Oh the ways our mind can play tricks on us...
There’s a reason why some movie horror scenes take place in funhouse mirrors: the visual distortions are freaky, sometimes scary. In fact, even when we see ourselves shed a few pounds in an elongation mirror, it’s never really flattering: we appear awkwardly elongated, like an ostrich with an eating disorder. When we see ourselves in these extreme distortions, we may think, “hey, that’s weird” and laugh it off. In this case, we know what we paid for. We’re mentally prepared for the nauseatingly weird and sillies.
But sometimes, we take virtual funhouse mirror tours in our mind. These mental trips are not fun. In fact, they can be downright depressing or anger-provoking. Cognitive distortions can be incredibly harmful to our sense of self and negatively impact our relationship with others. And unlike the conscious act of stepping into a fun house (hey, we bought the darn tickets), we sometimes distort reality without being aware of doing so. We encounter a situation and reflexively react with a negative and often extreme thought. These automatic thoughts play tricks on us because we hold them to be true without trial by evidence.
Let's catch these cognitive distortions before they play tricks on us.
Here are a few common thinking errors that can distort reality:
All or Nothing
Life often exists in shades of grey, rather than in absolutes of black or white. All or nothing thinking is an error in thinking because life is rarely completely one way or another. Thinking in extremes will make us feel emotions in extremes.
Thoughts are magnified in proportion relative to its meaning, importance, or likelihood. Catastrophizing often occurs when we look at our mistakes, fears, or imperfections and exaggerate their importance. With catastrophizing we reflexively think of a negative outcome to a situation and then conclude that the negative outcome would be disastrous.
This type of cognitive distortion takes one instance or example and arbitrarily concludes that it will happen over and over again. For example, Tonya was walking to work and accidentally stepped on dog poop. Reflexively, she thinks, “I have the worst luck! I’m always stepping on poop.” Obviously, it’s highly unlikely that anyone is burdened with bad outcomes every second of every day. It’s also highly unlikely that every step Tonya takes, she lands on a pile of poop. Her overgeneralization of an isolated incident certainly does not help her situation. Over time, her blanket negative thoughts based on one or two experiences may lead to overly negative thoughts about herself and her environment.
This type of cognitive distortion involves the fixation of negative detail(s) of a situation and the exclusion of any positive or neutral aspects. With mental filtering, our thoughts dwell on the negatives of an event. Over time, habitual automatic negative thoughts may foster a pessimistic outlook on everything around us.
Disqualifying the Positive
When we disqualify the positive, we first acknowledge the neutral or positive aspect of a situation and immediately transform it into a negative experience. Rather than transforming a positive aspect into a negative, we simply reject any positive interpretation of an experience. For example, after delivering a quarterly report, several peers complimented Julie on her performance. Julie reflexively thinks, “They’re just complimenting me to make me feel better about the terrible job I did.”
Mind reading is the belief that in a given situation, we know what another person is thinking. Our assumption of other’s thoughts tends to be negative thoughts about us. For example, Matt sends an old friend a text and receives no immediate response. Rather than consider all possible reasons for delayed response, he immediately concludes, “she doesn’t want to respond because she doesn’t like me anymore.”
Emotional reasoning is the acceptance of our emotions as evidence for the truth. It typically falls under the logic of, “I feel it so therefore it must be true.”
In this extreme form of overgeneralization, we assign judgements to ourselves or to others based on a single or limited experience. These errors in thinking usually begin with the statement, “I am a …”, “He or she is a …”, “This is …” Negative self labels are self defeating, and often wrong. Negative labeling of others will invariably create hostility.
This type of cognitive distortion involves taking blame for a negative event when there is little or no basis for doing so. Personalization of events will lead us to feel crippling guilt.
Step away from the funhouse mirror
Stopping cognitive distortions takes pause and practice. First, we need to catch ourselves when we have an automatic thought. Take a moment to pause and objectively view the situation. We need to restructure our thoughts so that it’s more a reflection of reality. Think of evidence for the automatic thought and then think of evidence against the automatic thought. Once we find evidence to disprove our knee-jerk reaction, we then can seek alternative explanations to the situation that’s more benign and aligned with the evidence.
For example, if you got a parking ticket and had a chicken little moment when you approached your car, take a moment to pause. To overcome catastrophizing, consider all outcomes, the positive, neutral, and mildly negative, and negative. Learn to distinguish between an event being unpleasant and it being a catastrophe. Few events in life are unrecoverable catastrophes. Yeah, it sucks to make time to fight the ticket or fork up the money but it’s unlikely the parking ticket will have a lasting negative impact on your life. Even with bad events, learn to restructure your perception in a more benign way. Cognitive restructuring is not about sugar-coating a situation. Do not try to cheer yourself up with thoughts you do not believe are objectively true. Instead, try to weigh evidence for and against the thought to uncover the truth.
Let’s step away from the mental funhouse mirror (‘cuz it sure ain’t fun) and increase our ability to cope with any life situation.