Cognitive Distortions…the noonday devil
Control fallacies, overgeneralization, and global labeling are a few of the more popular ways human beings mess up their afternoon.
What are these infamous bugaboos?
The all too common cognitive distortions that destroy your goals and well-being.
If you want to know where all your negative thinking is coming from, look no further.
Think you’re somehow immune to dysfunction? Well, let’s break the ice. No one escapes!
For example, ever go on a date convinced it would be a disaster? Intrusive thoughts told you that you’d drop the ball, make a fool of yourself, and blow the opportunity with someone you were super interested in.
Nonetheless, you knocked it out of the park and the individual ended up really digging your personality and style.
That’s the monkey mind at work.
Perhaps even after the date went swimmingly, you were convinced it was an error in judgment on their part, a flaw in their perception, because they clearly didn’t see you as you really are.
Or, maybe you’re the opposite and you expect the other person to just generally suck and let you down.
Your mind, like a laser beam, identifies all their flaws and critically rips apart their character, sabotaging all efforts at a chance at a happy relationship.
Welcome to the arena of cognitive distortions!
Feels good to not be alone, right?
But walking around with this nonsense all day can be extraordinarily upsetting when you don’t understand that’s precisely what it is – nonsense.
Understanding is the trick to freedom.
The more you understand, the more choices you have, and with more options available the closer you are to unadulterated freedom.
Identifying these distorted thoughts enables you to understand them, reverse them, and break free from them.
Are you ready?
How Does Cognition Work?
Let’s start with some definitions.
What is cognition? It’s the mental action or process of acquiring knowledge and understanding through thought, experience, and the senses.
Loads of folks just chalk up cognition to “thinking” but thought is structured via the senses.
It’s not merely the stream of words flowing through your mind, it’s the primary mechanism to comprehending the world around you, and you begin using it immediately before you’re even conscious of it.
As you take in the world via the senses, cognition provides you with the re-presentation of it.
It’s your personal and 100% unique map of the world..
What is distortion? It is the action of giving a misleading account or impression. In other words, it’s a mis-representation.
It comes as no surprise that the more accurate your map the more happy your travels will be.
So, cognitive distortions pose a serious problem.
The Tools of Cognition
The fundamental mechanisms in our cognition are actually what create the distortion.
Therefore, it’s not that you are somehow bad or broken.
Rather, the distortion is a result of normal processes that have been exaggerated innocently by your own cognition.
For starters, when you are born your brain is a clean slate. It begins receiving tons of information coming in through the senses and as a result of your experiences, you begin to generalize, delete, and distort information to make life more manageable.
Literally, millions of bits of information are floating around at any given second and you can only directly experience a few thousand bits, so be grateful for these processes. If not, you’d be comatose.
Even something as simple as driving would never work.
Could you imagine how difficult it would be if your brain refused to learn and memorize how to drive a car?
If you had to relearn it every time? It would be so much information to constantly process and interpret that you’d spend your whole day in your head and not on the road.
So, your brain develops an operating system that makes living more intuitive and fluid.
For example, our ancestor’s brains would generalize any approaching noises, such as the breaking of branches or rustling of leaves, as dangerous.
In this manner, they could survive from being something else’s dinner.
If every single time they had to relearn the process they would never survive.
Rather, their experience taught them that this meant danger, their brain filed it away, and pulled it from the database whenever they heard the noise again.
Once the information was retrieved it would immediately provide instructions to move to safety or pick up a spear (flight or fight).
This is the brilliance of a generalization.
Moreover, the brain deletes anything outside of the generalization.
For instance, the minute the approaching noises were made, any other noises would be completely edited out the experience.
Even mid conversation, if they heard the noise, the brain would immediately delete the other person talking, their words would be barely audible.
This is the same experience you have when you’re talking to someone in a tightly crowded space with all the other sounds rushing around you.
The brain deletes those other sounds so you could actually have the discussion. If it didn’t, you’d never be able to process what they’re saying or even formulate a response.
Authors Susan Sanders, Tom Dotz, and Tom Hoobyar, do an excellent job capturing the magnificence of cognitive deletion:
“Here’s a ‘deletion’ experience you might be having right now. You’re probably focused on reading these words, thinking about what they mean, arguing with the ideas, or taking notes. What you’re ignoring perhaps is the feeling of your body sitting wherever you’re sitting, on a hard chair, a comfortable couch, or a cramped bus seat. You may not be paying attention to your body, your environment, or what time it is. You may not be paying attention to the way your feet feel at the moment. When I mention it, maybe you notice them, but not until then.”The NLP Essential Guide
Distortion is, by definition, a modified version of what is being observed. For example, words and concepts are, in a sense, a mis-representation of reality.
Take the word “bird.”
Once you teach the child the word “bird” they no longer see individual birds, they just see the concept it conveys (beak, skinny legs, feathers, takes flight).
All birds are forced into the concept.
This makes life easier to navigate, but you can see how it can also imprison their experience by limiting the wonder and majesty that can be perceived in life.
Concepts are simultaneously freeing, enabling you to explore and make sense of the world more rapidly, yet are also imprisoning because they severely limit what can actually be seen and explored.
Let’s look at another example.
If you were abused by your father as a child, you may generalize all men as abusive. Any men that didn’t fit this mold would otherwise be forced into it by deleting contrary information and distorting the overall experience of them.
Your concept of men would largely be as abusive figures. This severely inhibits your experience with men, because it’s a fallaciously designed generalization.
The brain is pragmatic. It thinks of your safety. So, the generalization was perfectly reasonable at the time it was constructed.
Yet just because something worked once doesn’t mean it will continue to. Mental health is contextual and characterized by the ability to adapt and adjust to the conditions around you.
Nevertheless, this idea of irrational generalizations and imprisoning concepts overflows into all of our lives.
You can envision this same process unfolding with the dating scenarios I provided earlier – the brain tends to validate in experience what one already believes to be true.
This is the power of belief – the ultimate filter!
But the map is not the territory, we need to constantly refine and challenge the contents of our maps.
The cognitive processes demand this evaluation.
“With distortion, when we perceive someone as a slow talker, we might distort things so we imagine that they’re also a slow thinker. Similarly, we may conclude that someone who’s a sharp dresser is a sharp thinker. When you remember a moment of an event as representing the whole thing, that’s distortion. When you tell the story of that experience and leave things out and embellish others, that’s distortion.”
Therefore, cognition has an incredible ability to generalize, delete, and distort information to make life more manageable and efficient, but when left unchecked will invariably lead to emotional unmanageability.
What Is A Cognitive Distortion?
In psychology, a cognitive distortion is an exaggerated pattern of thought that’s not based on facts.
It’s a mis-representation, a poorly constructed map, that leads you to view things more negatively than they actually are.
When your mind convinces you to believe negative things about yourself and the world that aren’t necessarily true, that is a cognitive distortion.
We live in the feeling of our thoughts and our feelings govern our behavior.
If negative and irrational thoughts are entertained or worse, treated as facts, they’ll produce feelings and behaviors that validate them. It’s a cognitive hellhole none can escape.
It’s just a part of the human experience, so be gentle with yourself, or as George Pransky remarks “be grateful for your highs and graceful with your lows “
However, if cognitive distortions become the major part of your experience, your mental health will decline rapidly and the overall quality of your life will take a hit.
Recall, understanding is key. If we can understand how our generalizations go wrong, we can reframe, redirect, and release ourselves from the madness.
15 cognitive distortions (unresourceful generalizations) and examples of each
From my experience and from the plethora of data from academic research as well as personal clientele, the following are the most common cognitive distortions:
- discounting the positive
- jumping to conclusions
- control fallacies
- fallacy of fairness
- emotional reasoning
- fallacy of change
- global labeling
- always being right
One may resonate more with you than others, but if you’re truthful with yourself you’ll likely identify with damn near every single one.
You can’t change what you don’t know.
If I repeatedly ask you to hand me something but never tell you what it is I need, you’ll never know what the hell I’m talking about, because whatever object I am referring to has zero referent.
Saying “Hey, hand me that,” with the absence of nonverbals but saying it louder and louder will also produce no results. I can even fight you for it, but if “it” is never signified the objective will be aimless.
Using the wrong method harder won’t somehow make it effective.
If there is no understanding there is no effectiveness.
Sadly, many live their entire lives like this. The frustration must be unimaginable.
This is my goal, to provide you with understanding of how your brain and thought processes function.
So, sit with and truly interact with each generalization. Increase in insight and understanding, stop living aimlessly and frustrated.
Here’s a closer look at the list of cognitive distortions:
Mental filtering is finding a problem in every solution. It’s the simple process of jettisoning all the positives from any given situation and, instead, hyper focusing on the negatives exclusively.
A perfect example is the date illustration I provided earlier. The person that searches for and amplifies the negatives (which is usually an unconscious phenomenon), can not possibly find a suitable partner.
The potential suitor will always do something that puts a bad taste in their mouth. It could likely be something trivial, like touching the person’s forearm after every bout of laughter.
Most individuals would interpret this as warming. Actually, in sales, a sales rep that demonstrates more physical touch i.e., a touch on the shoulder, statistically gets more sales.
However, the person whose cognition is filtering will likely see it as an evasion of personal space or a sign that the person is overly affectionate and probably clingy. It will unfortunately camouflage all the good qualities that make the partner potentially suitable.
Actually, the other dating example I provided works too. The person that exaggerates their negative characteristics is equally guilty of filtering. They are seeing what they want to see – the flawed view of themselves – rather than what is, a self composed of strengths and weaknesses.
Polarization (All-Or-Nothing Thinking)
Polarized thinking is thinking about yourself, others, and the world at large in an “all-or-nothing” manner.
Zero grey area. We’re talking fully black or white. This absolutist nonsense is a telltale sign this cognitive distortion has it’s grip on you.
To illustrate, let’s say you just delivered a talk on something you’re passionate about.
Everyone received it with open arms and celebrated your style.
Yet, one person out of the entire audience was a bit critical of your technique. They were skeptical of your claims and thought the overall delivery lacked enthusiasm.
You walk away disappointed, knowing deep within you’re a fraud and dismal failure.
That’s polarization. If one out of hundred think you suck, the data suggests you don’t suck.
Could you imagine one hundred doctors telling you your weight is perfect, they say your vitals, blood work, and your body mass index all suggest you are a healthy and lean individual.
Yet one doctor out of the crew says your obese and the establishment is wrong in their assessment. They hold this position even when the numbers tell a totally different story. Who would you believe?
If you believe the one, you’re in the grasp of this type of cognition.
If this distortion is your flavor, you’ll find you’ve set up an extremely unrealistic set of laws for yourself and the way things should and must be. This will likely damage your motivation and undermine the majority of relationships.
Again, this black-or-white thinking doesn’t meet the rational litmus test. If you’re on a strict diet and eat only healthy foods but then one day decide, perhaps compulsively, to eat a double bacon cheeseburger, does it follow that you’ve obliterated your healthy eating routine? Alas! That’s a bunch of hogwash.
But a great number of people think this way and even conclude the burger proves they can’t do it and decide to stop the diet.
It’s silly. The truth is it ignores the complexities and nuances of life. Life isn’t always broken down into either/or categories. In fact, it’s more frequently, if not always, both/and.
Have you ever taken an isolated negative event and turned it into a never-failing pattern of loss and defeat?
Welcome to the cognitive distortion known as overgeneralization.
A red flag that this distortion has a hold on you is the use of sweeping statements.
Words such as “always,” “never,” “everything,” and “nothing,” will dominate your thought process.
We all know that person – you might be them – that are convinced after a breakup that they’ll be alone FOREVER.
That’s an overgeneralization. Hell, even if three different relationships ended badly, it doesn’t follow that you’ll forever be alone.
There are 9 billion people in the world. You’re saying after 3 out of the 3 billion adults on the planet didn’t work out that you’ll forever be alone?
It may follow that you need to work on something in terms of your psychology and emotional health, but it also may be that you’re just finding yourself in relationships with people that lack compatibility. Maybe they’re even the unhealthy ones.
But swiftly moving to awfulizing and absolute assumptions off very minimal data is a set up for feeling like shit all the time.
A healthy self examination can go a long way. But don’t ignore all of the data, which is precisely what overgeneralization does.
Additionally, overgeneralizations can foster a feeling of personal powerlessness and victimization.
If every barrier you encounter results with the line of reasoning that “nothing ever goes my way,” you are in the overgeneralization trap.
Discounting the positive
Discounting the positive should be catalogued under filtering, in my humble opinion. Nonetheless, there is a slight difference.
Filtering tends to be an extreme belief, whereas discounting the positive is the dismissal of something as zero value when you actually see value in it.
We see this frequently in the formalities if western culture. We overuse “how are you?” to such an extent that no one is really interested in how you actually are. This is misleading and can easily spill over into our social encounters.
Someone compliments the way you look, but you just think they’re being nice. In the back of your head, however, you worked hard to appear attractive and you know you look good. Why then, discount the positive?
Maybe at work you do a stellar job and your boss compliments your productivity, but you rationalize that this is what the boss does, encourages and motivates to increase productivity, so it’s nothing I actually did. Yet, you know damn well you work your tail off.
Or, a date goes really really well, but you assume the individual just wasn’t paying attention because they seemed to be super into you but you’re just not that good.
Why discount the fact that perhaps you might just be that good? This is the nature of this distortion, it operates on a habitual discount of the facts.
Jumping to conclusions
If you’re anything like me your mind immediately jumps to the film, Office Space.
Michael Bolton: You think the pet rock was a really great idea?
Tom Smykowski: Sure it was. The guy made a million dollars. You know, I had an idea like that once. A long time ago.
Peter Gibbons: Really, what was it, Tom?
Tom Smykowski: Well, all right. It was a “Jump to Conclusions” mat. You see, it would be this mat that you would put on the floor, and it would have different conclusions written on it that you could jump to.
Michael Bolton: That’s the worst idea I’ve ever heard in my life, Tom.
Samir: Yes, this is horrible, this idea.
It has absolutely nothing to do with cognitive distortions, but I love it. Okay, moving on!
You’re probably starting to realize that cognitive distortions aren’t as neatly categorized as we presume. They all tend to fall into the other and of necessity presuppose one before and after it.
Jumping to conclusions is a prime example of this. Jumping to conclusions is interpreting an event or situation negativity without evidence supporting such a conclusion and then reacting based upon the assumption.
All cognitive distortions generalize, distort, and delete evidence in a manner that isn’t resourceful for you. If it were resourceful, it likely wouldn’t be a cognitive distortion. In fact, resourcefulness is an amazing metric for the rationality or irrationality of your thought process.
Jumping to conclusions isn’t resourceful because it reacts to the absence of evidence.
If I walk into my house and my dog doesn’t come running to the door, it would be silly to assume she must be dead. This hypothesis assumes too much. Instead, it’s likely that due to her older age and proficient laziness, she is just taking her sweet ass time to provide her greeting.
The first is an assumption based on fear, it’s not based on data but rather what I don’t want to happen. The latter is a hypothesis that is in accord with data because historically this is her track record, it’s what has the least assumptions. So, Why torture myself? (If you struggle with Jumping to Conclusions check out the Kiss Principle to nip it in the bud)
Another variation of jumping to conclusions is mind-reading.
Let’s say that the last time I saw my girlfriend she gave me that flat affect serious type look and I just knew it meant she wasn’t interested anymore.
Fast forward a few days and she didn’t pick up my calls. I knew she was just out with her girlfriends, but something didn’t “feel” right. “It’s probably her ex,” I would think to myself.
If only I paused and evaluated my position I could have avoided the pain that followed.
Instead, I would work myself into a frenzy, convinced she was a cheat, leave terrible messages (abusive, manipulative, and controlling), and even go the extra length and break it off for good (in the message of course).
Eventually she would call back, completely baffled and confused. It’s only been a few hours – what the hell was my deal. Usually this was the first step towards the complete dissolution of the relationship.
Unfortunately, I came to events (which I always treated as a crisis) with a boatload of pre-existing beliefs and assumptions about relationships and a litany of other things which informed my decision making.
This was the data that compelled me, data I Injected into the narrative (mind-reading at its finest)
Just because something was true once, doesn’t mean it will continue to be that way.
For example, just because I went to a judgmental church once, it doesn’t follow that all churches are judgmental. Actually, if all I found was judgmental churches, I would eventually want to look at what attracts me to these types of churches to begin with. We tend to attract what we are.
This doesn’t necessarily mean that if I keep ending up in relationships with cheaters that I’m a cheater, but it does mean that I am attracted to toxic relationships, whether I am aware of it or not, if it’s a pattern I must accept that I am the one creating it at this point.
The previous cognitive distortion bleeds into this one. In this case, it’s merely jumping to the worst possible conclusion. The scenario can be radically implausible, but it’s jumped to nonetheless.
This form of thinking usually launches with a volume of “what if” questions. You can easily identify them with the brief story I provided under Jumping to Conclusions.
- What if she hasn’t called because she’s sleeping with someone else
- What if my headache means I have a brain tumor
- What if I open up to this person and they break my confidence and abandon me
- What if I fail this test then I’ll never get into the field of work I desire
- What if she thinks I’m weird and leaves the date early
- What if the alarm doesn’t go off?
- What if I forget the lines to my presentation and go blank
- What if they fire me even after I’ve worked so hard
The list is endless. “What ifs” by their nature almost always operate with insufficient data. It’s not an unresourceful state because it hyper focuses on the potential problems rather than actively engaging in solutions.
Personalization is another cognitive distortion that gets tons of action.
This line of reasoning leads you to believe that you’re responsible for events that partially if not completely out of your control.
I think it’s worth stopping and visiting the Locus Of Control, a psychological concept that will likely aid in your understanding of these generalizations.
Locus of Control
As already noted, all these generalizations are formed pragmatically, meaning the brain identifies what works in the present moment and tends to think that’s how it will always be.
For example, being emotionally unreachable may have demanded my mother’s attention away from my alcoholic father so she could better meet my needs as a child. However, as an adult this behavior is now unresourceful and making my quality of life all but unbearable.
That being said, whatever behavior we express, we are doing it perfectly. Whatever intent it originally served it did so immaculately and kept you alive through difficult times.
The intent is just no longer congruent with the events. This is why it’s causing so many difficulties.
Therefore, it’s time to adjust the intent to better serve the current moment.
One excellent way to begin this process is by locating precisely how you perceive control.
As stated previously, a generalization becomes unhealthy when it’s no longer resourceful. One telltale sign is when people pay too much attention to things that they cannot control.
We all have areas of influence. We can break it down into 3 distinct levels.
- Things that you can directly control (circle of control)
- Things that you can influence (circle of influence)
- Things that you have no control and influence (circle of concern)
Things You Can Control
It should be fairly obvious that your perception of what you can control strongly influences how you feel about any given situation and the action you take.
One locus of control is either bent towards an internal or external position.
An individual who has a predominant internal locus of control will BELIEVE they can or at least should be able to influence all the events and outcomes of their life.
Recall that a belief is the core filter that produces healthy versus unhealthy generalizations, so this is critical.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, a person who holds a predominant external locus of control will largely blame the outside world for basically everything that occurs in their life.
Too far to one side you blame yourself for everything. Too far to the other you blame everyone and everything else. Either way, the extremes are unresourceful and irrational.
To be resourceful, our locus of control needs to be balanced. We need to recognize there are things we have control over and some things that we don’t!
Here’s the trick: if you focus on what’s within your control (a realistic and well balanced locus of control) you’ll find your circle of influence will increase. If you focus on what you can’t control, your circle of influence diminishes.
One red flag that you’re doing the latter is suffering from personalization.
You end up feeling guilty frequently and often assign blame capriciously.
I see this all the time as a drug and alcohol counselor. I could be given a discussion on anger and a client will think I’m speaking about them specifically, directed at them exclusively!
In reality, I didn’t even remotely consider them. They are personalizing. They feel guilt for some behavior and rather than contemplate changing the behavior they rationalize and become hypervigilant of potential wrongs done against them. The more wrongs they can uncover the better they feel about their poor behavior.
Another example is your partner arriving late to work and yelling at you for not waking up earlier. In what world does that make sense? It does if you’re suffering from this distortion!
Why? Because your locus of control is mostly external which directs responsibility outward. The major issue is obvious, you’ve robbed yourself of humanity’s most essential power – choice!
We can even observe this in parents when their children experience misfortune. For instance, a child goes out for the night and gets into an accident. The parent then blames themselves for allowing them to go to the party (extreme internal locus of control).
If you find yourself personalizing it’s likely that you’re positioned too far to the left or to the right on the locus of control continuum.
A fallacy is “a mistaken belief, especially one based on unsound argument.”
It is often used to refer to any illusion, misconception, or error.
Control Fallacies largely refer to those who land on the extreme ends of the locus of control continuum.
It takes the idea of personalization and un-pacts it, bringing it to life in its myriad forms.
As a therapist I see this play out all the time exemplified in one insidious word: excuses.
Here’s a case in point:
A client comes to see me for their weekly session. After the small talk and banter, I ask if they completed the homework I assigned.
They quickly retort, “of course I couldn’t complete it, you’re overworking me and I’m over extending myself. My boss is climbing on my back trying to increase my productivity which makes me anxious and by the time I get home I just want to rest and unwind. This doesn’t happen though, the house is maddening with all the kids always screaming, who the hell can rest in that environment let alone get anything done?”
As is evident in the excuse, this individual has placed themselves at the mercy of some external person, place, or thing. You can refer to this as an external control fallacy. Namely, external forces control dictate their lives i.e., external locus of control.
On the opposite end of the spectrum is the control fallacy that your actions and presence impact or control the lives of others.
I see this frequently with codependent couples. One individual takes sole responsibility for the emotional health of their partner.
If their spouse is unhappy it’s because they did something. If they’re angry, they cause the anger.
Certainly we are responsible for how we behave, word and deed. However – and internalize this – we are not responsible for the emotional health of anyone else but ourselves.
Here’s a caveat: people that are on the far right of the locus of control continuum (external), will use this concept of ‘everyone is responsible for their own emotions’ as a means to gaslight their partners.
We can never stray too far from a sound ethic, and one’s morals when informed by a healthy locus of control will always have other people in mind i.e., they consider their own needs and the needs of others.
Fallacy of Fairness
This one’s a bit difficult to grasp because most of us have not wrestled with our personal understanding of fairness and justice. Rather, we’ve adopted the moral parameters set by those who raised us.
We take it for granted, assuming others share our values. This is ultimately what germinates into the fallacy of fairness.
Conflict is the name of the game. Usually, if not always, brought forth by a self-righteous desire to create equality and fairness as you see fit across the board.
The standard is rarely some worked out philosophical moral system but usually an arbitrary set of rules of your own construction with an end that’s largely self-serving.
If you become resentful when others don’t behave in the manner you expect, if when others disagree with your view on things really upsets you, this distortion may be haunting you.
Here’s an example.
A perfect example is the hygiene habits of couples. Often one person is obsessed with cleaning the house and the other is lackadaisical. Both parties feel they are just in their angle of approach – and I suppose both are.
The reasoning only becomes fallacious when it’s thrust upon the other as something they ‘should’ do also.
Let’s say the more hygienic of the two comes home and is enraged that the house is dirty. It’s not “fair” that after a long day of work they should have to come home to a pigs den.
The partner, however, isn’t perturbed by a few articles of clothing laying around and a few dishes in the sink.
To them, it is clean.
Perhaps they have no issues with cleaning it, but feel they should be able to clean themselves up and settle in prior to tidying up the abode.
But the cleaner partner wants no part of it.
They boil in their anger, flabbergasted that someone could be so careless, insensitive, and selfish.
That is the fallacy of fairness in a nutshell.
The more hygienic of the two is imposing their standard of cleanliness on their partner, which is arbitrary and self-serving. The less hygienic could easily do the same, but usually the fallacy is identified as an emphasis on what the other “must” do.
Most of us understand this concept pretty well by grade school. Blame is tossed about like a hot potato.
This particular variety isn’t purely pointing the finger and saying “Johnny did it!”
Rather, it’s assigning someone or something responsibility for how you feel.
The repeated refrain is “you made me feel bad.”
The issue here is it undermines the power of choice. Arguably the most fascinating and empowering component of what it is to be human.
Regarding choice, I note in another article that as a society, we often discredit, undermine, disarm, and rob it of its power.
The individual with a fixed mindset and a host of limiting beliefs is likely saturated with deterministic types of thinking.
‘I’m the product of my upbringing, my genetics, the stress that surrounds me,’ ad nauseam.
We take our own personal power and strip it down to nothingness.
It’s as equally heartbreaking as it is frustrating.
The error in this belief is that we need to land ourselves in the perfect external conditions in order to be content and happy.
So, we fight and fight to make our conditions change to meet our needs.
We rarely consider that we must often change ourselves to meet our conditions – we must evolve.
I recall my wife once asking how her new dress appeared. I commented that it was “proper spring attire.” Admittedly not something a woman wants to hear.
I said it unthinkingly, the truth is I loved it. But in her head I was dismissive and this less directly saying “you and dress look like shit.”
Needless to say, she felt bad for the remainder of the day. And what hurt her? My words.
The facts are that even when others engage in willfully hurtful behavior, we are still in control of how we feel. Definitely not an easy task when people are intentionally trying to create wounds.
A smidge easier when the good intention is camouflaged under ambiguous language and not realized.
Restricting and reframing our thoughts is helpful in discovering the true meaning and interpretation of any given situation.
What blaming does is tie you neatly to the misunderstanding that perception and feeling is from the outside in i.e., conditions create feelings.
More accurately, perception and feeling is an inside-out experience. This means the ball is in your court and that you have the power to shift your overall experience far more than you realize.
Shoulds, as a cognitive distortion, is very similar to the fallacy of fairness. Yet here, we find the code of laws the individual abides by in a constitution of should statements.
They are significantly subjective, held as absolute, and demanded to be followed by oneself and others without even the slightest of deviation.
One oddity of ‘shoulding’ is that it rarely if ever considers context and the fluctuation of circumstances. Things should be a specific way with zero exceptions.
- I should always be on time
- I should always be self-sufficient and never ask for help
- I should always be productive
- I should always feel good
- I should never feel bad
- I should be liked by all people
- People should always behave in a specific manner
- I shouldn’t make mistakes
- I should always make people laugh
- I shouldn’t trust people
- I should always make my bed
- I should always have a very clean house
- People should always provide for me
The list is seemingly endless.
You set for yourself an ironclad standard that doesn’t take the numerous variables that exist in life.
It’s a very unresourceful generalization to assume that things should always be. This is specifically true in an environment defined by the constancy of change.
Let’s revisit the dating scenarios.
If you believe things should go a very specific way you end up robbing yourself of how things could be. This makes sense because your focus is on cues in your environment that either support or don’t support your shoulds.
You imprison yourself in a very tight perceptual parameter. When you focus on what should or shouldn’t be, you miss what is.
In all of the dating situations I’ve provided the one thing the suiter missed in each scenario was reality!
Understand, this lack of correspondence with reality is due to generalizations that demand your well-being and emotional contentment be contingent upon the behavior of everything around you (people, places, things).
Therefore, ALL must be controlled. This is the general thrust of the shoulds.
Unfortunately, externals, especially other people, are outside the scope of one’s control.
One can suppress, oppress, and mentally finesse them but their internal domain is out of reach and thus they remain unpredictable
Consequently, this leaves the would-be-controller in a constant state of duress and insecurity.
Think of it like this: if you can not control others they will cease to do what you desire, which is, of course, a recipe for a bitter heart.
Let’s call these anarchic law-breakers who fail to meet your desired expectations “improv actors” or “script-deviators”.
Secretly, these subtle expectations imply a script or screenplay.
You can think of it as a law or standard by which to set expectations.
But just how does one come about acquiring this law?
Is it reliable?
Can it be trusted?
Does the person with the resentment who is enforcing this law even know the basic tenets of it?
It would appear that the unexamined life lives by a law and it knows not what that law is!
Let me illustrate: Imagine living in a land that enforced its law diligently yet had no idea what the law was. It would be sheer pandemonium; total chaos. Imagine the fear? It would be off the charts. Now, this metropolis is your mind. So in terms of an internal law, one must consider life change as REFORM. The reform is a mental legislative overhaul. That’s what we are trying to accomplish here!
Emotional reasoning is the distortion that how you feel is a reflection of reality.
Maybe you’re at a party and you “feel” disconnected and inadequate and therefore conclude that you’ll never find friends and don’t belong anywhere.
It’s important here to mention the most current research that suggests that all emotions are born of thought.
Situation + Interpretation of Situation = Feelings.
Thus, feelings are a product of one’s thoughts or interpretation of any given situation.
Rather than tell you anything objective about the world out there, your feelings give you information about the world in your head – your thoughts.
In the words of Stephen Covey,
What’s even more nefarious about this cognitive distortion, is that it leads you to believe that your feelings are somehow predictive or prophetic in terms of what the future holds.
The upshot is, if you wake up feeling poorly you may conclude this is an ominous sign, that the day will not run smoothly. Or, let’s say you have a job interview that day, you may conclude the interview is useless because you already feel is will end in dismal failure.
Assessing any situation with your feelings is a futile endeavor. Since your feelings are a barometer of your thoughts, it’s purely what you’re thinking that is producing the emotional reaction.
I may feel angry around you and conclude you’re treating me poorly. However, I shouldn’t be confused about this. My interpretation of you is what’s angering me, not actually you.
Fallacy of change
The fallacy of change is another beast sure to spoil every relationship.
It’s predicated upon the assumption and expectation that others ‘should’ and ‘will’ change if you pressure them enough.
As a drug and alcohol counselor, I’ve seen many loved ones that employ this reasoning with the addict in their life.
For example, helicopter parents are the most difficult. Not only do they feel they have the capacity to control all the professionals and resources at their disposal, they are convinced beyond a reasonable doubt that enough pressure on their addict will somehow produce a non-addict.
Moreover, they are convinced they no what’s best!
We know from hard won experience that this isn’t how change works.
People change with support, encouragement, guidance, direction, and even a good kick in the ass.
Coercion though isn’t one of them.
You can force a child to do homework but you can produce within them the DESIRE to do it.
This, of course, is the death star variety flaw in the fallacy of change.
Another perfect example is the attention hungry partner.
Maybe you feel our spouse spends too much time with their friends and you want more of their attention. Perhaps if your forthright with yourself, you’d notice you want more like 100% of it.
So, each time they go out you let them know how much you dislike it, that it’s simply “not OK” with you.
Your sure with persistent and fervor, they’ll eventually change their ways and want to be a homebody.
If this is you, this fallacy has allowed reason to take a back seat to your appetite.
Allow healthy communication to be that which sets the tone and trajectory in your relationship.
In this manner, both you and your partner’s needs will be met through vulnerability, honesty, and compromise, in accord with both of your desires, set apart from coercion and guilt.
It’s good at this point to revisit the tools of cognition again. Recall, all information you receive is deleted and distorted to fit within the parameters of whatever generalization your experience constructed.
It should come as no surprise then that we interpret current events by our past experiences. We do not come to our current situation as a blank slate, a tabula rasa, awaiting the divine strokes of the heavenly brush to paint new revelation and understanding in our lives.
Instead, we come to our contemporary encounters fully loaded with a host of preexisting beliefs, biases, and assumptions. To such an extent that understanding life objectivity is outrageously impossible.
In a way, we are all pragmatists, truth for us is simply what has worked.
If one is racist it is because at one point that worked for them, be it as a function for subculture cohesion or an endogenous opiate system rewarding avoidance, it worked. Namely, it felt and appeared to be truthful.
If one is the exact opposite and loves all people, it’s because historically this has worked for them. Once more felt and appeared to be truthful based upon their life experience.
But just because it worked in the past, does not mean it will work in the present. Moreover, just because it “worked” doesn’t mean it’s “true.”
Social acceptance does not equal correspondence with reality.
Further, emotionally intelligent people must challenge their pragmatic thought processes.
Just because something works does not mean it’s truthful and right, all of history attests to this concept.
Let us not repeat the same mistakes our ancestors did.
Let me be a bit more nuanced.
If I grew up in an abusive home, I may naturally interpret the world around me as hostile and people as untrustworthy, out for themselves cretins.
Adopting this mindset in the past may have assisted in self-preservation but now, as an adult, it is destroying my ability to have a real intimate relationship with another human being and is hacking my quality of life to non-existence.
This is the bread and butter of global labeling. It references the transference of a single attribute into an absolute.
Maybe I went to a support group that was dogmatic and thus assumed all support groups lacked flexibility.
This would be the same as seeing a pink flamingo and concluding all flamingos are pink. In fact, this is what I initially assumed. After I did a little homework though I realized flamingos come in a variety of colors, red, orange, even all white.
We must do the same with our generalizations – put in a little homework.
What are some other isolated events that we’ve turned into absolutes?
For starters, you can usually identify them in negative and extreme generalizations.
- A friend uses makeup so you label them as shallow
- A friend is frequently late so you term them useless
- Your spouse doesn’t do the dishes one night so you denigrate their character: “you never do the dishes, you never do anything you say you’re going to do!”
- Someone forgets to do something and you lash out on them as a liar
- You struggle with an assignment and remark “I’m just stupid, I’ll never learn anything.”
Global labeling is just overgeneralization with teeth. They are so intimately connected that the differences are hardly discernible.
If overgeneralization is the mental process, global labeling is the linguistic component.
It’s fundamentally how a person with the habit of overgeneralization categorizes and labels the world around them.
The labels rarely correspond with reality. Instead they hurt self-esteem, decimate relationships, corrupt confidence, and lead to a life of anxiety and consummate insecurity.
Always Being Right
Every group of friends has one individual who simply won’t surrender. Apologize when they’re wrong? Never.
They are more likely to propose the root word of apology, the Greek word apologia, which means to offer support for one’s position!
Submit? Forget about it.
This desire only turns into a cognitive distortion when it outshines all else, with a blatant disregard for the evidence and other people’s feelings.
What occurs here is the individual mistakenly confused their opinions as facts. Oddly enough, the majority of people that are victims to this distortion rarely do research on their opinion. Or, they all research the things that merely confirm what they already believe!
Since they believe their opinions are absolute fact, they seem themselves as stewards of the truth, and will go to great lengths to prove they’re right – even violence.
A good illustration is the work place. Perhaps you believe the company doesn’t support you enough, you’re convinced they seek only production and care little about your well being.
However, a co-worker and close friend laments that you might be suffering from burnout, because he believes the company has always been supportive and loyal. Sure, during difficult times it may have “felt” different, but it always varied according to the situation.
This rubs you the wrong way. Upon the realization that the company has indoctrinated and domesticated your friend, you seek to break the shell of Stockholm syndrome.
You become angry and intentionally seek to hurt your friend by demonstrating just how big of an idiot he is for believing such hogwash.
You know they’re getting upset, but you continue to lay into them until they submit or walk away. You must prove yourself at all costs.
One of the tell tale signs of this cognitive distortion is the desire, albeit unconscious, to create anxiety and/or anger in the person that is disagreeing with you.
If you can destabilize them emotionally, you’ve taken control over the situation and can likely control the flow of the discussion.
It’s not a philosophically debate wherein all points are considered and wrestled with. Rather, it’s emotional fisticuffs, gaslighting, and manipulation.
All the greatest minds of history began with the assumption that they knew nothing at all. This is the starting place of all knowledge. Buddhists call it the beginner’s mind.
Any other avenue is the stagnation of knowledge and freedom.
How to stop cognitive distortions and negative thinking
As I started the article with, understanding is the key to freedom. Once you’re aware of the cognitive poison, you can’t unsee it.
All forms of irrational thought patterns and negative thinking can be reversed once you’re aware of them.
This doesn’t mean that other mental health conditions and personality disorders just disappear, but it will make life more manageable and will change your neurobiology. That being said, it can make the process of cognitive restructuring and reframing a little more challenging.
Reaching out to a mental health professional can be overwhelming as well, you’re likely approaching that situation with a variety of unresourceful and unhealthy generalizations as well.
The best piece of advice is twofold:
- Remember that unresourceful generalizations do not render you a bad or immoral person. Instead, it’s the signs of a perfect brain doing exactly as it was designed.
- Also, that events, people, places, and things cannot disturb. Rather, it’s your view or thoughts about these things that disturb you. Remember, you live in the feeling of your thinking.
Beginning with small changes can be helpful. Here are some tips:
1. Thinking about your thoughts
This can be an usual habit, but they call it metacognition. It is defined as the “thought processes and an understanding of the patterns behind them. The term comes from the root word meta, meaning ‘beyond,’ or ‘on top of’.”
Metacognition can take a variety of forms, such as reflecting on one’s ways of thinking and knowing when and how to use particular strategies for problem-solving.
For our purposes, it’s just thinking about your thinking. Sit back and observe the chaos. It’s quite revealing.
2. Replacing absolutes
Once you pop the hood of your brain using metacognition, you’ll recognize a variety of dogmatic patterns defined by a host of absolutes – how things should be (remember your personal laws!).
You can begin chopping away at the barrier by replacing the sweeping statements that constantly barrage your thoughts. For instance, change “always” and “never” with “sometimes” and replace all the “musts” with “I prefer.”
3. Correct unhelpful language
An excellent beginning is labeling behavior rather than identifying with it. NLP has an excellent concept for this called Nominalization.
“In NLP Nominalization is a verb, representing a process, which turned into a noun or an event or a concept. This is something that is more easily dealt with as a verb/process, than a noun/event. We naturally nominalize things all the time. It is a nominalization, “if you cannot put it in a wheelbarrow.” First of all, people nominalize things to try to get a handle on the, or to be more easily able to refer to them in simpler terms.
Unfortunately, the result is often of even greater difficulty to deal with than whatever is nominalized. Doing this sends deceptive messages to our brains. For example, a “decision” is actually the process of deciding. A relationship is the process of relating to someone. By changing the process into a fixed static thing, we can feel it is unchanging and limit our choices for action.”
An illustration is emotion. Emotion is feeling or energy in motion, hence the name e-motion. Since feelings produce our behaviors is important to label them correctly.
The statement “I am anxious” is a nominalization. Anxiety is a process, not an event. A more accurate statement is “I am experiencing anxiety.”
Furthermore, if you didn’t get all your work done for the day, it’s unresourceful to label yourself lazy. One action doesn’t define you. Rather than label yourself, label the behavior i.e., “I did as much as I could but didn’t finish.”
4. Searching for positive aspects
This can be difficult at first, particularly if your generalizations hyper focus on the negatives.
One phenomenal way to achieve this is by starting a gratitude list. Everyday, sit down and write a minimum of 25 things you’re grateful for.
Then, throughout the day, when something disturbs or bothers you, try to identify the 3 positive elements in whatever it is.
It will likely feel unnatural, but through practice you can take an unnatural act and make it natural.
Potty training is a perfect example of this. A toddler is perfectly content soiling their pants. The toilet? Well, that’s extremely unnatural to them! Nonetheless, over time though continuous repetition, eventually one day they soil themselves and it feels unnatural.
Every time you feel this task of identifying the positives is impossible, just remember the toilet, you can turn any unnatural act into a natural one!
5. Does evidence back up your negative thought?
An unresourceful brain is characterized by this behavioral process: feel and respond.
The feeling produces the behavior and it’s automated based upon the generalizations coded in your brain.
An external stimuli triggers a specific reaction that it’s already preprogrammed to do.
The best way to counter act this is to wedge an evaluation between your feeling and response.
Feel, evaluate, respond.
The evaluation considers the evidence and follows where it leads.
Questions are powerful by the very fact they require answers.
So, question yourself, ask the right questions, investigate, gather as many facts as feasibly possible.
Remember, you may feel strongly about your initial response, but your brain and body feel strongly regarding the preprogrammed response it’s designed to reinforce. You’re up against you’re own biology, so make the extra effort to surrender to the facts and the data uncovered through your evaluation.
Summary in 7 Points
- Cognition is the mental action or process of acquiring knowledge and understanding through thought, experience, and the senses.
- As you take in the world via the senses, cognition provides you with the re-presentation of it.
- A distortion is the action of giving a misleading account or impression. In other words, it’s a mis-representation.
- Cognition has an incredible ability to generalize, delete, and distort information to make life more manageable and efficient, but when left unchecked will invariably lead to emotional unmanageability.
- Cognitive distortions are negative filters (unmanageable generalizations) that significantly mis-represent that way you see yourself and the world around you.
- Uncover your generalizations and interact with each one. Increase in insight and understanding, restructure and reframe each cognitive distortion and become more effective and resourceful.
- Understanding is the trick to freedom
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Burns DD. (2012). Feeling good: The new mood therapy. New York: New American Library.
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McKay M. & Fanning P. (2016). Self-Esteem: A proven program of cognitive techniques for assessing, improving, and maintaining your self-esteem. New York: New Harbinger Publications.
Rnic K, et al. (2016). Cognitive distortions, humor styles, and depression.