NaBloPoMo Day 17: Cognitive Reality Check

Every once in a while, I like to check and see how I’m doing with regard to my cognitive distortions. A cognitive distortion is any thought that one’s mind convinces them is true, but really isn’t. Whenever I talk about my irrationality, this is what I really mean: I’m experiencing some form of cognitive distortion. The idea behind a prevailing form of psychotherapy called cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is to teach the patient to identify the cognitive distortions as they occur, then refute them with rational, correct ways of thinking. Over time, with practice, the mind learns to automatically make this correction whenever cognitive distortions occur.

I know this works, because there was a period in my life when I was able to automatically refute the cognitive distortions as they came up. My wife and I were both employed and we were living comfortably (a situation that has occurred rarely in our marriage, unfortunately) and so I wasn’t dealing with a lot of the stress that comes with tight budgets and lack of insurance. For a good six months, I was capable of automatically heading off almost any cognitive distortion that transpired. Then I lost my job, and the stress came back, and I started listening to the distortions again. I haven’t gotten back to that point in my journey since.

There are fifteen common cognitive distortions. It’s not common to deal with all of them, but usually those that suffer from mental illness will experience more than one of these with regularity. Below I’m going to tell you what they are, explain each one, and tell you how I’m doing with regard to fighting each one. The descriptions are from Psych Central’s page 15 Common Cognitive Distortions by John M. Grohol, Psy.D. For more information on what cognitive distortions are and how to fight them, I encourage you to visit their website and learn more.

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1. Filtering.

We take the negative details and magnify them while filtering out all positive aspects of a situation. For instance, a person may pick out a single, unpleasant detail and dwell on it exclusively so that their vision of reality becomes darkened or distorted.

I do this one fairly regularly. I’ll often find one unpleasant detail and then jump to another one when an external voice refutes the first one. If I catch this one early, I can usually fight it, but if it starts cascading from one to the next, I’m in trouble.

2. Polarized Thinking (or “Black and White” Thinking).

In polarized thinking, things are either “black-or-white.” We have to be perfect or we’re a failure — there is no middle ground. You place people or situations in “either/or” categories, with no shades of gray or allowing for the complexity of most people and situations. If your performance falls short of perfect, you see yourself as a total failure.

This one I have a lot of trouble with, especially on a bad day. What sets me apart is that it’s often not the result that has to be perfect. Even my distorted thinking knows there’s very often not a perfect result. What I focus on is using the perfect process to get there. Almost all tasks have a “perfect” way of execution in my thinking, and I don’t connect that the perfect process would result in the perfect result, yet I don’t obsess over the result as much as I do the process.

3. Overgeneralization.

In this cognitive distortion, we come to a general conclusion based on a single incident or a single piece of evidence. If something bad happens only once, we expect it to happen over and over again. A person may see a single, unpleasant event as part of a never-ending pattern of defeat.

Overgeneralization is perhaps my most common form of cognitive distortion. This one gives me fits, because it’s part of a typical chain of distortions.

4. Jumping to Conclusions.

Without individuals saying so, we know what they are feeling and why they act the way they do. In particular, we are able to determine how people are feeling toward us.

For example, a person may conclude that someone is reacting negatively toward them but doesn’t actually bother to find out if they are correct. Another example is a person may anticipate that things will turn out badly, and will feel convinced that their prediction is already an established fact.

This is the beginning of the distortion chain for me. It begins with jumping to conclusions, heads into overgeneralization, and then evolves into polarized thinking before moving on.

5. Catastrophizing.

We expect disaster to strike, no matter what. This is also referred to as “magnifying or minimizing.” We hear about a problem and use what if questions (e.g., “What if tragedy strikes?” “What if it happens to me?”).

For example, a person might exaggerate the importance of insignificant events (such as their mistake, or someone else’s achievement). Or they may inappropriately shrink the magnitude of significant events until they appear tiny (for example, a person’s own desirable qualities or someone else’s imperfections).

With practice, you can learn to answer each of these cognitive distortions.

This is the next step in the chain after polarized thinking. By now you seem to understand why fighting this kind of distorted thinking can be so difficult to fight sometimes – it’s a constantly evolving argument my brain tries to make, and keeping up with it is very difficult, especially when I’m having a bad day or I’m low on energy (or both, more commonly).

6. Personalization.

Personalization is a distortion where a person believes that everything others do or say is some kind of direct, personal reaction to the person. We also compare ourselves to others trying to determine who is smarter, better looking, etc.

A person engaging in personalization may also see themselves as the cause of some unhealthy external event that they were not responsible for. For example, “We were late to the dinner party and caused the hostess to overcook the meal. If I had only pushed my husband to leave on time, this wouldn’t have happened.”

While this isn’t part of the distortion chain I describe above, it stands on its own ad a fairly common problem that I have. I try to fight this with the second of The Four Agreements as taught by Don Miguel Ruiz in his book“don’t take anything personally.” I struggle with this one on occasion, but not quite as commonly as the four parts of my distortion chain listed above.

7. Control Fallacies.

If we feel externally controlled, we see ourselves as helpless a victim of fate. For example, “I can’t help it if the quality of the work is poor, my boss demanded I work overtime on it.” The fallacy of internal control has us assuming responsibility for the pain and happiness of everyone around us. For example, “Why aren’t you happy? Is it because of something I did?”

I will very often try to take ownership of my wife’s cognitive distortions. My mind incorrectly tells me that if I suffer, she won’t. It never works out that way; in fact, it usually cascades into both of us having a bad time of things when only one was beforehand.

8. Fallacy of Fairness.

We feel resentful because we think we know what is fair, but other people won’t agree with us. As our parents tell us when we’re growing up and something doesn’t go our way, “Life isn’t always fair.” People who go through life applying a measuring ruler against every situation judging its “fairness” will often feel badly and negative because of it. Because life isn’t “fair” — things will not always work out in your favor, even when you think they should.

Fortunately, this one doesn’t bother me very often, if at all.

9. Blaming.

We hold other people responsible for our pain, or take the other track and blame ourselves for every problem. For example, “Stop making me feel bad about myself!” Nobody can “make” us feel any particular way — only we have control over our own emotions and emotional reactions.

Almost every time this one pops up, I’m blaming myself for whatever is happening – again, the mindset is if I suffer enough, no one else will be.

10. Shoulds.

We have a list of ironclad rules about how others and we should behave. People who break the rules make us angry, and we feel guilty when we violate these rules. A person may often believe they are trying to motivate themselves with shoulds and shouldn’ts, as if they have to be punished before they can do anything.

For example, “I really should exercise. I shouldn’t be so lazy.” Musts and oughts are also offenders. The emotional consequence is guilt. When a person directs should statements toward others, they often feel anger, frustration and resentment.

Oh, if only I had a dollar for every time I’ve used this one. It gets worse if I’m dealing with another type of cognitive distortion, but rarely is a starting point for cognitive dissonance.

11. Emotional Reasoning.

We believe that what we feel must be true automatically. If we feel stupid and boring, then we must be stupid and boring. You assume that your unhealthy emotions reflect he way things really are — “I feel it, therefore it must be true.”

“I feel” is often replaced with “I am” whenever I try explaining what I’m experiencing. Again, a stand-alone that tends to crop up with other distortions.

12. Fallacy of Change.

We expect that other people will change to suit us if we just pressure or cajole them enough. We need to change people because our hopes for happiness seem to depend entirely on them.

This one I honestly don’t deal with. It’s my job to change for other people, always has been. Trying to change other people isn’t something I strive to do even at my most irrational state.

13. Global Labeling.

We generalize one or two qualities into a negative global judgment. These are extreme forms of generalizing, and are also referred to as “labeling” and “mislabeling.” Instead of describing an error in context of a specific situation, a person will attach an unhealthy label to themselves.

For example, they may say, “I’m a loser” in a situation where they failed at a specific task. When someone else’s behavior rubs a person the wrong way, they may attach an unhealthy label to him, such as “He’s a real jerk.” Mislabeling involves describing an event with language that is highly colored and emotionally loaded. For example, instead of saying someone drops her children off at daycare every day, a person who is mislabeling might say that “she abandons her children to strangers.”

I am vastly more prone to self-label than to label others. This goes hand in hand with emotional reasoning for me.

14. Always Being Right.

We are continually on trial to prove that our opinions and actions are correct. Being wrong is unthinkable and we will go to any length to demonstrate our rightness. For example, “I don’t care how badly arguing with me makes you feel, I’m going to win this argument no matter what because I’m right.” Being right often is more important than the feelings of others around a person who engages in this cognitive distortion, even loved ones.

So very guilty of this one. This is actually the last part of the common distortion chain. I get so wrapped up in dissonant thinking that it become vital to me to be right, even if what I’m arguing about has no basis whatsoever in fact.

15. Heaven’s Reward Fallacy.

We expect our sacrifice and self-denial to pay off, as if someone is keeping score. We feel bitter when the reward doesn’t come.

If I’m guilty of this one,  it’s entirely subconscious. If anything, I often feel like I don’t deserve any reward for any reason.

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So there you go. Many of them apply to me, at one time or another. It’s a lot to continually fight about and against. But if I can learn to fight them now, when things are stressful, think about how much better it will be for me when things are going well.

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