Decades ago, I read about distorted thinking in David Burns’ book – The Feeling Good Handbook. It changed my life. I wrote the list of habits down in a little notepad, kept it in my handbag and read it on the bus, on the couch, whenever I had a moment. Of all the personal development tools I read in my twenties this helped me the most. David Burns’ book is still considered one of the top all time P.D. books even though it was published in 1989.
Cognitive distortions are about taking particular thought processes too far from the actual reality of what is happening. It creates all kinds of problems. If you can’t see the truth you can’t make good decisions. You end up causing all kinds of emotional harm. The twisted perception you think is real causes stress, anxiety and depressive feelings.
Here is my list. I have adapted it over the years to suit my insights and a-ha moments. Find what habit you do. Write it down and make a determined effort to change it. So much good will come from it. I guarantee it.
Distorted Thinking a.k.a. Cognitive Distortions a.k.a. Messed Up Junk in Your Head
You think because you’ve had one or two bad things go wrong you’re bad at them always and forever. So what if your last two relationships didn’t work out. It doesn’t mean you’ll never find your soul mate. You say you haven’t slept well in years, or will never win a work contract. These are all due to poor editing of your life. It is destructive. It makes you think things are worse than they really are. It disempowers you and limits future growth.
Blame and Control
You believe the bad things that happened to you are the fault of your parents, upbringing, romantic relationship, and so on. You blame your lack of work output on your boss’s nasty attitude. You take on the victim role and give control to something else. You fail to take responsibility for your life, which is the opposite of the next distorted thinking.
It’s All My Fault
You take responsibility when it’s not your fault. You feel responsible when a student in your class fails. You think if you were a nicer person, then your boyfriend/girlfriend would treat you better. There are many ways in which we take responsibility for other’s behavior and actions. The vast majority of what people do has nothing to do with us. It has to do with them.
Blue Tinted Glasses
With rose tinted glasses you see the positive in everything. Well, blue tinted glasses are where you focus exclusively on the bad. You may have been to a party and it was a great night. But there was a significant unpleasant moment. The next day you focus on that and negate what was overall a great experience. There are degrees of this. First is focusing on the negative. Second would be removing the positive from your recollection completely – aka the magic trick.
Here, you don’t take things at face value. Magically you turn something good into something negative. For example, you think an event you hosted is a disaster because the food was late, even though everybody told you they had a great time.
When someone gives you a compliment say, “Thank you” and believe them. And if, in the 1% chance they are being rude still say thank you. By doing so you are not accepting their reality. Their barb fell harmlessly to the ground. I know this bit of advice is a little off track, but I see women, all the time! refuse to accept the compliment and conclude there is a nasty agenda behind it. It does my head in. There are a few cognitive distortions going on in this particular mass hysteria – so see if you can find them.
Reading People’s Mind aka Projecting
The fault with this type of thinking is you believe their behavior is a direct result of interacting with you. You are convinced you know the reason for their behavior, and often this feeds directly into your neurosis. For example, you assume they are ignoring you or that a friend’s tone means something when it doesn’t. A friend may not have returned the calls because of a deadline or a family crisis. Their tone is a little off because they have a headache or had a difficult day at work. People are very busy and are far more concerned with their struggles and inner life then trying to make you feel bad.
You need to trust you are a good person who is worthy of love and respect. If you don’t trust yourself and who you are – you will interpret others behaviors as being deliberately negative towards you. It rarely is. You’re projecting your neurosis onto them – that’s the only thing going on here.
A more extreme version of this is you believe you can read what the future will be like (as well as reading people’s minds) and it usually is not good. You’ll know you’ll never meet the right person or get fit and healthy. You fortune tell an event and can even create that reality because of your expectations. If it does turn out to be good, you don’t trust it. Same goes for people.
You think everything has gone wrong when you just had a small disagreement with your boss. When you have had a lot of bad experiences in the past you can tend to do this. Like an abused dog that cowers whenever you raise your hand, even though it is only to pet it. It can happen if you had a lot of trauma (any kind of trauma) in the past. You over-react to the stimuli. You pick through the past issues (in your mind) with your boss & be convinced he is going to fire you. If this is you make a habit of asking yourself how big is the problem really on a scale of 1 to 10.
Letting Your Emotions Run The Day
You wake up feeling depressed or lonely. Then you let the entire day be decided by that feeling. You may also decide that as you feel lonely, you must be lonely. You assume your unhealthy feeling is automatically true. Many times we can simply change our mood by engaging in an activity, getting out of the house, planning something nice. Now there is a time to honor your feelings and see them as a signpost for change. A sign something is not sitting right.
Remember, distorted thinking is about taking a particular thought process too far from the actual reality. Are you over indulging in your emotions and poor me? Are you using it to sit on the couch and not face the world?
You have unrealistic standards in your life, which others can never meet. You expect someone to return your call within 48 hrs always and are upset if they don’t. Or you get angry when someone is 45 mins late, even though they have been on time every other time. You confuse unrealistic standards with good boundaries. Your upset is out of proportion to the actual event. You see imagined slights everywhere. You may also hold yourself to this, which causes a lot of stress as you run around meeting these imagined standards that no-one else cares about.
Here you narrow in on one characteristic of our own or another’s and give it a label. The house is messy and so you are a slob. If you label yourself like this you’ll start to believe it. You send negative energy inwards and make yourself feel worthless.
We also do it with other people. For example, we call someone a control freak. When we do this, from that point on, we will instantly notice that behavior in that person and react to it. We then ignore all the good qualities they have, which is what we should be relating to. Your continual negative reaction will eventually get noticed and undermine the relationship. In fact this is a form of perfectionism where you expect every person to be perfect. And when they are not you feel angry or hurt or both. It’s a way to keep yourself safe. You find their supposed faults so you don’t have to get close to them.
Black and White Thinking
You think if you don’t get it perfectly right then you are a failure. This can stop you from trying to do something because you become too scared to try. Or when you fail once you never try it again. Life is a shade of infinite grey, whites and blacks. Instead of thinking you have to make a big decision about your life, think how can I get creative with my life. It also applies to people. When you see them do one thing wrong you judge them and think they are ‘no good at all.’ You ignore the complexities of character and the beautiful array of colours that make up any individual.
If even one of these jump out at you with a massive A-ha moment then great! From now on you will notice whenever you do that. Awareness is always the biggest hurdle. Challenge your reality. Ask yourself, “Is this really true? What would be a better way to view this?” Really scrutinize your thinking. Hold it up to the light.
Practice makes perfect. It may take a little fine-tuning to get the right calibration – or as close to reality as possible. Don’t give up. You will get there. It is sweet relief when you do. Life gets smoother and more pleasant. You’ll enjoy yourself more. Stress, anxiety and depressive feelings reduce.
Distorted thinking locks you into a particular viewpoint of the world. Jesus said, ‘the truth shall set you free’. And so it does.
Connected to distorted thinking is “Change Your Story To Change Your Life” which is a powerful three part series on empowering you. Another essential read is my article “The Mind Believes What You Tell It. Read How To Hear Your Intuition And Act On It. for my story of self trust and intuition and helping my mother with breast cancer.