Cognitive distortions II
Last time, we spoke about cognitive distortions. For those of you who need a reminder after the excesses of Christmas, this term refers to patterns of irrational thinking that we are all vulnerable to, to one extent or another.
The specific examples we used to highlight just how common this type of thinking can be were ‘mind reading’ and ‘the mental filter’ – the former relating to our tendency to read into the actions of others and draw inaccurate conclusions (usually making it all about ourselves), and the latter to our ability to obsess over one ambiguous or negative moment in an otherwise enjoyable night out or social encounter to the extent that we very quickly forget all the positives and can only see that possibly imagined negative.
As I stated last time, these are just two of the most common cognitive distortions. There are many others, more than a few of which would likely sound familiar to us, in that, again, we are all likely to have engaged in thinking of this sort at one time or another. We wouldn’t be human if our thoughts were perfectly rational at every moment. Arguably, tending towards the irrational at times is a fundamental part of what it is to be human. Ideally, when we are skewing towards the irrational, we will do so in a positive way, or at the very least will not default to negative/destructive thinking styles. This is where the problems can begin. Yes, we will all be irrational at one time or another, but if we develop regular patterns of cognitive distortions that actively detract from our mental well-being, then that can become highly problematic.
The following are more examples of frequently experienced cognitive distortions:
Black and white thinking: Seeing no middle ground. Effectively, you place yourself or others into either/or categories, i.e., if your performance in a given situation is not perfect, then you see yourself as a total failure. This way of thinking fails to allow for the many varieties of grey that exist between black and white. Instead, things and people are viewed as good or bad, right or wrong, etc.
Catastrophizing: Blowing things out of proportion or expecting the worst possible outcomes. On the first point, this tendency would see a relatively innocuous event taken as highly significant, e.g., you make a simple mistake on a given task and imagine dire consequences will unfold. On the second point, it is not unusual with this tendency to think in terms of ‘what if’ questions – ‘what if a given bad thing happens?’ and ‘what if that bad thing happens to me’, e.g., reading about an airplane being hijacked as you sit in a departure lounge and then imagining that your flight might also be hijacked.
Overgeneralisation: You take one negative outcome as predictive of a future of failure. So, with this logic, if something bad happens once, the individual expects it to happen over and over again, whether that way of thinking stands up to logical scrutiny or not.
Emotional reasoning: Here, the defective cognition is effectively summed up as follows – if you feel it, it must be true. Again, humans are emotional, it is one of the points that define us. However, being actively emotional does not always lend itself to being rational. Looking at this specifically from the perspective of damaging cognitive distortions, if you feel stupid or unworthy of happiness arising from some setback or series of setbacks, the feeling can be strong as to seem true, and then is not questioned. However, we cannot trace a correlation between the strength of our feelings and the objective accuracy of those feelings. Instead, we often let our feelings go uninterrogated, instead merely assuming them to be accurate. When we react this way to feelings that, for example, detract from our self-image, then that can be extremely damaging over time.
In some respects, this final example goes to the root of why we often fall prey to cognitive distortions. As humans, we are emotional creatures, and therefore can be led by our emotions. Sometimes, in essence, we become our emotions. We can see it in the language we use. There is a distinct difference in meaning between saying “I am angry” and “I feel angry”. Taking the former wording literally, the individual is stating that they have become the emotion, whereas the latter wording creates an implied distance between the individual and the emotion they are feeling. Yes, it is reasonable to suggest that in terms of what people are trying to communicate, sometimes those statements will be interchangeable and we won’t be consciously aware of the distinction between the two, but some people will be aware of the difference, particularly if they opt for the latter statement. While this might feel like a needless digression, it actually highlights one of the key points to be made when we seek to tackle the cognitive distortions that we might be most vulnerable to on an individual basis. Namely, conscious awareness of how we think.
Sometimes, we think almost on auto-pilot, and that can be a fertile ground for cognitive distortions. However, if we can cultivate a pattern of being consciously aware of our thinking styles, then that can form the basis for tackling those tendencies.
Martin Seligman proposed one of the approaches that can be used to target our cognitive distortions. The positive psychology pioneer devised a programme geared towards helping people learn the habits of optimism. One of the key elements to this approach is the idea of ‘disputing’ your own negative thoughts as you experience them. The logic behind this approach is to react to negative, irrationally self-critical thinking in the same way as you would if another person was saying those things to you, i.e., you would be less likely to accept them as fact and, instead, would be more likely to question them.
At the heart of disputing is the idea of recognising when you are engaging in these distortions and to interrogate them in ‘real time’. This involves taking a step back from your own thoughts and attempting to assess their merit, as opposed to merely accepting them because you are thinking those thoughts. So, in this sense, Seligman is not proposing that there is some magic wand that can banish those thoughts; instead, what his approach focuses on is how we react and respond to them. However, the logic would be that if we become skilled disputers and are always vigilant for these negative thoughts, then over time we may learn to think in different ways.
Next time, we will continue on this track, and address related issues and points.
Dr. Mark Barry
Mark Barry was awarded a PhD by University College Cork in 2015 for his research into adolescent well-being. He has lectured psychology at UCC since 2013, and is also a freelance writer.