Things Aren’t Always What They Seem

Posted: April 5, 2011 in Uncategorized
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Cognitive distortions are exaggerated and irrational thoughts identified in cognitive therapy and its variants. They are simply ways that our mind convinces us of something that isn’t really true. These inaccurate thoughts are usually used to reinforce negative thinking or emotions — telling ourselves things that sound rational and accurate, but really only serve to keep us feeling bad about ourselves. It is those things in our minds that constantly catch us day in and day out, and most certainly the causes of our bad days whenever they appear. And it dilutes those bad days that we have, into having worse ones.

Let me list for you the 15 most common cognitive distortions. You can see for yourself which ones you have always fallen to, and which ones you have caught your brain doing the thinking for you, when in fact the truth of the matter is that things weren’t so bad in the first place. It will surprise you how many times you have gone through this without knowing it. I know that it did for me, when I first heard about these.

1. Filtering.

 

We take the negative details and magnify them while filtering out all positive aspects of a situation. For instance, a person may pick out a single, unpleasant detail and dwell on it exclusively so that their vision of reality becomes darkened or distorted.

2. Polarized Thinking.

 

Things are either “black-or-white.” We have to be perfect or we’re a failure–there is no middle ground. You place people or situations in “either/or” categories, with no shades of gray or allowing for the complexity of most people and situations. If your performance falls short of perfect, you see yourself as a total failure.

3. Overgeneralization.

 

We come to a general conclusion based on a single incident or piece of evidence. If something bad happens once, we expect it to happen over and over again. A person may see a single, unpleasant event as a never-ending pattern of defeat.

4. Jumping to Conclusions.

 

Without individuals saying so, we know what they are feeling and why they act the way they do. In particular, we are able to determine how people are feeling toward us. For example, a person may conclude that someone is reacting negatively toward them and don’t actually bother to find out if they are correct. Another example is a person may anticipate that things will turn out badly, and will feel convinced that their prediction is already an established fact.

5. Catastrophizing.

 

We expect disaster to strike, no matter what. This is also referred to as “magnifying or minimizing.” We hear about a problem and use what if questions (e.g., “What if tragedy strikes?” “What if it happens to me?”).

For example, a person might exaggerate the importance of insignificant events (such as their mistake, or someone else’s achievement). Or they may inappropriately shrink the magnitude of significant events until they appear tiny (for example, a person’s own desirable qualities or someone else’s imperfections).

6. Personalization.

 

Thinking that everything people do or say is some kind of reaction to us. We also compare ourselves to others trying to determine who is smarter, better looking, etc. A person sees themselves as the cause of some unhealthy external event that the were not responsible for. For example, “We were late to the dinner party and caused the hostess to overcook the meal. If I had only pushed my husband to leave on time, this wouldn’t have happened.”

7. Control Fallacies.

 

If we feel externally controlled, we see ourselves as helpless a victim of fate. For example, “I can’t help it if the quality of the work is poor, my boss demanded I work overtime on it.” The fallacy of internal control has us assuming responsibility for the pain and happiness of everyone around us. For example, “Why aren’t you happy? Is it because of something I did?”

8. Fallacy of Fairness.

 

We feel resentful because we think we know what is fair, but other people won’t agree with us. As our parents tell us, “Life is always fair,” and people who go through life applying a measuring ruler against every situation judging its “fairness” will often feel badly and negative because of it.

9. Blaming.

 

We hold other people responsible for our pain, or take the other track and blame ourselves for every problem. For example, “Stop making me feel bad about myself!” Nobody can “make” us feel any particular way — only we have control over our own emotions and emotional reactions.

10. Shoulds.

 

We have a list of ironclad rules about how others and we should behave. People who break the rules make us angry, and we feel guilty when we violate these rules. A person may often believe they are trying to motivate themselves with shoulds and shouldn’ts, as if they have to be punished before they can do anything.

For example, “I really should exercise. I shouldn’t be so lazy.” Musts and oughts are also offenders. The emotional consequence is guilt. When a person directs should statements toward others, they often feel anger, frustration and resentment.

11. Emotional Reasoning.

 

We believe that what we feel must be true automatically. If we feel stupid and boring, then we must be stupid and boring. You assume that your unhealthy emotions reflect he way things really are — “I feel it, therefore it must be true.”

12. Fallacy of Change.

 

We expect that other people will change to suit us if we just pressure or cajole them enough. We need to change people because our hopes for happiness seem to depend entirely on them.

13. Global Labeling.

 

We generalize one or two qualities into a negative global judgment. These are extreme forms of generalizing, and are also referred to as “labeling” and “mislabeling.” Instead of describing an error in context of a specific situation, a person will attach an unhealthy label to themselves.

For example, they may say, “I’m a loser” in a situation where they failed at a specific task. When someone else’s behavior rubs a person the wrong way, they may attach an unhealthy label to him, such as “He’s a real jerk.” Mislabeling involves describing an event with language that is highly colored and emotionally loaded. For example, instead of saying someone drops her children off at daycare every day, a person who is mislabeling might say that “she abandons her children to strangers.”

14. Always Being Right.

 

We are continually on trial to prove that our opinions and actions are correct. Being wrong is unthinkable and we will go to any length to demonstrate our rightness. For example, “I don’t care how badly arguing with me makes you feel, I’m going to win this argument no matter what because I’m right.” Being right often is more important than the feelings of others around a person who engages in this cognitive distortion, even loved ones.

15. Heaven’s Reward Fallacy.

 

We expect our sacrifice and self-denial to pay off, as if someone is keeping score. We feel bitter when the reward doesn’t come.

Pretty heavy stuff. It is my own personal theory that when we beat ourselves up, is when cognitive distortions are working at their greatest. Things happen when we don’t want it to happen, or things don’t happen when we expect them to. So when we begin to think about it, our brain goes down that dark and winding road that never seems to end, trying to come up with the answers by ourselves without any burden of evidence. It is our humanly assumptions that come into view and we believe what we want to believe.

This happened to me several times yesterday. A long time friend of mine ran into me and we chatted for a bit before we had to part ways. I gave them my telephone number and they said that they were going to give me a call to catch up with life around 9:00 PM. I had plans already made but because I had made the choice to want to speak with them, I cancelled what was already on my personal schedule. I made the decision to make room for this person so that I would be available to speak on the phone with them. But when 9:30 PM rolled around, I almost immediately began to wonder why in the world the telephone wasn’t ringing. I was trying to make up something in my mind that sounded like a rational explanation for the reason why it was appearing this person was either standing me up or blowing me off.

The phone call finally did come at 10:00 PM. One hour later than what was originally talked about. I was given the reason that this person was in a place where there was no cell phone signal, and decided to drive home and call me from there.

Now I knew that they only had a cell phone. It was something that they had just told me earlier that day. It was something that was not allowed to enter into my mind because I was making myself believe that this person was being a complete jerk towards me, and I kept thinking about how much fun I was missing because I had cancelled my earlier plans. If I had only remembered the fact that they were only able to get ahold of me through a cell phone, I wouldn’t have been so hard on them, in my own mind.

After I had a nice chat with my friend, I went to read my e-mail messages.

A colleague of mine had responded to an inquiry that I had written to them just a few days before. They said that they were at work still and checking their messages while on their break, but they were planning to respond to my inquiry when they got home. Which they had suspected would be in a couple of hours. So then why did I begin the process of checking my e-mail inbox at 12:02 AM early this morning and kept hitting the “refresh” button almost every 15 seconds to 5 minutes? Because it was said, “I might be able to write to you in a couple of hours.” That was the direct quote.

By 1:15 AM this morning, there was still no e-mail. I had absolute zero correspondence beyond what they had told me before. And what I thought made things worse is that they hadn’t even remotely addressed the subject to which had caused me to inquire in the first place.

Again, I could feel my mind being flooded with the possible scenarios of “what if“?

Two hours had come and gone and there was no particular evidence of this colleague was even having the desire to respond to me. I tried to come up with excuses. I tried to come up with reasons. But it still angered me to the point where I was just lost in confusion. “A couple of hours” means “a couple of hours”. To me, it was all black & white. I filtered into my head that I was getting messed around with. I also filtered into my head that this person was being a real pain in the butt with me. That they did nothing to me, but lied.

Around 2:30 AM, I had given up. I had turned in for the night, but could not sleep. My mind still wandered around in the pitfalls of cognitive distortions as I came up with every little detailed story, lie, or excuse that they could ever tell me for whenever they finally did respond back to me. It made my bad night into a worse night and sleep was very much lost.

It was so bad for me that I got up out of bed one full hour later and checked my inbox yet one more time. Only to find it as empty as I had left it the last time.

From some miracle though, I did manage to fall asleep at some point. I woke up though at my usual time. I felt exhausted, confused, depressed, and continually bothered by the fact that I was completely stunned at the fact that when I had gone to bed, this person still had not contacted me. All I could do was keep saying to myself, “Wow!”. Someone whom I had “believed” to be a trusted individual to the point where I know that they would always keep their word.

I would however, overcome this. This morning I started to think to myself that I just simply do not know what the reasons are as to why I have not heard from them. That there could be a million and one things that could have prevented them from writing me back. And I would slowly drift into the realms of insanity and distrust of all mankind with that colleague at the front of the firing line, if I had allowed myself to sit and think about them all, trying to rationalize everything when I simply had nothing concrete to base my thoughts upon.

Humans are flawed. We are filled with making mistakes. It is up to us to understand this. Just because we do not get our way doesn’t mean that the corners of the world are going to start to crumble and the earth fall apart into oblivion. The best thing that I could do for myself in this situation was to allow the possibilities that there will come a time when my colleague will write in the future. If we allow ourselves to believe what we want, we will never be happy. We must allow for others to make their own decisions in life and if there are consequences, they are the ones that must deal with it. Our own mental health and sanity greatly depends on our ways of allowing what we decide to believe what our brains are telling us.

I know that for myself, I need to allow others to be able to explain themselves when plans don’t work out the way we hope for. As the saying goes, “What will be, will be.” We can either embrace that and live stronger, more healthy mental lives or we can fight for what we believe is true without any regard towards others and just allow our lives to slump into despair and thus become more miserable than we had ever thought would be possible. Life wasn’t meant to be easy but it doesn’t have to be hell.

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