Thinking about thinking: Cognitive Distortions
Cognitive distortions are those parts of our thinking that can get us into trouble. “There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so…” Shakespeare was pretty close in his thinking about thinking strategies. Some examples include making assessments of reality on the basis of skewed perception. Knowing a small amount and filling in the blanks with emotional loading.
Fear is rich in possible forms of expression. “The boss looked very serious this morning … I’ll definitely lose my job!” This may seem bizarre but it’s not entirely uncommon for people to make assessments that are more informed by emotion than reason.
Making meaning based on limited information is very natural if not always useful. With a little information we can take over and seek completion, identify patterns and relationships. We can even hold false beliefs in the face of an abundance of contradictory evidence.
A parent can smoke cigarettes and know the harm smoking causes. They might even provide wise guidance to their child who is considering taking up this cool habit. The ‘dissonance’ refers to the discomfort experienced with being a smoker and knowing the harm.
We don’t like discomfort. So, in order to experience comfort, we must do some stuff. We can reframe our position. It’s not absolutely certain that smoking is absolutely linked to lung cancer ,high blood pressure, and heart disease. In fact there may be ‘evidence’ of a ninety year old grandma who pulled on two packs a day 75 years! Now that eases the discomfort. Excuses are the lies we tell ourselves.
Some common Cognitive Distortions
- All-or-Nothing/ “black and white” Thinking…
In spite of the huge success of the book “50 Shades of Grey”, this thinking flaw involves refusal to accept variation. Extremes make up this view of situations. Things are either marvellous or dreadful, I am either excellent or a total loser!
If my surfboard was stolen from Bondi by a foreigner from “Franzylvania”, I now decide all “Franzylvanians” are not to be trusted! Such overgeneralisation can support thinking and lead to very poor self-esteem. If I accidentally slip and fall, I conclude I am the clumsiest person in the world. If I don’t do well in one exam subject I conclude I am as dumb as dust! Continuing to think in general ways about particular, even singular experiences is most unhelpful, as well and unreal.
- Disqualifying the Positive
Positive events and experiences can be acknowledged but minimised or rejected outright. For example, a foreign student does well in college but suspects generosity influenced by some positive action plan at the college. There is no real evidence of favouritism and generosity but the distortion diminishes ownership of success in any case.
- Mind Reading
Mind reading refers to deciding we know what other people are thinking. We can have some idea about what people are thinking. I can guess what Donald Trump thinks about walls and barbed wire, but I don’t really know for certain. Jumping to conclusions is not useful! If my boss doesn’t smile her usual smile this morning and I conclude I will lose my job without any substantiating evidence, I will have a very bad day and entertain an array of negative feelings and maybe make a movie of myself out of work, wandering aimlessly, with suitably miserable violin music playing somewhere. Cognitive distortions are thieves. They rob the joy from life… if we let them!
This cognitive distortion involves exaggerating the importance or meaning of things or minimizing the importance or meaning of things. A simple mishap is viewed as complete disaster. The car breaks down in the way to a
meeting. The feelings associated with the catastrophic thoughts can be experienced as totally awful. I find some weed in my son’s shirt pocket and decide he’s running a meth lab and will end up in terrible circumstances.
- Emotional Reasoning
Emotional reasoning confuses feelings with facts. People with successful educational attainments can be ‘certain’ they are dumb. People in relationships can be consumed with jealousy feeling certain their lover is unfaithful even though there is zero evidence but to the contrary.
- Should Statements
This cognitive distortion involves setting expectations on the self and other about how things should be, ought to be, or even must be. Of course, when we don’t meet our “should” standards we are disappointed and even feel guilty. When others fail to meet our “should” standards, we can be disappointed or even enraged.
This cognitive distortion involves deciding everything is personal, even to the point of self-criticism and blaming. Taking everything personally can ruin relationships. If, for example, a friend leaves a social engagement early and I decide it’s my fault, then I experience guilt and then proceed to criticise myself. I do all of this with absolutely no evidence of personal responsibility.
- Locus of Control Fallacies
Such cognitive distortions around control can show up in a couple of ways. Firstly, we disconnect from any sense of personal power and feel we have no control in our lives, we are helpless, we are victims, doomed. Secondly, we think we are in total control of ourselves and fully responsible for everything around us. Both versions of this distorted thinking are unhelpful as well as unrealistic.
- Just World Fallacy
Life is not fair. Expecting it to be so can be very disappointing to the point of making a person with this cognitive distortion angry and resentful. When I am cut off in traffic by someone exceeding the limit and gesturing to me with one of their fingers, I can become infuriated if acting on this cognitive distortion.
- Fallacy of Change
This distortion involves thinking that people around us will change, and we will be happier, if we just apply some pressure, guidance, and encouragement. Wew are dependent on other people to make us fulfilled and happy.
- Perfectionism “right-fighting”
Perfectionists need everything to be just right. Whenever an opposing opinion is offered on some topic, there can be harsh, even relentless defence. This cognitive distortion has no room for error. Failure is definitely not an option.
- Heaven’s Reward Fallacy
This cognitive distortion relates to the expectation that suffering, pain, effort, and diligence, will pay off eventually. Recognition and reward are expected and there can be bitterness and demotivation if they don’t arrive.
So where to from here?
We know human memory is famously flawed, and our thinking prone to severe distortions, so how can we navigate life’s journey?
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy contains some tools to identify cognitive distortions. Please stop by again soon to look some of these over. You never know, they might just be of help.