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Addressing cognitive distortions

Cognitive distortions are irrational thought patterns that are believed to perpetuate anxiety and depression. They cause individuals to perceive reality inaccurately. They interfere with how a person perceives an event and reinforce negative thoughts about emotions.

I'm going to look at different types of cognitive distortions and how you can address them.

Man looking out of window and pondering

Filtering

Filtering is when you focus on the negatives and ignore the positives. For example, say it's a sunny day, as it has been today in Glasgow (woohoo!). You might complain that it's far too warm and you can't get cool. That's true, but is it so bad?

The way to address this is to consider alternatives. Is there another way to look at the situation? In the case of the hot, sunny day, there's opportunities for getting the kids outside in the garden or to get out for a run or a cycle without getting soaked! You can tell I'm Scottish I think. 

For something more serious like illness, there are still opportunities to see the positive. For example, some years ago, when I first developed chronic fatigue, I found that some of my friends were not very sympathetic to my illness and I was suddenly left out of social events. However, other friends were much more supportive. They continued to include me, they phoned to check how I was and so on. In the end, I developed strong friendships with them. The others are not in my life that much now. That's ok,  because my illness taught me to spend my time and limited energy with people that are kind and thoughtful, people that build me up rather than drain my energy. Not a bad lesson to learn at all.

Polarised thinking

This is seeing everything in black and white terms. Everything is either amazing or just dreadful, with no in-between. Let's assume you're waiting for feedback from a job interview and it's taking a while. You might tell yourself that there's no way you've got the job because it's taken so long for them to get back to you.

The way to get around his is to think in percentages. Rationalise it. So perhaps you ask yourself instead, "what are the chances I've got this job?". Well if you know there's three people in for it, then you have a 1 in 3 chance, or 33%. OK, so there's 2 in 3 chances you haven't got the job, but you do at least have a chance! 

Overgeneralisation  

Overgeneralisation occurs when you apply broad statements without specific facts. They typically involve the use of words like always, never, forever etc. E.g. "I always put my foot in it".  Overgeneralising can really hurt our chances of reaching our goals. If you tell yourself you'll never get that job you applied for because you never do well at interviews, well guess what?You might just be right.  I think that could be a blog post by itself, but you see the potentially negative impact.

To overcome this, ask yourself, what is the evidence for this statement? To get back to the first example. Do you always put your foot in it? Of course not. You may have a specific situation that you're in right now, where you may or may not have made a social faux pas, but that doesn't define you or your behaviour. 

Mind reading

This is exactly what it says. You are predicting what people are feeling or thinking, without knowing the facts. You don't know for sure what the other person is thinking or feeling, but you've decided that you do! Perhaps you fall out with a friend and tell yourself "she's never going to talk to me again". 

Ask yourself instead, "what is the evidence she's thinking like this? Do I have any?". Consider alternative options. Until someone actually communicates their thoughts or feelings to you, there's no way to know for sure what they are.

Catastrophising

Here, everything becomes catastrophic in your head. It's worse-case-scenario all the way and there's no room for rational thought. Take the example of a parent who has a teenage child who's gone out for the night in their car. They're expecting them back by 1am and lie awake, anxiously awaiting their return, but the teenager doesn't return at 1am. This becomes a source of great anxiety to the parent, who assumes they have had an accident in the car. 

When this happens, it's time to assess the odds. What are the chances that the teenager has had an accident? What are the chances instead that the situation will work out alright?

Magnifying

This is when you minimise positives and magnify negatives. There are positive opportunities in most situations that first appear to be negative. If you're away on holiday abroad, for example, and your flight home gets delayed so much that the airline put you up in a hotel for the night. Someone who magnifies the negatives would see this as a real inconvenience. On the surface, it might be.

Is there another way to look at it? Of course. What about the opportunity to spend some more time abroad? To buy some gifts for family that you hadn't got around to? Or to check out some more of the nightlife before you head home the next day?

Another way to handle this distortion is to consider how you speak to yourself. Rather than say you "can't cope" and it's "too much for me", try something like "I'll manage", "It's only for one night", "I've got good company with me to help pass the time".

Personalisation

This is when you take something somebody says to you to heart. You make the assumption that something someone says automatically relates to you. You also compare yourself to others a lot. Do you find yourself doing this? Or do you have a friend that seems sensitive to what you say to him? This usually happens when someone is experiencing low self-esteem.

It's important to remember that comparing yourself to others really isn't helpful. Everyone has different natural talents, skills and experiences. These shape who they are as a person. Someone may be a similar age to you or work in the same job, but that does not make them the same as you. Their childhood and the experiences they've had since, have shaped how they behave and act, as they have with you. What seems like it might be directed at you, may have very little to do with you! So ask yourself whether this behaviour really is because of you? How can you know for sure?

Shoulds

When you tell yourself you SHOULD be doing something or you SHOULD be behaving a certain way. It creates pressure on yourself. It's the mental equivalent of taking a big stick and beating yourself with it, over and over. It does nothing for positive self-esteem! Should creates guilt about what you're not doing. You might tell yourself that you "should go to visit Mum in the nursing home because I always go at the weekend".

Instead, think of three alternative ways of looking at the situation. In this case, for example:

  1. I won't make it today because I have the family shopping to do
  2. I'm exhausted and I need to rest this afternoon to recover before the week ahead or
  3. My Mum is well cared for and can manage without me this weekend.

It's a healthier and more positive way to look at the situation.

Predictions

I touched on this subject earlier. It's when you predict what's going to happen and therefore it kind of does! So let's say you've been talked into running your first 5K by a friend. You might tell yourself, "I'm never going to finish this because I'm too unfit". And so it is. You don't finish the race, because you'd already made up your mind about how it was going to go.

As a way to overcome self-fulfilling prophecies, instead challenge yourself with more rational ideas. In the example of the 5K race, "I've not run a race before, but I will run as much as I'm able to. My friend will help motivate me too". 

Summary

Questioning how you see situations will help you overcome your cognitive distortions and get beyond it to more positive ways of thinking. Consider that you may need to:

  1. Assert yourself with others
  2. Clear up misunderstandings
  3. Gather more information
  4. Check your assumptions
  5. Commit to continually challenge your own thinking!

For me, challenging my thinking has really helped me become more relaxed and (I think) be better to be around at home! I'm also sleeping better because I don't worry as much as I used to.

If you'd like help working through this process, please book work-life coaching by clicking the button below. I'll help you work on your thinking patterns using cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and move towards a less stressful, happier and healthier life.