, because in the end you realized that you were mistaken. The worst case scenario is when you don't catch these mistakes. Small grudges, disappointments, unverified assumptions, and negative conclusion about yourself and the people around you accumulate over time. Each of them was relatively minor and you probably forgot it by now, but combined together they negatively affect your overall outlook on life, creating a distorted picture of the world as a hostile, dangerous, unwelcoming place where nobody loves or cares about you - or of yourself as someone incapable of navigating life and unworthy of anything positive. Dr Aaron T. Beck, the founder of Cognitive Behavior Therapy, believed that that's what causes depression and anxiety. His approach to treatment of it, therefore, was to study the thought patterns that cause us to perceive reality inaccurately, to catch these mistakes before they accumulate and poison our life.

All-or-nothing thinking

Aka black-and-white thinking, polarized thinking, false binary, or splitting - thinking in extremes, viewing people and things as either absolutely good or absolutely bad, with no middle ground. This results in a perpetual rollercoaster of emotions, swinging from absolute happiness to absolute despair at every whim of fate. It might help to keep in mind that things are rarely absolute in real life: even the worst situation has something good in it, and even the best person makes mistakes occasionally. It helps to list five positives and five negatives about the situation or person that's triggering my black-and-white reaction.

Overgeneralizing

Drawing absolute conclusions from a single incident, often by using words like "always," "never," "everybody," "nobody," "everything," "nothing," etc. For example, "Everybody hates me," "nothing I do is good enough," or "you never do anything around the house." Such statements are highly charged emotionally, and can be quite powerful in ruining your mood even if you know they aren't accurate. It helps to catch yourself at these thoughts and rephrase them: some people hate me, sometimes you neglect house chores, etc. That's a lot more realistic, less depressing/dramatic, and more constructive. It takes a conscious effort at first, but after a while becomes a habit.

Filtering

Also called "cherry picking" - only noticing one aspect of things and ignoring the rest of the picture. For example, "My mother is a narcissist because she was emotionally unavailable when I was a child," while she worked three jobs to pay for your private school and is still paying your rent now. It helps to mentally distance yourself from the situation, to imagine you're looking at some other person, with a fresh eye. Paying your rent doesn't excuse emotional neglect back in childhood, but it shows she does care about you.

Disqualifying the positive

Unlike filtering, disqualifying the positive allows you to notice positive aspects of things, but you dismiss them as invalid because they "don't count" for one reason or another. For example, "He only complimented my sense of humor because he wanted to borrow money from me." That might be the case, but it doesn't mean he's lying about your sense of humor. For another example, "I can only speak French because my dad taught me," - even so, ability to speak French is still a good thing to put on your resume.

Magnifying and minimizing

Also called "the binocular trick" - acknowledging both the negatives and the positives, but greatly exaggerating the importance of the negatives, while shrinking the importance of the positives. For example, "I have a decent IQ, work as an executive, and read Nietzsche for fun, but none of it matters because I allowed myself to get trapped in an abusive relationship, so I'm a complete idiot." We don't appreciate what we have till we lose it, so it helps to imagine what things would be like if you were trapped in an abusive relationship, but also had a crappy job and struggled with reading comprehension. Would it still not matter?

Emotional reasoning

Assuming that your emotions prove something or reflect the way things really are. For example, "I feel overwhelmed and hopeless, therefore my problems must be impossible to solve," or "My spouse must be unfaithful because I feel jealous." In reality, there can be plenty of other reasons why I feel the way I do. I could feel stupid because that's what my mom called me when I was a child, and I could feel jealous because I'm a cheater myself. It's better to base my judgment of external world on facts rather than on my feelings about it.

Shoulds

Expecting yourself and others to do what you believe they "should" be doing based on some abstract and rigid rules. When you fail to conform to these rules, you feel guilty, e.g. "I shouldn't have provoked him." When others fail to conform to these rules, you feel angry, frustrated, and bitter, e.g. "He should treat me like a princess." It works much better to focus on what is, not on what should be. For example, rephrase "I shouldn't have provoked him" to "He yelled at me because I asked what time it was," and "He should treat me like a princess" to "I don't want to date someone who yells for no reason."

Blaming

Searching for culprits instead of solutions to problems. For example, "I only drink because you're making me feel bad about myself," "It's your own fault that you're homeless," etc. Some of these assumptions might be correct, but focusing on whose fault the situation is doesn't help resolve it. Even if you believe that your drinking is someone else's fault, the problem still affects you, and you need to do something about it, e.g distance yourself from this horrible person who's ruining your life by turning you into an alcoholic. It helps to think of problems in terms of "how can it be fixed?" rather than "whose fault is it?"

Labeling

Attaching negative labels to people's character rather than their actions. For example, "Bob is a jerk" instead of "Bob rarely responds when I say hello," "I'm a loser" instead of "I chickened out of asking for a raise," or "Anne is a misogynist" instead of "Anne didn't sign the VAWA petition." It helps to catch yourself at labeling and rephrase your thoughts to describe actions rather than people. Bob might be a great guy who doesn't respond because he's hard of hearing.

Personalizing

Believing that everything others do is because of or about you. For example, "dad drinks because of my bad behavior, not because he's an alcoholic," or "my friend won't chat with me because she hates me, not because she needs to go to work." In reality people pay a lot less attention to us than we imagine, they are mostly focused on their own lives. It helps to just ask the friend why did she log log off, rather than assume that it's because of you. If that's not possible, it can also help to think of ten other possible reasons for what happened. For example - she was having a migraine and needed to lie down, she promised her kids to take them to a zoo today, it's an anniversary of her grandma's death and she doesn't feel like chitchatting, etc. Recognizing other possibilities helps against the automatic assumption that other people's actions are some kind of direct, personal reaction to you.

Mind-reading

Assuming that you know what someone is thinking or feeling. For example, getting mad with a friend because they didn't return your last phone call and you believe that means they hate you. If you notice being upset with what seems to go on in someone else's head - just ask the person to confirm your assumptions. You could be wrong, there's no way to know for sure till you ask. Maybe your friend lost their phone, is in hospital, in jail, or traveling abroad.

Fortune-telling

Assuming that you know how things will turn out before it happens. For example, quitting your job because you heard rumors that your boss is planning to fire you. The rumors might be untrue, and there's a big difference between plans and reality. Instead of responding to something that hasn't happened yet, it helps to live in the here and now. Working harder might make an impression on your boss and he'll reconsider firing you even if he was in fact thinking of it.

Catastrophizing

Focusing on the worst possible outcome instead of the most likely one, and perceiving it as unbearable while it would only be uncomfortable. For example, being stuck in traffic on your way to work and thinking, "What if my employer flips out and fires me for tardiness? What if I can't find another job then, my house gets foreclosed, my wife divorces me, and I become homeless?" It's an unlikely scenario, and scaring yourself into panic attacks while driving isn't a good idea. Try to breathe and evaluate the likelihood of what you're imagining, and other possible outcomes of getting stuck in traffic. Another way is to continue with your scenario: you'll become homeless, will be begging for change by the mall, your children will disown you out of embarrassment, etc, etc, etc. Continue till it reaches the point where you start perceiving it as ridiculous rather than scary and start laughing at it. Yet another way to cope with catastrophizing is to imagine how would you handle this unlikely scenario should it really happen against all odds; feeling prepared even for the worst possible outcome can help alleviate the anxiety. You're not going to beg for change by the mall because you're capable of managing your life, you're doing it now. Should you really become homeless, you'd stay at a homeless shelter for a few months, get a job bagging groceries, and soon rent yourself a studio apartment. It would be unpleasant, but not disastrous.



You cannot escape the responsibility of tomorrow by evading it today.
~ Abraham Lincoln
This page was last updated on April 19th, 2017
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