At the heart of Cognitive Therapy is the understanding that the way we feel emotionally, and the way we behave physically are due to the thoughts we have about what we are experiencing. The situation itself, does not directly determine how we feel or what we do; our response is entirely from our perception of the event. It is a neurological fact that before we can feel something, we must first process it with the mind and give meaning to it. This is why people react or respond to the same situation in so many different ways.
These thoughts, known as Automatic Thoughts in Cognitive Therapy seem to pop into the mind spontaneously, as if out of nowhere. Most of the time, we aren’t even aware of these thoughts. If someone asked you at the time of a distressing event, “what are you thinking?” you would probably be more aware of the emotions that are present. But it is these thoughts that shape our entire reality. These thoughts give rise to the way we feel at any given moment. They influence how we will respond to the situation at hand. And so, it might come as a bit of a surprise to learn that often these thoughts are grossly distorted.
Yet we don’t even think about questioning our thoughts. We accept our thinking uncritically, believing that they are true. Absolute truths. Just the way things are. After all, it is our mind that is creating them. With these thoughts, it is like putting on a pair of tinted glasses and seeing the world through this lens. But, and this is a big but, just because we think something, doesn’t necessarily mean that it is true.
I know it might seem counterintuitive to question our thoughts, but in doing so we begin to recognise the cognitive distortions and the untruths behind much of our thinking. With practice, we can learn to judge for ourselves the validity of our thoughts and develop more positive, kinder ways of thinking. Naturally, as with learning any new skill, like learning to drive or play the piano, it can be challenging and you might not be very good at first, but with practice and patience you’ll get better and better until it feels comfortable and natural.
Cognitive distortions are inaccurate thoughts that reinforce negative thought patterns or emotions. These faulty ways of thinking convince us of a reality that is simply not true. By becoming aware of our thinking habits and patterns, it is possible to make the necessary changes and develop a balanced and healthy mind.
1. Mental Filtering cognitive distortions
Filtering refers to the way many of us can somehow ignore all of the positive and good things in our day to focus solely on the negative. It can be far too easy to dwell on a single negative aspect, even when surrounded by an abundance of good things.
2. All-Or-Nothing Thinking cognitive distortions
This cognitive distortion is all about seeing black and white only, with no shades of grey. This is all-or-nothing thinking, with no room for complexity or nuance. If you don’t perform perfectly in some area, then you may see yourself as a total failure instead of simply unskilled in one area.
Overgeneralisation is taking a single incident or point in time and using it as the sole piece of evidence for a broad general conclusion. For example, a person may be on the lookout for a job but have a bad interview experience, but instead of brushing it off as one bad interview and trying again, they conclude that they are terrible at interviewing and will never get a job offer.
4. Jumping to Conclusions cognitive distortions
Similar to overgeneralisation, this distortion involves faulty reasoning in how we make conclusions. Instead of overgeneralising one incident, however, jumping to conclusions refers to the tendency to be sure of something without any evidence at all. We may be convinced that someone dislikes us with only the flimsiest of proof, or we may be convinced that our fears will come true before we have a chance to find out. This can be divided into two areas:
Mind Reading: You arbitrarily conclude that someone is reacting negatively to you, and you don’t bother to check this out.
The Fortune Teller Error: You anticipate that things will turn out badly and you feel convinced that your prediction is an already established fact.
5. Catastrophising / Magnifying or Minimising
You exaggerate the importance of things (such as an error or achievement), or you inappropriately shrink things until they appear tiny (your own desirable qualities or the other fellow’s imperfections). This is also called the binocular trick.
This is a distortion where an individual believes that everything they do has an impact on external events or other people, no matter how irrational the link between. The person suffering from this distortion will feel that they have an unreasonably important role in the bad things that happen around them. For instance, a person may believe that the meeting they were a few minutes late in getting to was derailed because of them, and that everything would have been fine if they were on time.
7. Disqualifying the Positives
You reject positive experiences by insisting they don’t count for some reason or other. In this way you can maintain a negative belief that is contradicted by your everyday experiences.
8. Shoulds cognitive distortions
“Shoulds” refer to the implicit or explicit rules we have about how we and others should behave. When others break our rules, we are upset. When we break our own rules, we feel guilty. For example, we may have an unofficial rule that customer service representatives should always be accommodating to the customer. When we interact with a customer service representative that is not immediately accommodating, we might get angry. If we have an implicit rule that we are irresponsible if we spend money on unnecessary things, we may feel exceedingly guilty when we spend even a small amount of money on something we don’t need.
9. Emotional Reasoning cognitive distortions
This distortion involves thinking that if we feel a certain way, it must be true. For example, if we feel unattractive or uninteresting in the current moment, we must be unattractive or uninteresting. This cognitive distortion boils down to: “I feel it, therefore it must be true.” Clearly our emotions are not always indicative of the objective truth, but it can be difficult to look past how we feel.
10. Global Labelling / Blaming cognitive distortions
This is an extreme form of overgeneralisation. Instead of describing your error, you attach a negative label to yourself: ‘I’m a loser!’. When someone else’s behaviour rubs you the wrong way, you attach a negative label to him. Mislabeling involves describing an event with language that is highly coloured and emotionally loaded.
Familiarise yourself with the main 10 Cognitive Distortions and see if you can catch yourself using any of them when you find your mood shift. Need help? Get in touch today or find me at The Light Centre Monument.
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