Monday, January 18, 2021

Are You Cognitively Distorted?

Multicolored distorted television image
Distorted television image

Although this sounds like a new kind of psychological disability, it’s not. Cognitive distortions are inaccurate perceptions of reality. These distortions come from types of thinking that can damage our personal wellness and, when a group of people fall into the same style, can result in dangerous uncivil behavior.

What are some types of thinking that employ cognitive distortion? Some common ones are mind reading, permanence, emotional reasoning, catastrophizing, and polarization.

Mind reading happens when we are given only part of a communication and our thoughts then predict the remainder. Since most of us have a natural negativity bias, we often think up the worst-case scenario.

This is a mental shortcut, but it can lead us in entirely the wrong direction. A better strategy is to ask the person sending the abbreviated message for additional clarity.

“You texted me that we had to talk as soon as I got home from work. Did I forget our anniversary?” “No, nothing like that. I’m pregnant!”

“I saw you leave during my presentation. Is my thinking on this topic flawed?” “Not at all. I agree with you. I just really had to get to the restroom.”

Permanence is the mistaken belief that a situation will last forever. This is usually expressed in terms of absolute words. “I am always clumsy.” “I will never be able to hold a job.” “We are always going to have to wear a mask when we leave the house.”

If you find yourself thinking like this, challenge the thought by restating it without absolutes. “Gosh, that was clumsy of me. Next time I will watch where I step.” “I got laid off from that job, but I found it after looking for only a week. I can beef up my resume with volunteer work until I find another job.” Challenge thoughts of permanence with counterevidence.

Emotional reasoning falsely translates a feeling into a personal description. “I feel bad now, so I must be a bad person.” “I feel angry at my spouse, so I must be a poor partner.”

The best way to combat this cognitive distortion is to recognize that no matter how strong the emotion, it will pass; feelings always change, eventually. Emotions do not define us. Remind yourself of this when a strong emotion hits. “I feel terrible now because that project didn’t work out. It’s OK to feel bad about it, because that means it was important and I really tried hard. I can try something different next time.”

Catastrophizing occurs when your thoughts maximize or minimize outcomes. You jump to conclusions based on overemphasizing unimportant facts or minimizing important ones. “Oh no! I noticed a lump under my skin. I’m going to die of cancer.” “Sure, he says mean and untrue things about me to his family. I must be an inadequate wife.”  

Catastrophizing is exaggerating. To counter this type of thinking, focus on specific, perhaps small, details that are not as extreme.

Polarization is all-or-nothing thinkingeither this or not-this, with no middle ground. The two opposite categories tend to be at the extremes of a continuum with no consideration of intermediate positions. You will often see this on social media. “If you don’t believe as I do, you are evil.” “You have to accept my solution or you will cause the situation to fail.”

When counteracting this style of thinking, whether by yourself or by someone else, it is important to acknowledge that the extreme positions do both exist. Then offer an intermediate suggestion as a “however.”

To read more about these and other forms of cognitive distortion, please see the following:

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