Saturday, February 4, 2012

TOOLBOX: Recognize Cognitive Distortions

I don't know about you, but I'm pretty much never alone, even when mine is the only body in the room.  I'm not talking about God, but of the voices I carry with me everywhere.  No, I do not have multiple personality disorder.  I'm talking about what some might refer to as  your conscience, although mine seems to be more divided.  I want to introduce you to them because they will come up in future posts.

These components of the constant chatter in my head are all me, of course, just different aspects of myself, different flavors of Julie.  I have "The Critic," who is constantly examining every aspect of my thoughts and behavior, looking for a mistake
for which I should be chastised.  I also have a kind, motherly, "Wise Woman," (this idea was introduced to me by my Women's Cognitive Therapy Group leader, who borrowed it from Eat, Pray, Love) whom I wish were more prominent.  I think of her as myself, 30 years from now with all the experience I have yet to gain, who knows what happens next and how best to handle it, with the benefit of hindsight.  There is the little child me, whom I imagine as about thee or four years old, who likes to play and screams and screams inside me when my mother's death is brought to my consciousness.  And occasionally there is the resentful, belligerent teen who never got a voice in my goody-two-shoes actual teenage years.  This is the one that doesn't ever want to go to the gym.  Usually, I hear from just one at a time, thank goodness.  I think when they start arguing without you is when you might need to worry about having more serious problems than depression.

So, keeping in mind that I am not psychotic, I want to address the most difficult of these aspects of myself and introduce a really important tool I learned from Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT):  recognizing irrational thought patterns commonly called "Cognitive Distortions (I drew this mainly from Wikipedia, so see that link for more detail or different wording.  I am not a psychologist, but here I give examples according to how I understand the distortions.  The Feeling Good Handbook gives much more detailed insight into these and other CBT tools and is a valuable resource.)"  When the Critic is going on, loud and long in your head about some standard you did not meet, or about something you said that it thinks was not the right thing, or some situation you should have handled differently, before you blindly accept what the Critic says as gospel truth about yourself, check this list.  The thought you are having may be somehow a distortion of reality in one or more ways without your even realizing it.  Don't buy everything you think.
  1. "All-or-nothing" thinking:  These thoughts have words like "always," "every," "never," and "no alternative" in them somewhere.  Ex.  Why do I always do that?  I never do anything right.  Every time I do X, Y happens.  He said X, so I have no alternative but to respond with Y.
  2. Overgeneralization:  If you take a limited experience and then generalize it out to a broad characterization, you are doing this.  Ex. You had a bad experience on a date, or even several dates, therefore all men are pigs.  Someone didn't show for a planned outing, so you can't trust anybody or maybe just people with the same characteristics as that person.  Someone criticizes you and you are sure that everyone agrees with that person.  These extrapolations are not rational.  You cannot judge from such a small sample what the rest of a group is like, thinks, or would do.
  3. Magical thinking:  If you wish for something to be so and then expect that this will really make it be that way or if you expect a certain outcome and then only see the facts that support your supposition, you are engaging in wishful or magical thinking, which is irrational.   A  popular form of this is the idea of saying something like, "Well, at least we don't have bad traffic on our trip to the beach."  Then the traffic becomes snarled and you blame it on what you said.  This is irrational.  Your statement had nothing to do with the change in traffic.  The two are not actually related in any factual way.  Expecting something does not make it happen.
  4. Mental filter:  This is when you are not able to see either the positive or negative parts of something.  A classic example of this is the bride who considers the entire wedding ruined because she finds a tiny flaw in her dress, or chips a nail or some equally tiny flaw in the day.   She cannot see anything but the flaw.  Once I asked my mother to relay a question to my father for me: What do you wish you knew at age 30 that you know now?  She repeatedly miss-translated my question into some variation of:  What do wish you did differently, or what do you regret, or what would you change about your life.  After four or so attempts, she still simply could not phrase the question in her own words without making it hopelessly negative, which it was not.  I finally had to have her repeat my words, word for word to him.
  5. Disqualifying the positive:  I am guilty of this one a lot.  I discounted the validity of my Master's degree for various arbitrary reasons like because it wasn't on a typical topic (even though my topic was approved and my committee passed my thesis after the typical revisions, and I graduated).   Perhaps you gave a great speech but lost your train of thought for a moment and that colors the entire experience as a failure to you, you are disqualifying the positive.  You can't see past the small bad to the overwhelming good (or the opposite).  One mistake makes an entire effort worthless.  This is typical of perfectionism.
  6. Jumping to conclusions (mind reading, fortune telling): This happens when you take a tiny bit of evidence, or none at all, and draw conclusions from that (which are usually negative). Ex.  A woman looks at you with a frown.  You just know that she thinks you are a terrible mother and that your children are hopelessly spoiled.  (What you don't know is that she lost her father yesterday to cancer and seeing your happy family brought up her anger at his death.)  My daughter was fortune telling the other night when she was upset that her sheets were messed up but she wouldn't even let me try to fix them because she knew that whatever I did wouldn't help.  She was so certain of the future she had created in her head that she would not let me act to disturb her vision of it.  She would not be convinced there could be any other future.
  7. Magnification and minimization:  This happens to me every time I go to one of my Mom's Clubs.  I walk in and see the crowd of women.  To me, they are all thin.  They are all beautiful.  They are all wonderful mothers.  They are all happy and fulfilled in their lives.  They are all successes.  An objective observer would immediately see that I was magnifying the group's positive characteristics (in my head) and minimizing the negative characteristics (in my head).  I was not seeing reality.  Conversely one might "catastrophize" a situation.  Ex. A spouse is late coming home from work.  In a split second you go from wondering where he is, to imagining him dead from an auto crash.  You are certain of it.  Or maybe I am overweight.  OK, I am.  And to me I will never be able to lose the weight.  Being this way is unbearable, but changing my body is impossible.  This is simply not true.  I'm not that special that physics doesn't work for me.  Really I'm just uncomfortable with my status quo and changing it will be more uncomfortable.  I was catastrophizing.
  8. Emotional reasoning:  This is when you are convinced that because you feel something is a certain way, that that is reality.  Ex. I yell at my daughter that she never listens to me, never does what she's told, and always gives me a hard time.  I am utterly convinced this is true.  An objective observer would see that, no this is not actually the case.  These things happen occasionally, but not exclusively.  I feel it is true therefore it must be true.  I feel unattractive therefore I must be unattractive.  I feel like an impostor therefore I must not be qualified to do my job. This is irrational.  Don't believe your feelings!  They are not good measures of reality!
  9. Should statements: Wikipedia has good wording for this one, "Patterns of thought which imply the way things "should" or "ought" to be rather than the actual situation the person is faced with, or having rigid rules which the person believes will "always apply" no matter what the circumstances are."  Ex.  There is only one acceptable way to do something, like clean a floor or make a bed.  I should keep house as well as my mother did and not doing that equals failure, no exceptions.  A bed should be made with hospital corners.  If it's not done this way it's not worth doing.  These are a should statements.  Children ought to be seen and not heard.  I should be perfect.  The world ought to be fair.  Really?  Why?  As I've heard others say, "Don't should all over yourself."  When you hear that word---warning flag!  Examine that statement!
  10. Labeling and mislabeling: This is basically name calling.  I am a failure.  I am a mistake.  I make a mistake and call myself stupid.  She's a loser.  Not she made a mistake or I said something wrong or foolish or I behaved badly in that situation, but the person becomes equated with the behavior.  I failed therefore I am a failure.  The wedding was a disaster.  No, someone made a mistake and the wrong cake was delivered.  There was a specific problem.  This does not equal the entire experience.
  11. Personalization: This is when you blame yourself for something over which you had no control.  My mother had M.S. and I think if I'd been a better daughter she would not have been sick.  A boy does something wrong in school and that night his father is killed in an accident.  He thinks it is his fault.  A man doesn't like his job.  His company has massive layoffs due to the economy.  He blames himself for getting laid off.
Again, if you google cognitive distortions, you can find many differently worded and perhaps clearer examples of each of these.  The real point is to NOTICE WHAT YOU TELL YOURSELF, and then BE SKEPTICAL!  

A good exercise is to take a day or two and write down the thoughts that you have during the day.  Then compare them to the cognitive distortions.  If you find thoughts that match up to these distortions, take a moment to try to rephrase the thought in a way that is not distorted.  The next time you have that thought, you might say to yourself, "STOP!" and then reword the thought in your head.  Or even better, if there are a few particularly troublesome or intrusive thoughts, consider rewriting them in a nondistorted way on post-its or notecards and placing them in strategic locations where you are likely to see them.  When you have the thought, after the "STOP!" read the appropriate card to yourself or even say it out loud (even if you don't really believe it at first).  Please note in my examples below that I am not making some blissed-out Pollyanna replacement statements that everything is going to be OK.  You want to go for something that is possible, that you have some chance of believing one day, not a fantasy of perfection that is not attainable.

For example:

Recurring thoughts:  I should be a better mother.  I am such a loser.  I always overreact when my kids misbehave.  My kids will grow up to hate me.

I should be a better mother. = Should Statement
Rephrase:  I am doing the best I can in each moment to be a good mother.  My best in some circumstances is not as good as in other circumstances.  I make mistakes.  But I try to learn from them and do better afterwards.  No one is perfect.  I am taking actions to have more healthy thoughts and that will certainly be an improvement.

I am such a loser. = Labeling, Emotional Reasoning
I have not always done the right thing.  I have not always done my best.  But that does not negate my potential.  It does not make me "a loser."  I have or can do things that make a positive impact on the world.  I can smile at someone.  I can keep doing my best.  I can notice beauty.  I can...

I always overreact when my kids misbehave. = All or nothing thinking
Really?  Every single time ever since they were born?  Yes, sometimes I have overreacted.  But I am aware of it and I can take action to try to change my behavior.  I am not doomed to be unable to change.  Even noticing that I think this thought and that it is a distortion is a change for the better.

My kids will grow up to hate me. = Fortune telling
How can I know this for certain when I have no control over their minds or feelings?  I can make changes to my behavior that can impact how they think of me and feel about me.  Just because I am afraid this will happen and feel certain it will doesn't mean that I am correct!  I could be wrong and I can take actions to increase the odds that I am wrong.  In fact, I am doing that right now.


  1. Wow. Your Tortoise and Hare post is my favorite story so far, but this post is probably your most useful post to date. Keep up the good work!

  2. Very insightful post! Thanks for posting! Nicholl

    1. Thanks! And thank you for linking to Dear Diane, in your blog! I've added your blog to those I'm following, which are all linked to at the bottom of the page here. How fun to be read by someone I don't know! :)