COGNITIVE DISTORTIONS One of the key principles underpinning CBT is that the thoughts, attitudes, and beliefs we hold play a huge role in the way we interpret the world around us and on how we subsequently feel. So, if you’re feeling extremely bad, the likelihood is that you’re thinking in an unhelpful way. It goes without saying that you're most likely not intending to think in an unhelpful way, and are most likely unaware that you're doing so. Cognitive Distortions are slips in thinking that we all make from time to time. They cause us to get the wrong end of the stick, jump to incorrect conclusions, and assume the worst case scenario.
BLACK OR WHITE THINKING Black-or-white thinking is extreme thinking that often leads to extreme emotions and behaviours. When things are either 'black-or-white.' We're either perfect, or we’re a complete failure — and there's no middle ground. When we place people or situations in 'either/or' categories, where there are no shades of grey. This doesn't allow for the complexity of most people and situations.
Unfortunately, we fall into all-or-nothing traps very easily: Can you relate to the following - you start your new 'healthy eating' diet to lose weight, and you give into the temptation of a chocolate. Black or white thinking might lead you to conclude that you have failed your plan and then proceed to eat the entire box of chocolates. Here are a few pointers that will help you to change your thinking: Be realistic. No one can possibly get through life without making mistakes. One chocolate doesn’t ruin a diet. Consider your goal, forgive yourself for the slip-up, and then resume your diet. An alternative to black-or-white thinking is 'both–and reasoning'. Developing this type of reasoning helps you mentally to allow two seeming opposites to exist together. You can both succeed in your overall healthy living goals and have a slip-up or two. Life is not about being either a failure or a success. You can both assume that you’re an OK person as you are and strive to change in specific ways. FILTERING When we're anxious, we commonly develop 'tunnel vision' where we focus solely on the negative aspects of situations without considering the positive aspects. Sometimes the whole picture can be coloured by a single negative detail. This is known as cognitive filtering, and this process is very much like a filter on the lens of a camera that allows in only certain types of light. Information that doesn’t fit is usually ignored. For example, you believe you’re a failure, so your natural tendency is to focus on your mistakes and overlook any accomplishments and successes. At the end of each week, you're usually disappointed by your lack of accomplishment. However, this is most often due to you not acknowledging your successes. To tackle mental filtering, look more closely at situations you feel down about. Take time to consciously collect evidence that contradicts your negative thinking as this can help you to correct your information-processing bias.
Take a close look at your filters. Ask yourself the question ‘Are you sorting your achievements through 'I'm a failure’ filter? This will cause only failure-related information to get through. Collect evidence. Imagine that you’re gathering evidence for a court case to prove that your negative thoughts are not true. Would the assumption that you're a failure stand up in court against the evidence of all your previous achievements in life? DISQUALIFYING THE POSITIVE Disqualifying the positive is about processing information in a biased way. Disqualifying the positive is a mental process that changes a positive event into a neutral or negative event in your mind. For example, you believe that you’re worthless and when you find out you've got a promotion at work you tell yourself 'it doesn’t count because anyone could get this sort of thing.’ Instead of feeling pleased with yourself, you feel quite disappointed. COGNITIVE DISTORTIONS Practise accepting compliments and allowing yourself to acknowledge your strengths. Start paying attention to your responses to positive information. Practise accepting positive feedback and acknowledging positive aspects about yourself and other people. For example, acknowledge that YOU got the promotion! You could even consider the idea that the promotion may well have resulted from all your hard work. JUMPING TO CONCLUSIONS A person who ‘jumps to conclusions’ will often make a negative interpretation or prediction even when there is no real evidence supporting their conclusion. This sort of thinking is often based on what we think other people feel towards us. It can show up as 'mind reading' (assuming the thoughts and intentions of others) or also as 'fortune-telling' (anticipating the worse and accepting it as fact). For example, you're at a party, and you don't like your outfit. You decide 'everybody is laughing at me' (mind reading). Or say you're going to take your drivers test and 'know' that you are going to fail (fortune-telling). One further example might be - you pass your neighbour on the street. She says a quick 'hi' but doesn’t look very pleased to see you or act in a friendly way. You assume that she must be annoyed with you about your dog barking and is making plans to report you to environmental health. However, you'll never know for sure what another person is thinking, so you’re wise to challenge your negative assumptions. Take a step back and consider all the evidence you have available to you. Take into consideration that your assumptions may be wrong. Do you have enough information or evidence to conclude that everyone was laughing at you at that party or that your neighbour is annoyed with you? Is it possible that she was just pre-occupied with her own thoughts that day? COGNITIVE DISTORTIONS EMOTIONAL REASONING Often if we depend heavily on our feelings as a guide, this leads us away from the path of reality. For example: Your husband has been spending a lot of evenings working late at his office with a colleague. You feel suspicious and jealous. Based on your feelings, you reach the conclusion that your partner is having an affair with his co-worker. Start paying attention to your thoughts. Watch out for thoughts like ‘I’m feeling apprehensive, something must be wrong’ and recognise that feelings are often not the best way to measure reality, especially if you’re not in the best emotional state at the moment. Consider how you would view the situation if you were feeling calmer. Check to see if there is any concrete evidence that supports your interpretation of your feelings. Is there really any evidence that suggests something bad is about to happen? The problem with viewing our feelings as facts is that we stop looking for contradictory information, or for any additional information at all. Practise balancing your emotional reasoning with a little more looking at factual evidence that supports and contradicts your views. RIGID RULE KEEPING When you have a list of rules about how you and other people should behave. Those who break the rules make us angry, and if you break the rules, you feel guilty as a result. People often believe they are trying to motivate themselves with shoulds and shouldn't's, almost as if they must be punished before they can do anything. For example: “I must… I should… You must… You should…”. Such statements provide insight into the standards you tend to uphold and the things you expect of others and yourself. These standards can at times be helpful. However, they can also create unrealistic expectations that you or other people will find it difficult to live up to. COGNITIVE DISTORTIONS The inflexibility of the demands that you place on yourself, others, and the world around you, often means you do not adapt to reality as well as you could. You believe that you 'must' have the approval of your friends and associates. This causes you to feel anxious in various social situations and drives you to try and gain everyone’s approval. You think that as you try very hard to be considerate and kind, in return they really should be just as kind and considerate. However, because your demand is unrealistic – sadly, other people are governed by their own priorities, and you often feel let down by others who don't act in the same way in which you do. You believe that you absolutely 'should' never let others down. This means that you rarely put your own needs first. In many areas of life, you don’t assert yourself, and end up taking on more than your fair share. You end up stressed as a result. Adopting flexible preferences about yourself, others, and the world, in general, is a healthy alternative to inflexible and rigid rule keeping. Rather than making demands on yourself and others, instead, pay attention to language. Replace words like ‘must’, ‘should' and 'need’, with ‘prefer’, ‘want' and 'wish’. Limit approval seeking. Would you have a satisfying life even if you didn't get the approval of everyone your seeking it from? Contemplate the idea that the world doesn’t play by your rules. Other people tend to have their own rulebooks. No matter how much you value kind and considerate behaviour, the others in your life may not place the same value on it. Keep your standards, preferences and ideals and ditch your rigid demands about how you, other people, and the world ‘have to’ be. COGNITIVE DISTORTIONS CATASTROPHISING Catastrophising is taking a fairly minor negative event and blowing it completely out of proportion - imagining all sorts of disasters resulting from the one small event. For example, your new girlfriend declines an invitation to have dinner with your parents. Before giving her a chance to explain her reasons, you hang up on her and conclude that this is her way of telling you the relationship is over. But it doesn't end there; then you go on to imagine her ringing each of her friends and telling them what a mistake she made in dating you. You decide you’re never going to find another partner and will die old and lonely. You can nip catastrophic thinking in the bud by acknowledging it for what it is – it's simply just 'thoughts'. If you find yourself thinking about the worst case scenario, consider the following: Take a step back and put things in perspective. Are you sure that your girlfriend wanted to end the relationship or is it possible she had other valid reasons for not agreeing to dinner with your parents? Consider less terrifying explanations. What other possible reasons could there be for her saying 'no'? Weigh up the evidence that you have (the facts). Do you have enough information to reach the conclusion that she wants to leave you? Has she given you reason to think this before? Look for any evidence that counteracts the assumption that you've made. Focus on what you could do to cope with the situation and the people or resources that can help you. No matter what catastrophic assumption you've reached in your mind, it's unlikely that the world is going to end even if your assumption does come to fruition. And in which case, if the worst case scenario did happen - you're mostly likely capable of surviving and growing stronger as an individual through it all - human beings can be very resilient. COGNITIVE DISTORTIONS OVERGENERALISING Based on one instance in the past or present, you make the assumption that in the future all others will follow a similar pattern. A sense of helplessness often accompanies such overgeneralizations. For example: Just because one ex-partner cheated on you, you believe that ‘ALL MEN (or Women) ARE BAD!’ Or say you're feeling down. Then you get into your car to travel to work, but it doesn’t start. You think to yourself, ‘this kind of thing is always happening to me. Nothing ever goes right for me’, then you feel even worse. You get easily angered. You're taking public transport and are delayed by another passenger who cannot find the money to pay for her bus ticket. You think to yourself, ‘this is typical, other people are so stupid’, and you feel tense and angry. Put things in perspective. How true is it that 'nothing ever goes right for you?' Consider how many other people in the world might also be having car trouble at this exact moment? Don't judge others. When you judge all people as 'stupid', including the women buying her ticket on the bus, you make yourself angrier and are less able to effectively deal with relatively minor mishaps. LABELLING When we 'label' ourselves based on our behaviour in specific situations. We define ourselves by one specific behaviour (usually a negative behaviour) and fail to consider other positive characteristics and actions. For example: 'I'm always anxious' even though this is not always the case, or 'I'm not good enough' because you failed at something, even though there are many other things that you're good at. COGNITIVE DISTORTIONS Or say, for example, you read a worrying article in the newspaper about a rise in crime throughout the city in which you live. The article reinforces your belief that you live in a completely dangerous city, which exacerbates your feeling of anxiety about going out. Aim to avoid labelling yourself, others, and the world around you. Accept that they’re complex and ever-changing. Consider the evidence that does not fit your labels to help you lessen your conviction in your global assessment. Allow for varying degrees. Consider this - the world isn’t a dangerous place but a place that has various aspects with different degrees of safety. Celebrate complexities. All individuals – yourself included – are unique, ever- changing and multi-faceted. Labelling yourself as a failure based on one failing is a very extreme form of overgeneralising. In the same way, others are just as complex and unique as you. One bad action doesn’t equal a bad person. QUESTIONS FOR SELF-REFLECTION: 1) How many of these cognitive distortions can you recognise inside of your own thinking? 2) Can you identify one of these cognitive distortions that might be damaging inside of the context of your current personal relationships? 3) Can you identify one of these cognitive distortions that might be damaging inside of the context of your current professional relationships? #change #anxiety