As we go through life, we are very dependent on the information processing of our brain. We believe what it tells us, because that’s its job. We rely on our senses to provide information and then our brain makes sense of it and tells us how to react. But what if your brain was just plain wrong in its conclusion? When this happens repeatedly, you are experiencing cognitive distortions.
This error in judgement on the part of your brain isn’t malicious at all. It is always, truly, just trying to keep you alive. In fact, everyone deals with cognitive distortions to some extent, since we base our decisions off of our own past experiences. But sometimes, due to anxiety, depression, or other factors, these distortions get out of hand and make life really difficult.
I am not a licensed therapist or mental health professional. If you are suffering and need treatment please seek the help of a professional. This post may contain affiliate links, meaning, at no additional cost to you, I will earn a commission if you click through and make a purchase.
Cognitive Distortions + You
There are many different types of cognitive distortions. Today we are going to focus on five that I have dealt with first hand. If you identify with any of these distortions and feel like they are controlling your decision making, I hope after reading you can feel empowered.
Why? Well, first of all, know that you aren’t alone. This isn’t just something you struggle with, there are a whole bunch of us! Second, you can get help, and you can recover from these distortions. You can gain stability and accuracy back into your brain processes with the help of a qualified therapist. So while it’s perfectly normal to feel broken or upset at first, remind yourself that help is available!
Ok, let’s look at five types of cognitive distortions!
Have you ever felt that since one small detail was out of place, an entire event was ruined? Or if you make a small mistake, you absolutely react as though it was of earth ending importance? Then you have probably experienced the cognitive distortion of magnification.
Literally imagine taking a magnifying glass to anything. You would probably find small flaws, cracks, imperfections that suddenly seem much larger. It may seem, based only on the image you see through the magnifier, that the item is permanently ruined. Put down the magnification, however, and you can’t even see the problem.
I really hesitate to use the word “overreacting” because inside your brain it is a perfectly reasonable response. Anyone else processing the information the same way would have the same response. However, people around you would probably describe your actions as an overreaction from their perspective.
2. “Should” statements
This is one cognitive distortion in particular that I fight off all the time. It’s usually when I’m feeling inadequate, and I start talking about what I “should” do. I should lose 20 pounds to be attractive. I should be reading more. I should be a better mother.
Who says we “should”? Maybe some of those are good ideas, but there is no rule book saying I HAVE to do these things or I’m somehow worthless. These statements don’t help us, they only make us feel shame for not achieving what we think we should.
Of course we have goals and things we want to accomplish, but we need to disregard the external “shoulds” that don’t serve our mental health.
When we experience this distortion we take all the blame for a situation and heap it upon ourselves. Anytime anything goes wrong, we say it’s our fault, even if we had absolutely no control over it.
We may also attribute what someone else as a reaction to us, when really it had nothing to do with us. If you are walking up to a laughing group of people, do you immediately assume they are laughing at you? Or if someone says something in an undertone to their neighbor, do you feel like they must be sneering at you?
In both these cases, an independent observer would say there’s no way it has to do with you, but your brain has processed it differently. If this resonates with you, you have probably experienced the cognitive distortion of personalization.
4. All-or-nothing Thinking (also called black-and-white thinking)
Ooooh boy, I have a lot to say about this one. It’s the distortion that tells us one thing is true and the opposite is wrong and there is no in between. Either you agree completely with me, or you are against me. Believe this one thing, or you will be thrown out. There is only ONE right way to do this and if you won’t do it that way, I want nothing to do with you.
From an outside perspective, we can see that every situation has so many shades of gray. Maybe I don’t completely agree with you, but that doesn’t mean I’m against you! There’s also probably more than one perfectly fine way to accomplish that task.
Many of my most challenging personal experiences with this distortion have stemmed from my religious upbringing, and I felt it worse around the subject of divorce. If you get married, you have no choice but to stay married. Divorce = adultery. You made a vow and you keep it no matter what.
Clearly this doesn’t serve the millions of unique marriages we find ourselves in, especially ones with emotional abuse. There are thousands of shades of gray and each situation involving divorce needs careful thought and deliberation, not one big all-or-nothing rule.
We all have many hats to wear in life: daughter, son, mother, father, spouse, employee, etc etc. In these different roles, it is easy to fall into the cognitive distortion of labeling, where we see ourselves as only being one way. The “dumb student,” the “creative mom,” the “always late employee” and so on. Sometimes these labels are given to us by others, and sometimes we choose them mentally for ourselves.
The thing is, we have so many more facets to each of us than a label could ever encompass. Maybe you aren’t always punctual, but that doesn’t define you. It is a thing about you, not who you are. We’ve seen situations where the person says, “well, I’m the screw up, what did you expect?” They have accepted a distorted label that will make their life very difficult.
Pay Attention to Cognitive Distortions
If you feel like you may be experiencing some of these cognitive distortions, it can be super helpful to journal about it. Having the emotions captured on paper can make it easier to revisit and see if your brain was mis-processing information.
If you see a pattern that is disrupting your life, make sure to talk to a therapist! There are several talk therapy treatment approaches and you can learn to recognize and reject the distortions! I know because I’ve walked through it, and although it’s a journey, I have seen significant progress over the last couple years. You’ve got this!
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