“The world we have created is a product of our thinking; it cannot be changed without changing our thinking.” – Albert Einstein
In my last post, “How to Challenge Cognitive Distortions – Part One,” we began to explore some common types of cognitive distortions and the accompanying challenge(s) to each. Just about all of us engage in distorted thinking from time to time. There is little use in holding onto the belief that we will “never” have a cognitive distortion again. Doesn’t that statement sound a bit extreme? A more realistic approach to handling cognitive distortions is to recognize that they will most likely occur, and to be prepared to observe and challenge them with full mindful awareness.
There is a tendency when embarking on most forms of self-improvement to get excited about making positive changes. This is wonderful and serves as an excellent motivating force in the beginning stages of growth. A danger lies in setting unrealistic goals (e.g., “I’ll never have a cognitive distortion again!”). When we try to do too much, too fast, it is not surprising when we get overly disappointed and view a single failure as an excuse to throw in the towel.
Most people who have made a sudden and dramatic change to their diets have encountered this phenomenon. For example, someone decides to completely cut bread out of their diet. Then, they go out to dinner with friends and have a dinner roll… or maybe two. They then view this as a “failure” and abandon all of their positive momentum.
As you begin to become more mindfully attuned to your habitual patterns of thinking, you will naturally become aware of your common cognitive distortions. If you make the choice to begin to actively challenge those cognitive distortions as they occur, remember that all changes in behavior require practice. In fact, a recent study in the European Journal of Psychology found that it took participants a median time of 66 days to form a new habit. Not only that – the total time that it took for behaviors to become automatic habits ranged from 18 to 254 days. Be kind toward yourself as you embark on changing your habitual ways of thinking.
Challenge Cognitive Distortions
Consider four more common cognitive distortions and their accompanying challenge(s). As you read, be honest with yourself about your own typical ways of thinking and ask yourself if you see any glimmers of your own reflection in these cognitive distortions.
Jumping to Conclusions
This cognitive distortion involves rushing or jumping to a conclusion without the factual evidence to back it up. The general tendency is for those conclusions to be negative in some way. When this happens, you are making yourself vulnerable to taking action(s) based on faulty assumptions. This can lead to impulsivity in word and deed. Consider your own patterns with how you tend to draw conclusions or make assumptions. How has your typical style of reasoning worked for you in the past?
Distortion: “I just know that I’m going to have an awful day.”
To challenge this cognitive distortion, pause and mindfully reflect on your experience. What evidence do you truly have that today is guaranteed to be an awful day? How do you really “know” this to be true? Pause and focus on taking several deep breaths as you mindfully assess the situation. Consider how negative predictions about the future can inadvertently lead to them coming true. When you believe things to be “true” and jump to hasty conclusions, you may act in ways that support that reality. By doing this, you can create a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Challenge: “Today might have some obstacles, but I can overcome them and still have a good day.”
This type of thinking involves a tendency to view things in absolute terms – there is no room for “gray” area. When thinking this way, people tend to use words such as never, always, and every. The good news is that very few things in this world truly exist in absolute terms, so if you find yourself thinking in these extremes, it is quite likely that you’ve caught yourself engaging in distorted thinking.
Distortion: “Every single time I try, I fail.”
This kind of extreme distortion serves the function of keeping people stuck in maladaptive ways of thinking and behaving. There can be little movement in positive directions when thinking in such absolute terms. Imagine this cognitive distortion as being personified by a small child with his arms crossed saying, “No!” There is a great deal of resistance to alternatives.
Challenge: “I may have failed before, but I can think of times when I have been successful. Therefore, I don’t always fail.”
This cognitive distortion involves labeling yourself or others based on mistakes, perceived flaws, or shortcomings. When directed toward yourself, this type of thinking can be passive aggressive and result in negative emotional experiences. When directed toward others, this type of thinking can manifest itself outwardly as hurtful, degrading, or even abusive.
Distortion: “I’m a total failure.”
If you tend to label yourself or others based on perceived negative qualities, ask yourself what benefits you gain from this way of thinking. For some people, labeling can be a way to feel “safe” and make sense of confusing experiences. For example, if you label yourself or others as “just stupid” or “just mean,” then you don’t have to really think about that person (including yourself) as a more complex and nuanced individual. You (and others) are much more than any one (or more) label(s). Dig deeper than labels.
Challenge: “Just because I failed once (or several times) that doesn’t make me a failure. I have many positive qualities.”
When you engage in personalization, you are assuming responsibility for something that has little to nothing to do with you or is outside of your control. When this happens, there is a tendency to take unnecessary responsibility for an external problem or to assume that something negative that has occurred is about you (without knowing this to be the case). There is a natural tendency for people to live in a self-focused drama, where the actions of other people are somehow “about them.” The truth is that most people are so focused on themselves and wondering what you think of them, that it is rarely “about you.”
Distortion: “It’s my fault that my partner is in a bad mood today.”
This type of thinking can easily be challenged by taking a cautious and mindful stance toward the problem. Weigh the evidence “for” and “against” the problem truly being your fault in some way. Through an attitude of mindfulness, you can step back from your experience and let go of your emotional attachment to the problem. Just observe with full awareness. Listen to your intuition as you look over the facts. Enter into a place of wise mind as you merge reason with emotion to arrive at the most realistic view of reality.
Challenge: “I know he’s really busy with work lately and I can’t think of any real reason it would be my fault.”
If you have identified some of your own typical patterns of thinking as you read through these cognitive distortions, ask yourself how willing you are to become more aware of them in the moment. When you make the commitment to yourself to become more mindfully cognizant of your thoughts, you are harnessing the power to bring about a different and more positive future. There is nothing you can do to change what has happened in the past… let it go. Each unfolding present moment is rich with opportunities to begin to change what has yet to be.
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Lally, P., van Jaarsveld, C.H., Potts, H.W., & Wardle, J. (2010). How are habits formed: Modelling habit formation in the real world. European Journal of Social Psychology, 40, 998-1009.
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: think! by /eye.contact! / CC BY-ND 2.0