The resource I share with every client
Not so long ago, after dog walking with a new friend, I found my mind saying: "Well she clearly thinks you're dull! you weren't very interesting and, suggesting a dog walk instead of going for drinks? How boring! She definitely doesn't like you so that's the end of that friendship!"
After a moment's pause, I replied: "Thank you for sharing that, but where is the evidence? How does my mind know that she doesn't like me? What is fact and what is fiction here? I know you like to think you can mind read and fortune tell but that's something you can't do."
Mind reading and fortune-telling are examples of how the mind attempts to convince us of a reality that simply isn't true. A reality, that more often than not, makes us feel bad about ourselves. We call these cognitive distortions.
And it's not that your brain is deceiving you on purpose or wanting to make you feel bad, but rather that over the years it's developed faulty connections or thinking patterns. The brain's main function in life is to keep us safe and healthy, but sometimes that priority ends up distorting situations or viewing the world in a more negative light.
So if we come back to my mind trying to read my friends' thoughts and predict the future, we can see that it was really just an attempt to keep me from experiencing a kind of rejection. That if my friend did reject me, I'd already predicted it and so the sting wouldn't be quite so bad.
But perhaps more importantly, we can see that these thoughts are irrational and not based upon facts or what's actually true.
Had I not recognised that my mind was distorting reality and taken what it said for gospel truth, I might have found myself spiralling into more negative thoughts, more negative feelings, and more negative actions.
The realisation that not everything my mind shares with me is gospel truth was liberating.
Everyone falls prey to irrational thoughts at times because these patterns of thinking are often so subtle, so ingrained, so familiar, that it's hard to notice that they're even there. This is where the keyword for so much of therapy comes in: awarness. Learning to catch and modify these distortions is fundamental to finding happiness, purpose, fulfilment, confidence, and self-love.
And learning this is like learning any other skill. It takes patience, practice, and persistence to master. The first step is meeting the common cognitive distortions and familiarising yourself with them so that, when they show up in your life, you know what they look like and can begin the process of challenging, minimising or erasing them from your life.
Cognitive distortions are at the heart of cognitive therapy. The way that we think about things influences the way that we feel and behave. In order to make sense of an experience, we first have to process it with the mind and give meaning to it. The problem is, it can be hard to identify what it is that we are actually thinking in the first place.
On an average day, we have 70-80,000 thoughts (mind-blown!). It is said that by the age of 30, 90% of our thinking is a variation of something we've already thought. So just like if we had one song playing in the background, over time it would become background noise, and our thoughts over time (and with little repetition) blur into the background of our awareness.
More than this, there's a tendency to naturally assume that our thoughts must be true – after all, it has come from our minds. But, and listen closely here, just because we think something, doesn’t mean that the thought is true.
A lot of the time, we are wearing tinted lenses through which we see the world. In cognitive therapy, we call these lenses cognitive distortions. These inaccurate thoughts result in us believing a reality that simply isn't true. Below I share the eleven most common distortions.
The most common cognitive distortions
This is one that so many people struggle with. We grow up formulating our own rules about how we and others should show up based on what our parents, teachers and society teach us. When we break our own rules, we feel guilty. When others break our rules, we are upset.
2. Black and white thinking
This cognitive distortion ignores the shades of grey and insists on only seeing things in black and white. There is little room left for complexity or nuance. For instance, you might think of yourself as a total failure because you're not perfect in all areas, rather than recognising that you have strengths and weaknesses.
When we overgeneralise, we take a point in time or a single past incident and use it as solid evidence for a broad or general conclusion. Take, for example, a first date going badly and concluding that you will never be good at dating and therefore be single forever.
4. Jumping to conclusions
This isn't too dissimilar to the above as it involves faulty reasoning in how we make conclusions. Instead of overgeneralising one particular situation, however, this distortion is assuming you know something without any concrete evidence at all. This can be divided into two areas:
- Mind reading – you infer that someone doesn't like you because they didn't smile at you in the coffee room.
- The fortune teller error – you assume the worst-case scenario and believe it as if it were already an established fact
Someone who struggles with this distortion believes that their actions, even thoughts, have an impact on other people and events, despite the irrationality of the connection. For example, someone may conclude that the client pitch went south because they were a few minutes late to the meeting. Or a mother may think that her daughter's poor grades are because she works long hours.
When we judge ourselves from a certain instance or situation, this would be known as labelling. For instance, if someone broke up with me, I might conclude that I am unlovable. Or, if I failed my science exam, I might deem myself incompetent. This can also be extended towards other people, like name calling a colleague for being late or labelling a taxi driver a 'git' for not stopping for you.
7. Magnifying or minimising
Here, you inappropriately exaggerate or shrink the importance of things. For instance, you might magnify the mistakes you have made and comparatively minimise the errors your teammates have made.
8. Disqualifying the positives
This distortion involves a person rejecting positive experiences. "They only passed the exam because it was an easy year." "They only got the job promotion because they've been in the company for five years." So even though reality tells a different story, the belief is still maintained because the successes don't really count.
9. Emotional reasoning
"I feel it therefore it must be true." This distortion is based upon the thinking that if we feel a particular way, it must be accurate. I feel dull and ugly so I must be dull and ugly.
10. Mental filtering
Ever notice how a person can somehow ignore all of the positive things that have happened and focus entirely on the negative? This stems from what we call a negativity bias in which we scan the horizon for potential threats in order to stay safe. Yet too much filtering can create a warped image of reality.
This distortion holds other people responsible for our suffering. In some instances, it may show up as blaming ourselves for every problem – even those undoubtedly outside our own sphere of control.
If you're struggling to recognise these thoughts in your day-to-day life, don't worry, you're not alone. Imagine if for the past 10, 20, 30 years you had the radio playing in the background. Over time, that would just blur into the background and you wouldn't even notice it.
That's a bit like how it is with our thoughts. We've been listening to them for decades that it can be so hard to pinpoint when they're faulty or unhealthy. One of my skills as a therapist and coach is directing you to view your thoughts and the way that you talk to yourself in a new light. To see when you're belittling yourself, selling yourself short or just being plain mean.
Are you ready to thrive in your life? Then it's time you learned to challenge the voice inside your head that is warping the way you view yourself and your reality. Book in for your free discovery call today to find out how.