Writer: Erin Lee
"A man is but a product of his thoughts. What he thinks, he becomes."
- Mahamat Gandhi
It's probably not difficult to understand how much power our own thoughts can have over us. They have the potential to influence how we see ourselves and the world we live in. They drive the decisions we make and guide our actions and behaviours.
We have a tendency to believe what we think; we take our thoughts to be the truth and over time "what we think, we become", as posited by Gandhi.
What we don't realise is that the thoughts we have are most often perceptions based on how we interpret our experiences. They are very much emotional, biased, filtered, and full of stories that derail us from seeing how things really are.
We call these thoughts or thinking patterns "cognitive distortions" - they are distorted from reality, inaccurate, and irrational (even though they feel rational to us).
So as empowering as our thoughts can be, when they go unrecognised or unquestioned, they can also easily lead us down a path of misery and even self-destruction.
In this article, I'd like to describe nine of the most common cognitive distortions I have observed in both myself and the people I have worked with, and how they may potentially impact us.
1. Ruminative Thinking
Ruminative thinking happens when we loop the same negative thoughts in our mind repeatedly, which leads to brooding and spiralling into negativity.
For example, we may have recently experienced a fallout with a friend, and we find ourselves replaying the difficult conversations we had, obsessing over what had been said. We spend hours and days agonising over how it happened and wondering what could have been said or done differently.
Ruminative thinking can be highly distressing and interfere with the way we function in everyday life, such as our ability to fall asleep at night while the mind is constantly dwelling on what had happened in the past.
When we engage in catastrophic thinking, we tend to blow things out of proportion and anticipate the worst possible outcome or conclusion to a situation.
We may have an important presentation coming up, and instead of preparing for it we begin to worry about what may go wrong, such as forgetting important key points or not being able to engage the audience, or even losing our job altogether.
Such worrying may continue to escalate, so much so that it gets in the way of preparing effectively for the presentation, or it may become so overwhelming that it pulls our focus away during the presentation itself and consequently affects our performance negatively.
3. "All or Nothing"
Also known as "black-and-white thinking", all-or-nothing involves perceiving things in absolute (and extreme opposite) terms; we are blind to the grey areas of possibilities in between.
For example, when we encounter a setback, we think: I am a complete failure in life. We don't consider the times of success we have experienced before. We embark on a diet and fitness plan, and one slip-up or missing an exercise routine may have us thinking: I'm such a loser. I should just give up.
All-or-nothing type of thinking is binary - there is only good or bad and nothing in between. It can encourage us to stop making progress towards our goals or lean towards extremities in decision-making.
4. Fortune Telling & Mind Reading
These two types of cognitive distortions involve making negative predictions about the future or other people without a fair assessment of the evidence present.
We are getting ready to pitch an idea to the management, and we make assumptions about how they are going to respond. I know they won't like this idea. They are going to shoot it down. Or as we are telling someone a story about our life, we are thinking: I'm sure he's bored. He's not paying attention at all.
Fortune telling and mind reading can easily develop into self-fulling prophecies, where we believe the predictions we are making to be true, and thus act in a corresponding manner that paves the way for our belief to eventually come true.
When something happens one time, we assume the same is going to happen all the time. We come to conclusions based on a single event or experience. There tends to be words like "always", "never", or "only" in our thinking.
When our child doesn't take our advice once, we think: He never listens to me. We dismiss the times when our children were agreeable with us. Or when our significant other forgets to take care of the dishes one night, we think: She is always shirking responsibility. She only cares about herself. One failed relationship may also have us concluding: Nobody will ever love me.
Overgeneralization is also common in forming stereotypes - for example, when we see a politician behaving in an unethical way, we are inclined to see all politicians as behaving the same way.
Overgeneralisation as a cognitive distortion not only impacts how we relate with others, it also limits our potential for growth when we are not able to see the full range of our abilities.
6. Emotional Reasoning
Emotional reasoning takes place when we allow emotions to define our reality and inform our decisions, rather than evaluating each situation objectively. We come to conclusions based on how we feel - not what is actually happening, and we may even specifically search for evidence that supports these emotions.
An example might be feeling guilty towards a family member and convincing ourselves that what we do for them will never be enough. Or we feel anxious about an impending job interview and fixate on "evidence" that supports our anxiety - such as our lack of formal qualification, and overlooking the fact that we do have relevant experience that fits the job requirements.
Emotional reasoning can pull us away from developing a more balanced perspective of a situation, and encourage us to make decisions based on irrational fears instead of objective facts.
7. "Should" Statements
Such statements in our thinking reflect rigidity and inflexibility in our belief about how things "should" or "must" be. We tend to place unrealistic expectations on ourselves and others, and consequently struggle or feel upset when things do not meet those expectations.
We may think this way about our spouse: I shouldn't have to ask for help. You should take that initiative. Or we may place an expectation on our colleagues: He should understand my difficulties and accommodate.
"Should" statements directed at ourselves may also be unnecessarily self-critical (for e.g. I should be more successful by now. Or, I should be able to do this well.) and make us feel like we are not good enough, thus taking a toll on our self-esteem.
With personalisation, we may erroneously believe that we are responsible for circumstances and outcomes that are actually outside of our sphere of control, and feel guilt or shame even though it may not be our fault.
Some examples might be assuming that we did something wrong when we receive a curt response from a friend, telling ourselves we didn't do enough for a loved one who doesn't seem to be recovering well from an illness, or believing that we didn't work hard enough for a promotion that was given to someone else, without considering external factors that may be contributed to the outcome.
Personalisation often suggests an over-attachment towards our self worth, and engaging in such a cognitive distortion can invite much emotional distress to ourselves.
At the other end of the spectrum from "personalization" is the cognitive distortion of "blaming". This is when we direct our attention outwards and hold someone else responsible for circumstances and outcomes, and ignore the fact that we ourselves may have contributed to the situation.
We may believe that we are getting nowhere in life because our parents did not give us enough guidance, or we did not get that promotion because our manager is biased and unfair towards us. We make a mistake and our first reaction is to accuse others of distracting or misleading us.
Blaming is a common source of conflict and often leads to feelings of animosity in relationships.
If one or more of the above cognitive distortions feel familiar, you may notice some unpleasantness or discomfort within yourself and a desire to turn away from this reflection.
Nobody likes to acknowledge that our own thoughts are flawed, but self-awareness is the first step to taking ownership of our thinking. Resist the instinct to divert your attention, so that you can look more deeply into your internal landscape, and see it for the way it is.
With awareness comes the capacity for change.
I invite you to explore part two of this article, in which I explain how the skills of mindfulness help us in managing and overcoming cognitive distortions.