How to Challenge Cognitive Distortions – Part One

How to Challenge Cognitive Distortions

“No problem can withstand the assault of sustained thinking.” – Voltaire

Our experience itself is not responsible for how we feel… it is our thoughts that assign meaning to and interpret our experience.  These meanings and interpretations – the stories we tell ourselves – result in the experience of emotion.  We all have an enormous capacity to influence our emotional experience through mindfully examining and reevaluating our cognitive processes. When we aren’t looking at the big picture or perceiving information accurately, it is easy to get a distorted view of reality.  Even when we believe we are having an emotional response to nothing but the cold hard facts of a situation, we can still significantly impact our emotional experience by mindfully altering those thoughts.

We have all had experiences where an external event happened and we had an immediate automatic thought such as “I’m so stupid” or “She always does that.”  These knee-jerk internal responses to events can have an enormous impact on our happiness and degree of emotional suffering if they go unchecked.  When cognitive distortions such as these remain unquestioned and undisputed, they can result in a cascade of impulsive behaviors rooted in maladaptive thinking.  Mindfulness provides us with the emotional and mental space necessary to step back from our habitual patterns of thinking and look upon our thoughts with fresh eyes.

Challenge Cognitive Distortions

Reflect on the following common cognitive distortions along with the accompanying challenge to each:

Diminishing the Positives

When we engage in this common cognitive distortion, we tell ourselves stories about why positive events in our lives “don’t count.”  Think of this as adding a “but” onto genuinely positive occurrences or truly positive traits about yourself.  These habitual thoughts can be considered a form of passive aggression against the self.

Distortion: “My presentation at work went really well, but I just got lucky.”

To challenge this cognitive distortion, truly embrace positive events and take pride in your accomplishments. Begin to evaluate those thoughts and slowly take away the negative valence that the distortion is adding.

Challenge: Instead of “I just got lucky,” replace the distortion with “I was prepared” or “I worked really hard.”

Overgeneralization

We overgeneralize when we take one negative experience or fact and expect it to be “forever” true, or to apply to “everything.”  Making the choice to mindfully take a step back from this type of thought and evaluate it realistically usually takes away its power. But, if you still find yourself struggling to put things in perspective, actively challenge this cognitive distortion.

Distortion: “I wasn’t able to pass this test… I’ll never pass any tests.”

Negative events happen to everybody (really!) in various forms and at various times in life.  The challenge to overcoming overgeneralization is to adopt a new attitude toward and relationship with failures or negative events. Begin to believe that you have the ability to create different outcomes in the future.  While you cannot control the behavior of other people, your own thoughts and behaviors are entirely up to you.  Reflect on times when you have encountered a single negative event in the past that didn’t hold true forever.

Challenge: “I didn’t pass that test, but I will work harder/study differently next time and pass the next test.”

Filtering out the Positives

This cognitive distortion occurs when we overly focus on the negatives and choose to be blind to the positives. This might involve getting stuck on one thing that went wrong and subsequently ignoring anything that went right. It is unfortunate when this cognitive distortion occurs, because it causes us to miss out on the abundance of positive events that we all bear witness to and experience each day.  There may be hidden rewards in overly focusing on something negative and ignoring all that is positive.  For example, there may be a hidden desire for support or sympathy from others without a willingness to ask for that support.  Or perhaps filtering out the positives temporarily gives an excuse to delay action in some way.  It’s different for most people.

Distortion: “This is an awful day.  I studied last night, got up on time, made it to class, passed my test, ran into an old friend and had lunch, but I got a flat tire.”

To challenge this type of cognitive distortion, actively focus on all of the positive events that really do happen. You have a choice in how you direct your attention.  No one “makes” you pay attention to positives or negatives in your experience.  Consider this: whatever you look for earnestly enough, you will find.  Start looking for the positive.

Challenge: “I may have gotten a flat tire at the end of the day, but I sure did have a good day other than that.  I was prepared for my test, got there on time, passed it, and even ran into an old friend with whom I had lunch.”

Catastrophizing

This happens when we go through life “expecting” the worst case scenario to come true.  It can be difficult to be around people who do this, because it can seem as if “everything” is a “total disaster.”  When the slightest thing goes wrong, there is a tendency to automatically assume the worst.  It can be very painful to be the person who thinks this way as well.  Imagine what life would be like if you lived in constant fear of the worst thing imaginable happening at any given moment.  Fortunately, as with all thoughts, you can choose them.  You can make the choice to actively change your habitual patterns of thinking… with enough practice, your new ways of thinking will become second nature.

Distortion: “There is a 30 minute delay in traffic… I’m never going to get to work!”

When you catastrophize, you aren’t helping the situation at all.  This type of thinking only serves to heighten negative emotional experiences and lead to ineffective action.  Mindfulness is an excellent tool to help put these situations in perspective.  Take a step back from your experience and really observe it with openness, curiosity, and acceptance.  Let go of your attachments to negative thinking and heightened emotions and just observe. When you do this, things begin to fall into perspective.

Challenge: “I may be late, but I will get there.  This isn’t the end of the world.”

When you experience cognitive distortions, begin to really notice that they are occurring with greater mindful awareness.  Become an active observer of your experience before you rush in to impulsively assign negative meaning to events.  Begin to recognize the difference between things that you have control over and things that you have little to no control over.  When you truly have no control over external events, make the choice to truly accept them and let go of your need for control.  You will begin to see that you have full control over your thoughts and your behaviors.  When you mindfully choose new thoughts and behaviors over a consistent amount of time, your internal emotional experience will naturally shift.

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In my next post, “How to Challenge Cognitive Distortions – Part Two,” we will explore ways to challenge even more common cognitive distortions.

White, D. (2011). Challenging Our Cognitive Distortions and Creating Positive Outlooks. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 14, 2011, from http://psychcentral.com/lib/2011/challenging-our-cognitive-distortions-and-creating-positive-outlooks/

Featured image: Thinking RFID by @boetter / CC BY 2.0

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