Today we’re continuing our exploration of Cognitive Behavioral ideas and how they relate to our internal trait and state discomfort. We talked yesterday about the yummy gem, the Cycle of Discomfort (CoD) and discovered that we are largely responsible for our internal environment; our thoughts impact how we feel and how we behave. If you’ve forgotten what the Cycle looks like, you may want to review it HERE, because I’m adding to it today. That’s right. We’re not really moving on to something totally new. We’re adding a new little detail that can make the Cycle spin faster and harder, thereby bringing on MORE uncomfortable energy.
Enter Cognitive Distortions. These sneaky little bugs can really put a snag in our operating system. They are biased perspectives that we habitually throw onto ourselves and our world. Irrational and reinforced over the course of our lives, they are largely automatic and unconscious. When they show up as regular players on the CoD, things can get really messy, and chances are, they show up often.
The more uncomfortable you are, the more likely that a Cognitive Distortion is in play.
Here’s a short list of Cognitive Distortions and examples of how they work on the Cycle of Discomfort. You can find more over at PositivePsychology.com. I’ve limited this list to those that seem to pop up on the CoD most often.
- Black and White Thinking. Things are either perfect or completely wrong. For example: Billy makes one mistake on a test (EVENT) and THINKS, “I’m a failure.” He might feel sad and embarrassed and his mind will probably jump to other times when he’s been a failure, making him feel even worse.
- Overgeneralizing. People who overgeneralize take one event, person, or quality and make it about every thing. Common words these folks use are: everything, always, never, and nothing. For example: Sara and Lisa have an argument over the dishes (EVENT) and Lisa says (and THINKS), “You never do anything to help around the house. You’re always thinking of yourself.” Lisa feels angry and resentful, and her mind jumps to other times Sara and others have failed to think of her. She feels more angry and maybe even depressed.
- Mind Reading. Mind readers make assumptions about other people’s motives and actions without investigation. For example: Seeing a young person in a black jacket with his arms crossed (EVENT), Sandy assumes (THINKS) that the kid is planning to rob her. She feels anxious. Her mind jumps forward to the terrible things that are about to happen to her, and she feels even more scared.
- Fortune Telling. Fortune tellers jump to conclusions based only on past events or current circumstance. They are unable to make room for possibilities. For example: Tim gets stood up on a Match.com date (EVENT) and THINKS, “Nobody will ever fall in love with me. I’m going to be alone forever.” Tim feels lonely and sad, and his mind might start giving him images of old age and loneliness to up his discomfort.
- Catastrophizing. Catastrophizers make mountains out of molehills. Small problems become HUGE. For example: Louis loses a golf match to a friend (EVENT), THINKS to himself, “This is the worst day ever!”He feels angry, and his mind might pop back to other terrible failures or forward to how awful it’s going to be to tell friends that he lost the match. He’ll feel worse as this line of thought goes on.
- Minimizing. Minimizers make their positive traits and the good things in life smaller than they really are. For example: Andy’s boss compliments her on the article she wrote for the paper (EVENT), Andy THINKS, “oh, she’s just saying that to be nice” and talks down her abilities saying that she was “just lucky.” She feels embarrassed or sad or even anxious, and her mind might jump forward with this neat message, “she’s going to find out that you don’t know what you’re doing sooner or later,” and Andy will feel worse.
- Shoulding. Shoulds, oughts, and musts set up expectations for behavior that can be unreasonable. When applied to self, it sets us up for failure. When applied to others, it sets them up for failure and us up for resentment. For example: Jon doesn’t pick up flowers for their sick partner, Rick. (EVENT). Rick thinks, “Jon should have known that I wanted flowers since I’m sick.” He feels resentful and irritated. His mind might jump to other times that Jon should have known something and didn’t, or it could shoot some expectations for musts and shoulds into the future. Either way, Rick will feel worse.
- The Fallacy of Fairness. When people fall for this distortion, they can be left feeling victimized by the unfairness of the (real) world. For example: Sara is chosen for a job instead of Joe (EVENT). Joe thinks, “how unfair! She just got the job because she’s a woman!” Joe feels angry. His mind trips into the past and find other times he’s been treated unfairly because of his gender or for other reasons, and he’ll be left feeling worse.
Do any of these seem familiar to you? If so, don’t feel bad. Most of us have at least one or two Cognitive Distortions floating around. The key is that they float in and out of our thought processes automatically, and we roll with them out of habit. This stuff is largely unconscious! The key to change, again, is awareness. We have to wake up to the Cycle of Discomfort, and we have to wake up to our Cognitive Distortions. So, in addition to the little practice of noticing your thoughts when you have a feeling, when you catch yourself feeling angry, lonely, sad, bored, guilty, ashamed, or anxious, check in and see if a Cognitive Distortion is driving you to feel worse than you need to feel. Don’t beat yourself up about it. Just notice. We’ll talk more about what to do to shift this stuff soon! Be patient.
Next up: Subjectivity – Me oh My.