Let me share one of my own stories. When I was much younger I had worked at an animal hospital for many years. At the time I chose to manage the friendships I made there carefully, since I had irrational thinking patterns around fear of judgement and any associated negative outcomes. Even when I worked with people I really likes I would keep them at a distance. One day I was training one such person. I was careful letting her get to know me as a person. Occasionally I would share something more private and then wish I hadn’t just in case it would live to haunt me later. She eventually moved away and we didn't talk much. Years later after my life had taken an apparent u-turn, she and I ended up living close enough to each other that she made the effort to come pay me a visit. Because I no longer feared her judgement, I chose to open up to her in a way I had avoided for so many years, and that was the day I discovered one of the most incredible friendships of my life.
The moral of the story lies in the fact that my best friend had been waiting to be a part of my life for several years because of the story I told myself, that she would judge me, not like me, and maybe even negatively influence my boss, which kept me from ever connecting with her. This is a perfect example of Cognitive Distortion in action.
According to Positive Psychology’s definition, cognitive distortions are biased perspectives we take on of ourselves, and of the world. They are irrational thoughts and beliefs that we unknowingly reinforce over time, even if they are false (ever know someone who was amazing but couldn't help but talk down on themselves?). Unfortunately these distortions are usually subtle and slide under the radar of our awareness, and some of them have been around a majority of our life-spans. This can create a familiarity to this way of thinking and feeling about ourselves that we can get swept up into it without ever realizing it.
These days you would be hard pressed to find someone who hasn’t wrestled with their own personal assortment of cognitive distortions. Because these tend to be stories where you don’t just think about yourself, but actually believe about yourself, you can imagine that the effects, especially over time, can be staggering. Likely a myriad of daily strife piles up like reactivity, insecurity, low self-regard, depression, anxiety, lack of connection, breakdown in communication, difficulty in relationships, the list is endless, but you get the idea.
I think the most important aspect is the word distortion, let it serve as a helpful reminder that the thought you are having, isn’t truly accurate. Which makes that saying, ‘don’t believe everything you think!’ veritable words to live by.
The three easiest-to-spot cognitive distortions at play in my own story are 1. Jumping to Conclusions, 2. Emotional Reasoning (thinking something is true because you feel something is true), and 3. Over-Controlling, but I’m sure there were more. My head was swimming with all sorts of cognitive distortions back then.
It would be fantastic if our faulty thinking patterns would be easily snuffed out the moment we realized we're doing something we no longer wanted to be doing. Yet with some attention and care, patterns can be shifted, new patterns established, and letting go of stuff that isn’t serving us, can open our lives in incredible new ways.
Because these stories and messages can sneak past undetected so much of the time, it can feel like a daunting task to work through them so they are no longer dominating your life. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy developed the technique, cognitive defusion: noticing and detaching, or creating awareness and space around our thoughts, feelings, and memories.
Guess what, turns out meditation is literally an excellent way to practice cognitive defusion! When you practice meditation you begin to separate yourself from your thoughts. And the less you over-identify with your thoughts and feelings, the more space you have to work with them (it's the difference between identifying as the clay or as the sculptor).
I invite you to examine and maybe even challenge your old beliefs, stories, and ways of thinking, and that’s exactly where I would recommend you start. When they show up, you can ask yourself the simple question, “Is that actually true?” Many times the answer is “no,” “not entirely,” or, “I don’t actually know for sure.” This is your foot in the door moment where you can potentially begin to unravel the old belief, and then you have the opportunity to replace it with a new one. One that is true, one that will actually serve you.
Another big helper is to enlist the support of someone who can considerately and without judgement, point out your distortions when they come up. A therapist or a life coach can be an excellent resource in working with these harmful ways of thinking (I do a lot of work around Self Talk and offer tools and practices for exactly this). I find that challenging cognitive distortions can be at the crux of a lot of issues and love to help empower my clients to work with them in a healthy way.
So are you curious about some of the cognitive distortions that might be lurking in your thought library? I’ve created a fun little quiz that presents a compilation of some of the common cognitive distortions patterns. It’s definitely not a complete list of all of the possible cognitive distortions out there, and for the sake of brevity, the examples are simple and don’t represent all the ways these distortions might influence your thinking. This also isn't a personality test, meaning you might use both Over-Controlling and Under-Controlling thinking, depending on the situation or person you are with. What the quiz does give you is an idea of some of the patterns lurking in your thinking that might not be helping you out so much, which I find very helpful.
Just remember, your thoughts and feelings are more powerful than you likely realize. Whether you are aware of it or not, your thoughts and beliefs can either be a supportive or destructive force. Coming from my own personal experiences, and from the privilege of witnessing many of my clients find for themselves, that changing the way I think and feel about myself, and others, and the situations I'm in, has changed my life for the better.