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Last Sunday, I had the opportunity to participate in some training. We were training adult leaders who worked with young women in our church on mental health concerns because they are relevant today. One of the areas we spoke about was Cognitive Distortions. Sounds pretty fancy, right? But actually, cognitive distortions are simply ways that our minds convince us of something that isn’t really true. We lie to ourselves. And usually these inaccurate thoughts and feelings are used to reinforce other negative thoughts and feelings we’ve been having about ourselves.
These definitions of Cognitive Distortions came from Dr. Scott Sibley, a family therapist and assistant professor at NIU and he referenced the book Feeling Good by David D. Burns. So, here’s a short list of some definitions of Cognitive Distortions (do any of them sound familiar to you – because they did to me!):
ALL-OR-NOTHING THINKING – you see things in black and white categories. If your performance falls short of perfect, you see yourself as a total failure.
OVERGENERALIZATION – you see a single negative event as a never-ending pattern of defeat.
MENTAL FILTER – you pick out a single negative detail and dwell on it exclusively so that your vision of all reality becomes darkened, like the drop of ink that discolors the entire beaker of water.
DISQUALIFYING THE POSITIVE – you reject positive experiences by insisting they “don’t count” for some reason or other. In this way, you can maintain a negative belief that is contradicted by your everyday experiences.
JUMPING TO CONCLUSIONS – you make a negative interpretation even though there are no definite facts that convincingly support your conclusion.
Mind Reading – you arbitrarily conclude that someone is reacting negatively to you, and you don’t bother to check this out.
The Fortune Teller – you anticipate that things will turn out badly, and you feel convinced that your prediction is an already established fact.
MAGNIFICATION (CATASTROPHIZING) or MINIMIZATION – you exaggerate the importance of things (such as your goof-up or someone else’s achievement.) Or you inappropriately shrink things until they appear tiny (your own desirable qualities or the other fellow’s imperfections.) This is also called the ‘binocular trick.’
EMOTIONAL REASONING – you assume that your negative emotions necessarily reflect the way things really are: “I feel it, therefore it must be true.”
SHOULD STATEMENTS – you try to motivate yourself with should and shouldn’ts, as if you had to be whipped and punished before you could be expected to do anything. “Musts” and “oughts” are also offenders. The emotional consequence is guilt. When you direct should statements towards others, you feel anger , frustration and resentment.
LABELING AND MISLABELING – this is an extreme form of over-generalization. Instead of describing your error, you attach a negative label to yourself: “I’m a loser.” When someone else’s behavior rubs you the wrong way, you attach a negative label to her: “She’s an idiot.” Mislabeling involves describing an event with language that is highly colored and emotionally loaded.
PERSONALIZATION – you see yourself as the cause of some negative event which in fact you were not primarily responsible for.
Why are defining cognitive distortions so important – because we do it all the time. We allow ourselves to be fooled by these mind games, we hold ourselves back because we think we are not good enough, talented enough, liked enough – and our kids do it too. And when we think something, it becomes our reality, whether it’s true or not.
I was thinking about this as I was coming home from the training. What would happen if I didn’t have a mirror any longer? (Okay, yes, my makeup would be crazy!) But what if I had this image in my mind of myself – a very positive, healthy image. What would happen to my attitude about life in general? How would I greet others, how would I feel about myself, if I wasn’t focused on my imperfections?
But even more important than my attitude, what would happen to the attitudes of the people around me – especially my children? If they felt that, no matter my imperfections, I still felt great about myself, how would that positivity transfer to them? How do we “model” for our children? Do we pass on our cognitive distortions to them, so they don’t see the amazing children we see – but only see the slight imperfections?
We (and our kids – probably our kids even more than us) live in a time when we are constantly being ‘on stage’ in social media. Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter, Pinterest, Facebook – always comparing and contrasting our lives, shapes, abilities, intelligences, etc… with the virtual world. How can we possibly ever live up to what’s projected on the screen before us? No wonder one of the fastest growing mental health issue is anxiety – how can you not be anxious when you are constantly being compared to virtual fiction?
Dr. Sibley used this acronym to help reverse some of our Cognitive Behavior – STOP!
S – Stop and identify the negative thought
T – Think of different ways to look at the situation
O – Opt for the best (most positive and realistic)
P – Put the solution into practice
I’m working on trying to change these thought processes in my life. (They become habits and our ‘go-to’ way we process information.) Remember our thoughts determine our feelings and our feelings determine our actions and our behaviors. Choose to be positive. Choose to see the very best in yourself. Choose to remember how great you really are!
I know you’re great!!