Understanding Cognitive Distortions
Maybe you’ve heard of these before, maybe not.
Learning about cognitive distortions was invaluable to my own personal evolution. It defined the feelings and ways of thinking that I had previously be unable to articulate into words.
No, I wasn’t some special, broken bird. Other people had the same silliness running roughshod through their brains and lots of smart people had some good ideas about how to handle it.
What are cognitive distortions?
There are several and we’re ALL guilty of some. You, me, your grandma who’s never touched a drop of alcohol – everyone! But some of us wrestle with them more frequently than others.
John Grohol, in an article in Psych Central, has a really good definition. He writes:
Cognitive distortions 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.
In my last post, I talked about one of those cognitive distortions: black and white thinking. (Click the link if you want to go back and check it out). Here are some of the others in no particular order. See if any sound familiar to you!
1. Mental Filtering
The Debbie Downer. Mental filtering is when you hone in on one a negative aspect of a situation and dwell on it to the point where you now have a dark, distorted version of reality. Here’s a common example:
Your boss sits you down for an annual review. She gives you give minutes of praise for the good work you did on a recent project and then offers up a critical piece of feedback about time management for you to work on moving forward.
Mental filtering means you zero in on the critical feedback and walk away with the idea that your boss thinks you’re a terrible employee. Even though you JUST received mostly positive comments, the slightly critical one is all you can think about.
I did this a lot in my previous work life which made me completely incapable of handling critical feedback without having a strong, internal reaction. Here’s a clip that might help you understand it better.
Hey Chicken Little! Are you guilty of blowing things out of proportion? This type of thinking lends itself to a lot of unnecessary stress. It can happen in a couple of different ways.
- Taking a current problem and making it way bigger than it is.
- Projecting a catastrophe onto the future with big, scary “what-ifs.”
For example, you accidentally send an e-mail to a potential employer before you were finished writing it. Now your brain is going into panic mode. You’ve just destroyed any chance of getting a job now. You’ll be unemployed forever.
My fellow anxiety sufferers probably know this one all too well.
This cognitive distortion is when you find a way to take everything personally. And I mean everything. Other people’s actions and behavior are somehow a judgment on you. You blame yourself for everything, including things that could not possibly be within your control.
Oh, my best friend didn’t return my text today. I must’ve done something wrong. She’s probably mad at me.
This cognitive distortion is an excellent way to be constantly mad at and/or feeling sorry for yourself which is an exhausting way to live.
Most cognitive distortions occur because our brain is wired to look for short cuts – ways to simplify an otherwise complex world. Overgeneralizing is a prime example of that.
It’s when you take one or two events and make broad generalizations from them that aren’t rooted in reality. You begin using words like always and never. This is a problem because both are emotionally charged and pack a mean punch.
Let’s say you try to plan a get together and it falls through. If your reaction is, “This always happens to me! My friends will never come through for me when I plan something,” you are overgeneralizing.
Even seemingly mild examples of this like saying, “I’m never going to be able to get in shape,” after you miss a week of classes is harmful. Words like always and never prevent you from seeing situations clearly. And, honestly, it sucks to sit with thoughts like “People are always so mean to me at work.”
That kind of negativity can do big damage on your stress levels and self-worth.
5. Discounting the Positive
If you are constantly brushing off good things that happen to you because you don’t believe they count, you might be guilty of this one. We all do this to some degree. Someone pays us a compliment and we downplay it. Oh, it was nothing. I didn’t do anything special.
But in a more extreme form, this type of distorted thinking can have us viewing the world through an extremely negative lens. If you have a small success, it’s not good enough because it could’ve been better.
You don’t want to celebrate going a week without drinking because other people have gone a month and you never have so you’re really just a loser. (That kind of thing.)
When you allow your brain to go wild with this type of thinking, it’s hard to ever be happy.
You’re constantly second-guessing yourself and convinced that you’re not good enough. It doesn’t count when someone compliments your dress because the shoes are all wrong and you’re not as fit or thin as the other attendees.
Honestly, it’s easy to see how this kind of thinking run amuck would lead a person to imbibe too much.
6. Jumping to Conclusions
We all do this, but some of us more than others, which causes a lot of problems in our inner world. There are two kinds:
- Mind Reading – when you conclude that somebody is reacting negatively to you without actually checking with them
- Fortune Telling – when you make predictions about how badly something will turn out before you even do anything
It’s similar to personalizing and catastrophizing. Your spouse was a bit huffy this morning so you immediately go into “he must be mad at me, what did I do?” mode. You’re constantly assuming that someone is mad at you, doesn’t like you, or isn’t interested in you.
Or you assume the worst is going to happen. You’re not going to get the job. You’ll probably screw up that date you have later. There’s no way you’ll ever quit drinking. Other people can, but not you.
It’s a great way to beat yourself up.
7. Should & Must
Use these words at your own risk. Want to rack up a pile of guilt inside your brain? Let all your should’s and must’s go wild.
When you say you should do something or things should be done this way or that, you’re placing rules on yourself and others. And that really narrows your worldview.
It’s also is way we internalize failures and punish ourselves. I should’ve taken a different job. I shouldn’t eat this. He should be better at communicating. I must control my drinking.
These words lead to anger, resentment, and frustration. We say these things thinking they’ll encourage us in some way, but they rarely do. We end up disappointing ourselves, breaking our own rules, and feeling like the worst people in the world because of it.
In many ways, our “shoulds” are a feeble attempt at controlling things through will alone. It doesn’t work.
We’re all guilty of it. And again, this is another shortcut our brain uses to quickly assess circumstances, people, and places. We pile them into buckets. This is good or this is bad.
The problem with labeling is that it’s irrational. We don’t label based on facts or evidence. Mostly, we label based on our past experiences and personal beliefs or opinions.
Labeling is problematic, whether we’re doing it to ourselves or others. Usually it’s both. If you struggle with labeling, you might be guilty of things like labeling yourself a moron when you make a mistake. Think about the impact that has on your self-image.
Let’s say you have an argument with a friend. You immediately decide that he’s an asshole. Once you impose labels like this onto others or yourself, it’s really hard to undo.
Is your friend really an asshole? Surely not. People are complex. They have layers and nuance. Are you really a moron? Of course not.
Instead of dealing with the more complicated task of understanding behavior, actions, or conditions of a situation, labeling gives us an easy out. It’s much easier to call someone an asshole and be done with them than it is to understand where the breakdown happened in a conversation.
And when you inflict this wound on yourself, it’s hard to maintain any feelings of self-worth. That produces a lot of pain we end up desperately trying to numb away.
9. Emotional Reasoning.
Maybe you’ve heard this before: feelings are not facts. This one used to really annoy me. What do you mean feelings aren’t facts? I feel terrible right now. Are you saying I don’t?
At the root of this statement is that we shouldn’t allow how we feel about something completely shape our reality. Here’s a really straightforward explanation of this cognitive distortion from Iqdoodle:
Emotional Reasoning is a cognitive distortion where we tend to interpret our experience of reality based upon how we are feeling in the moment. Therefore how we feel about something effectively shapes how we perceive and interpret the situation we find yourself in. This is of course unhelpful because it means that our mood always influences how we experience the world around us. Our emotions therefore effectively become a barometer for how we view our life and circumstances. In order to successfully work through this cognitive distortion, question whether your emotional state-of-mind is preventing you from seeing things clearly.
If you find yourself living too much inside your head, this one is probably a huge hurdle for you. I know it has been for me in the past.
I feel like nobody wants to be around me and I’m lonely all the time, so it must be true. The world doesn’t want me.
Here’s a great video that explains this distortion further:
10. Black and White Thinking
I’ve covered this previously, but for a brief recap, black and white thinking is a kind of all-or-nothing distortion where things are categorized into their extremes. There’s no gray area. And of course, life isn’t like this. There is a ton of gray area.
People who fall victim to this distortion (myself included) tend to see things in terms of total wins or total failures. If you can’t eliminate all terrible food from your diet at once, you’re a failure and must go binge a pizza now.
Oh you messed up and had a drink after three months of sobriety? You’re a drunk loser who will never get it together.
And to insert a little humor into the mix, here’s a good example of black and white thinking from the masterful Ricky Bobby.
Cognitive Distortions & Sobriety
Much of what fuels our drinking is a distorted view of who we are deep down. We don’t know ourselves or we think we do and we don’t like what we see.
Everyone’s situation is different, but at our core, there is something damaged in need of repait that contributed to our drinking.
Understanding the various cognitive distortions is a useful way to start doing some of that internal work. This list is by no means exhaustive. There are other kinds of distortions and a whole host of resources and strategies to reprogram your way of thinking to overcome them.
But it’s nice to take a birds eye view of your internal world. To say, “oh, I do that sometimes! I didn’t realize this is what it’s called.”
If you know that you’re engaging in emotional reasoning, it helps you step back and challenge it. You’re not so defined by distorted ways of thinking because you can see the thoughts for what they are.
A word of caution. Understanding your thoughts is not enough to change them (wish that it were!). You have to actively work on reframing the way you process things and see the world, and that process is slow and often tedious. It’s also worth noting that you won’t get it right every single time.
But it’s worth exploring in order to improve your quality of life and stay on the path of sobriety.
Where can I learn more about this stuff?
If you want help with breaking free of negative thought patterns, I highly recommend getting a counselor. You can do in-person therapy or online therapy. The best program for online therapy, and a sponsor of Soberish, is BetterHelp.
It’s an affordable option and they do their best to pair you with the right person (and you can switch therapists if you aren’t improving with your initial doc).
Access should not be a barrier to help.
Soberish is proudly sponsored by BetterHelp. If you have tried (and failed) to find a therapist who has the knowledge and background to help you navigate your specific issues, try BetterHelp. Learn more about my counseling journey with BetterHelp or visit their website below.
5 books you can read to help you work through some of this stuff:
- Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy
- Cognitive Behavioural Therapy for Dummies
- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Made Simple: 10 Strategies for Managing Anxiety, Depression, Anger, Panic, and Worry
- The Anxiety and Worry Workbook: The Cognitive Behavioral Solution
- Change Your Brain, Change Your Life (Revised and Expanded): The Breakthrough Program for Conquering Anxiety, Depression, Obsessiveness, Lack of Focus, Anger, and Memory Problems
I’m a firm believer that the more you know, the better you can do. And let’s be honest. We all are here because we want to do a little better. Keep chipping away at those distortions, be gentle and patient with yourself, and today, don’t drink. You got this!