Writer: Erin Lee
Following our earlier article about the common types of cognitive distortions, readers have been curious about how the practice of mindfulness could help them overcome such unhelpful thoughts that tend to bring much tension and distress to our wellbeing.
Awareness is always the first step to change. Now that we are aware of the potential cognitive distortions we have, let's consider how the skills and attitudes of mindfulness can support us in navigating and overcoming these unhelpful patterns of thinking.
1. Turn Towards, Not Away
When we meet with difficult experiences, very often our first instinct is to turn our attention away and seek out distraction so that we feel better immediately. But distracting ourselves is an unhelpful approach to the problem and causes us to veer off the course of truly making positive change.
It is therefore important to resist the temptation of avoidance, and be willing to turn towards our experience of cognitive distortions, in order to clearly see these thoughts for what they are, no matter how uncomfortable they may make us feel.
2. Pause & Observe
The ability to pause in our present experience and sustain our attention is a crucial practice of mindfulness. It is in pausing that we can stay with the distressing experience and be able to observe with ease what is happening from moment to moment.
Pausing creates some much-needed space between our experience and our response to the experience. We invite non-judgemental awareness in this space, which means we practice not judging or criticising ourselves for having these thoughts - instead, we simply acknowledge and accept their presence without the need to engage or react to them (for e.g. allowing thoughts to trigger emotions, which further intensify thoughts).
3. Strip Away Stories
With the understanding that cognitive distortions are thoughts that pull us away from reality, shine a light on the possible biases and filters that may be present in us, and recognise any unnecessary layers of storytelling that have conditioned these ways of thinking.
And then notice what is left. Very often, we will find ourselves arriving at only the bare facts of the situation.
For example, when we see someone yawning while listening to us speak, we may fall into the cognitive distortion of mind reading and assume that they are bored with us. Stripping away the stories we tell ourselves, we are able to discern that the only real information we have is that this person yawned. We then practice suspending our judgement about the experience until more information arrives.
4. Note the Impact
In stepping back from the experience, we also make an effort to see and understand the effects of these thought patterns - How have they impacted the way we are feeling in the moment? Are they informing our decisions, and are they driving us to act and speak in unhelpful or even destructive ways?
The insights we gain from clearly seeing how negative thought patterns impact us can have a powerful effect in shifting our mental model and changing how we perceive our experiences. This is the moment where we discover alternative ways of processing what comes into our awareness and where we truly start to take ownership of our mental space.
5. Keep In Mind
But even with such powerful insight, we are often forgetful and can easily allow ourselves to fall back into autopilot and dwell in past thinking patterns.
It is therefore helpful to invoke the philosophy and practice of niàn, and constantly remind ourselves of the mind's inclination towards erroneous perceptions and emotional biases. Practicing niàn involves regularly checking in with ourselves and keeping in mind the importance of maintaining a more balanced and objective perspective of our experiences in day-to-day life.
Mindfulness plays a key role in wisely managing our relationship with thoughts. Rather than attempting to get rid of negative thinking patterns, we learn to fold our attention inward and observe the mental space with greater ease. The understanding we gain from seeing our experience for what it is helps to gently challenge our ways of thinking and nudge us in the direction of consciously overcoming the cognitive distortions that adversely impact our wellbeing.