Cognitive Distortions: Our Brain’s Way of Misleading Us

At one point or another, we have all – often unwittingly – developed irrational thought patterns that negatively influence our perceptions. These are known as Cognitive Distortions. Many of these habits originated in our formative years and were influenced by environmental factors outside of our control. These external factors may have included unrealistic cultural and/or religious expectations, unhealthy familial ways of functioning, unfavorable feedback from teachers and peers, etc. Others stemmed from past negative experiences including failures, rejections, embarrassments, etc. As a result, our brains developed false ideas and assumptions around the way things should, would, or could be….

I Think, Therefore, It Must Be True

These self-defeating thoughts are so pervasive because we believe that our brains are objective (telling us the truth) versus subjective (spinning stories).  Cognitive Distortions are subjective reactions, which blanket our awarenesses in order to emotionally protect us: We think that if we prepare for the worst, then we will not be hugely affected when things don’t go our way.

In actuality, instead of keeping us safe, Cognitive Distortions reinforce our negative feelings about ourselves/others – lowering our self-esteem, causing conflict in our relationships, keeping us from taking risks, and influencing the way we perceive – and, in turn, function in the world.

Here are a few Cognitive Distortions:

Mental Filtering: Within a sea of compliments, you only focus on the one criticism.

Should statements: These are unrealistic expectations: You say, “My partner should meet all of my needs or else they are not doing enough.”

Fortune-telling: The habit of focusing on a future that has not yet occurred: an example: “I’ll never find love.”

Click here for a full list and explanation of the most common Cognitive Distortions.

Undoing the Damage

In order to free ourselves from limited thinking, we must strengthen our awareness around these negative thought patterns. With strong desire to change these out-dated perceptions, we can catch and challenge our automatic thoughts – and work toward eliminating them.

The following are some great techniques to help in this process:

Cognitive Restructuring: An organized process of taking thoughts through a series of logical steps in order to examine their validity. Cognitive Restructuring involves identifying inaccurate thoughts, understanding how they make you feel, evaluating evidence for/against these thoughts, and replacing any distorted perceptions with rational beliefs.

Reframing: This technique helps you consider your circumstances from other angles, shifting your perspective in how you see your challenges. An example: “I hate that I am such a needy person – I’m so weak!” becomes “I have needs just like everyone else and I am strong because I acknowledge them and have the capacity to express them to others.” Reframing helps you see the positive aspects of self-defeating thoughts, so they can be revised and repaired before we fall into victimization.

The ‘what would you tell a friend’ technique: You catch yourself thinking, “If I disagree, I will be viewed as difficult.” Pause and reframe: If a friend said that to you, you’d most likely remind them that they have a right to a differing opinion, and that by speaking their truth, they would be giving others the opportunity of getting to know and understand them – which makes for better relationships.

Click here for a list of other techniques to help reverse negative thoughts or beliefs.

Taking Back Control

Decide to knock-out your Cognitive Distortions once and for all before they prevent you from seeing and experiencing the positive aspects of your life you so deserve.  Skewed thought patterns interrupt the joy of here-and-now: True satisfaction and gratitude are missed when we allow our inaccurate assumptions and unrealistic expectations to take over: Take back the control of your thoughts and get your power back!

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