The biggest reason that we get in our own way is because of the way we perceive the world around us. Each time that you have a thought or feeling, it is recorded in your subconscious mind. This information may be stored alongside information like what was happening at the time to cause these thoughts and feelings, as well as how you responded. It is with these recordings that cognitive distortions develop—these are flaws in thinking that reflect the experiences we have had in life and the way that we thought and felt about them. Often, when people are experience obstacles as they try to change, it is because they become discouraged by their own mind.
What Are Cognitive Distortions?
Cognitive distortions can be explained simply as errors in thinking. They are the reason that we think, “My friend is mad at me,” when they go a day without speaking to us. Cognitive distortions are the reasons that we tell ourselves that we are “no good” or “not talented enough”. They are at the core of every negative thought that you have about yourself and are often related closely with self-esteem.
The problem with cognitive distortions is that they are programmed deeply into the mind. These distortions come from the subconscious, the record keeper for everything we have experienced in life. This makes them hard to change—but it is not impossible. In fact, there is a branch of therapy called cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which focuses exclusively on helping people changed unwanted behaviors by learning to overcome these cognitive distortions.
CBT is among the most effective methods for healing unwanted behaviors. It has been proven time and time again, regardless of a person’s education level or level of poverty, to be of help. It does not cost anything and it can be practiced anywhere. All it takes is the commitment to monitor and learn to control your thoughts. You should note, however, that the ‘control’ CBT offers is far from the control suggested by proponents of the law of attraction. Rather, the control discussed here represents that ability to encourage self-promoting thoughts instead of self-defeating ones and the ability to acknowledge that the negative way you see things in life might not be the reality. Once you master this and remove the unfair, negative thoughts in your mind, you will find yourself with a blank slate to start building a happier, more successful existence on.
The Most Common Cognitive Distortions
Spend a day analyzing the way you think about or talk about yourself. Do you tend to build yourself up, saying you are inspirational, innovative, intelligent, and able to achieve anything? Or do you look down on yourself in times of trouble, insisting that you are ‘bad’ at something or that you are a failure in all that you do? Most people who are victims of cognitive distortions find themselves thinking negatively about themselves. They may set the bar lower, because they do not think they are able of achieving any form of greatness or they might avoid reaching out to new opportunities and people, because they have had bad experiences in the past.
Regardless of the behavior associated with cognitive distortions, the first step in overcoming them is learning to identify them. People who struggle with cognitive distortions do not always realize what they are doing or the effect that their thinking is having on their lives. For the purpose of learning to identify the thoughts in your mind that are harmful to happiness, success, and any other goals that you would like to achieve, here are some of the most common cognitive distortions that people struggle with.
1. Filtering– Filtering happens when we remember a scenario as what we perceived to happen, rather than what actually happened. For example, imagine that you were giving a presentation and you stumbled over a few words, but you regained composure and there was a lengthy round of applause at the end. Someone who filters might only remember stumbling over the words, thinking that they were not good enough or that they should have practiced the speech more, when the reality was that they did great.
2. Catastrophizing– Some people always assume the worst. They make catastrophes out of situations before it has even unraveled, often jumping to conclusions and fearing the absolute worst. For example, a person may worry when their significant other does not come home from work on time because they have not messaged them. They may fear a car accident or some other tragedy, even if it is just something as simple as their significant other having to work overtime.
3. Jumping to Conclusions– People who jump to conclusions often find themselves distancing themselves from others. They may have a hard time in relationships because they always assume the worst. Jumping to conclusions simply means making assumptions about the way that other people feel and act. They also assume how scenarios turn out, based on their own perceptions instead of looking at the facts. For example, imagine that your boss’ wife is in the hospital. The next morning, you try to present a pitch to him and he is distant and distracted. Someone who jumps to conclusions would automatically assume that it was their idea or their presence that made him act that way and that their pitch was a bad idea, rather than considering their boss’ mood may have had nothing to do with them. Jumping to conclusions can also end with a self-fulfilling prophecy. For example, if you wake up late, trip down the stairs, and accidentally bump into another car on the way to work, you may assume that it will be a bad day. Because you expect your day to be bad already, all day you are going to be aware of only the negative parts of situations. You fulfill the idea of a bad day, because you assume that it is going to be so and perceive it in that way.
4. Black and White (Polarized) Thinking
Some people draw a harsh line in the sand when classifying things in their mind and organize everything on either side of that line. By organizing life in this way, they leave no middle ground. They cannot partially succeed at their goals—they are either a failure or a success. They either give freely of themselves or they are selfish. For example, someone that struggles with polarized thinking may feel like they are selfish or not a team player because one of their coworkers asked them to do his/her work over the weekend, but they said ‘no’. The reality is that people say ‘no’ all the time, especially when they have their own commitments to take care of (or if they just want to relax). It is okay not to say ‘yes’ to everything, especially if the ‘yes’ does not align with your own priorities.
5. Personalization– The thinking fallacy of personalization means that the person believes that everything that happens around them is related to them as a person. It is characterized by always comparing ourselves to others, considering things like how attractive, intelligent, compassionate, or hard working we are. Personalization also can mean feeling as if everything that goes on around you is related to you in some direct, personal way. For example, imagine that you attended a dinner party and arrived late. The hostess also burned the food. Someone who struggles personalization may assume their actions of being late stressed the hostess so much that the food was overcooked.
6. Overgeneralization– This distortion happens when we make assumptions based off a single occurrence, rather than relying on the facts or a larger sample of data. For example, someone may think that their boss is in a bad mood because they were running 15 minutes late for work. This can cause them to be stressed each time that they do run late for work and if they do arrive late, they will also be looking for signs that their boss is upset.
7. Shoulds– Some people are rigid, holding themselves and others to a strict set of rules that dictate what they should and should not do. The problem is that when you use ‘should’ and ‘should not,’ it makes you inflexible. Some people use it as a tool for deciding how they should behave—but sometimes they are so strict that it makes it impossible to look at things from a new perspective or to try and find a solution. This leads to struggles during times of motivation, because this lack of perspective makes it hard to see solutions.
8. Blaming– It is a lot easy when we look at our lives, especially the things we are dissatisfied with, and place the blame for what is happening on someone else. For example, someone who grew up with a drug-addicted parent may blame their parent for where they are at in life—even though they passed the age of 18 years ago. They may say that their being homeless, being addicted to drugs or alcohol, or their lack of skills to get a job is their parent’s fault, rather than accepting the reality that they chose their own path in life. These lies are more comfortable, because we do not have to criticize who we really are. However, blaming holds you back. When you are angry or upset with someone else for your circumstances or pain, it takes the responsibility out of your hands. Unfortunately, until you accept your own role in decision making, it also makes it nearly impossible to change. Once you face your responsibility in the reality of your life, you can decide to make changes to what is happening to you. Ultimately, it is you that is responsible for your health, success, and happiness, not some outside factor like your boss, your parents, or your job.
9. Fallacy of Change– People who lack self-confidence may fall into the fallacy of change, because they place their happiness or success on other people. For example, think about how someone in an emotionally abusive relationship might behave. They place their happiness in the hands of their partner and may wonder things like “Will today be a good day?” or “Is my partner in a bad mood?” They may make excuses for staying with them, hoping that we can change them and find happiness, because they are not emotionally abusive all the time. If you were to decide to open a business with your friend, but the business is failing because your friend has decided to give you both a high salary and irresponsible about coming to work, it is easy to feel that you could pressure the friend to change. However, taking the time to do this takes away from your time to focus on yourself and the potential of the business.
10. Fairness Fallacy– It is a lovely thought to think that the world is just and fair all the time. People can use examples of punishment or karma to explain how the world is fair, but the truth is that the world is not fair. This is something that we are even told as young kids, as our parents explained why we can’t have something and we protested, “That’s not fair!” The fallacy of fairness is problematic because it causes you to look through life with the expectation that situations will be fair or unfair. After labeling them, you may feel negatively about the situation. This leaves you focusing on how it is ‘bad’ or ‘unfair’ and prevents you from thinking about how you can overcome and do better in the situation.
11. Control Fallacies– In self-help, being the one in control is everything. When we sacrifice our control, we end up labeling ourselves as victims in the situation. We say that we do not have control, thus, there is nothing we can do to improve our situations. This gives us an excuse to be lazy and to avoid situations that we cannot change. For example, we may blame our boss because our work is low-quality, because they pushed us hard to meet the deadline. Internal control is another similar cognitive distortion, but it involves turning control inward and inflicting it on ourselves. For example, we may attend a party that turns out being boring and we may blame ourselves, sure that the party had been fun before we arrived.
12. Always Being Right– People look up to intelligent people as those who do not make mistakes and those who are not wrong. However, it is impossible for any single person to be knowledgeable about everything. When you fail to admit that you may be wrong in some situations, you will go to great lengths to prove that you are right. This holds you back from learning, since you cannot learn without first admitting that you do not know everything. This is one of the reasons that the most successful people read books or seek knowledge through other channels—they know that the only way to say successful is to constantly update and refresh the information in your mind.
13. Mislabeling– People who mislabel often do so on a global scale. They may note one or two characteristics about a person or a situation and then apply it other things in their life. Mislabeling is a common cognitive distortion, because it shapes the way that we view the world like our subconscious would normally. For example, suppose that you meet someone and they seem distant. Then, they make a joke that is supposed to be funny, but you perceive it as them being mean. You may think the other person is a jerk or that they have an off-putting personality, even though you only had a limited experience with them. Usually, people who mislabel go to extremes and say things that are emotionally loaded. One way to mislabel something common, like a mother dropping her child off at daycare to go to work, is to say that she ‘abandons her children with strangers’ each day. One might cite incidents where children have been harmed or abused under the watchful eye of others—even though these cases are rare and most daycares have precautions like background checks for the workers and cameras at the daycare to record inappropriate behavior.
14. Emotional Reasoning– It is almost logical to assume that because we feel something, it is true. However, it is also detrimental to health. Oftentimes, when people feel an emotion, they label at as the truth. This is because the only thing we have are our perceptions of the world around us and the way that we feel about them. However, assuming that the emotions you are feeling makes something true is not the type of attitude that is going to encourage success in life. If anything, it is going to hold you back. For example, you may feel sad one morning and conclude that you are having a depressing day. This label of ‘depression’ might make you avoid eating throughout the day, be unmotivated, and have a general feeling of sadness.
15. Heaven’s Reward Fallacy– Many of the ‘successful’ people of the world will tell you that they did not get to where they are in life without sacrifice. They may have put off having a family so they could further their career or they may have had to sacrifice a few thousand dollars to invest in a startup that may or may not fail. The cognitive distortion comes in when we assume that because we work hard or because we have made sacrifices, the universe is going to give us what we are working toward. However, the universe does not have some magic scoreboard, where you max out and get what you were working toward. Some people have to work harder than others to get to the same level. There are so many factors that it is impossible to demand that you get a reward once you feel that you have ‘maxed out’ on your hard work. You simply have to keep persevering.