A line from the late great Joan Didion has always stuck with me, which is ‘we tell ourselves stories in order to live’. So much so that I believe I’ve already referenced this line in one or two of my blogs before. If this is the case, excuse me, but I will then say this reflects the statement’s relevance to all things psychology. Psychology is, after all, a study of reality. It is an investigation of the notion of an objective reality while also trying to consider the many subjective realities within this. Psychotherapy is a derivative of this, whereby it seeks to distinguish when a person’s version of reality is ‘normally’ individual and when it deviates too far from this norm, thus isolating and harming the individual’s quality of life.
I found this line especially useful when people around me asked why I changed course at the conclusion of my first degree from the field of literature to that of psychology. I insist to these people I am not leaving literature behind and that I believe the two disciplines complement one another. I would often quote this line in my response as I believe it perfectly sums up the link – the common interest- between the writer of novels and the psychotherapist or researcher. Which is to say, I am interested in the human being’s capacity for self-delusion. In literature, this might come out via observing a character repeatedly make the same judgments of error, harmful behaviours, or get into similar conflicts. Perhaps, it is first-person narration, and you are privy to their thoughts intimately as they move through the same dysfunctional grooves. In psychology, these are what they call cognitive distortions, and, let me tell you, we all participate in them.
We tend to convince ourselves of things that have no basis in reality
Cognitive distortions, also commonly referred to as ‘unhelpful thinking styles’, are thinking patterns we naturally engage in that are not based on reality or fact. As conscious beings, the human brain is always busy interpreting and making sense of the environment. This is an exhausting and unrelenting task and so sometimes, our brain will take shortcuts – some of which are quite inaccurate. Cognitive distortions were first established in 1960 by researcher and psychoanalyst Aaron Beck and later became the core component of his Cognitive Behavioural Theory, which forms the basis of the Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) used widely in therapeutic settings today. Beck was working with a group of depressed inpatients in a psychiatric ward when he noticed repetitive themes in the patient’s verbal and written descriptions of their experiences (learn more about depression and its origins here). ‘A crucial characteristic of the cognitions within this content was that they represented varying degrees of reality distortions’, wrote Beck. He subsequently outlined five prevalent distortions, which were later expanded and popularised by his student, Dr David Burns. Burns describes cognitive distortions as existing in the realm of magic, stating that we ‘possess the remarkable ability to believe, and to get the people around you to believe, things which have no basis in reality’.
Some common cognitive distortions
All or Nothing
Also known as ‘polarised thinking’, and ‘black and white thinking’. This cognitive distortion denotes a person’s propensity to evaluate their own or other’s personal qualities in the most extreme black or white categories. For example, the outcome of a task determines if you are a success or a failure. You might also perceive others in the category of either good or bad. The problem here is that absolutes do not exist in real life. People’s lives are full of colours, shades, degrees, and nuances. Black and white thinkers are often emotionally reactive and have significantly lowered self-esteem. They are often not aware of how much binary thinking holds them back in goal-orientated behaviour, interpersonal relationships, and their relationship with themselves.
Ironically, we tend to tell ourselves we ‘should’ do something as a means of motivating ourselves, but repeatedly bringing this language to a situation or task smothers motivation and often leads to apathy and resentment. Not all ‘should’s are unhelpful (“I should not spend my entire life savings on buying fancy cheese” might be a useful limit to set for oneself), but when should and must thinking is applied to oneself constantly, it often indicates a person is grappling with repressed feelings of guilt, self-loathing, and shame.
Overgeneralisation is when one makes broad, unfounded conclusions based on a single experience. There is a tendency to think that because something happened to you once, this is how it will always happen. This is very deterministic and fails to acknowledge that you are an active agent in your existence, and there are a range of variables in every situation that can affect the outcome.
Jumping to Conclusions
Also sometimes referred to as the ‘fortune teller error’, this distortion is one of catastrophising. Many will have had an experience where a loved one is uncharacteristically late to something and your mind rushes to the worst possible outcome. Another example of this distortion is ruminating on other people’s internal thoughts and intentions and assuming they are negative towards you. These thinking patterns invent facts, which ultimately end up forming the person’s reality.
The mental filter filters situations for purely negative features, making one interpret and dwell on situations falsely. If you’ve ever received broadly positive feedback, and been told one thing to work on, and then as a result forget all the positive feedback to focus on the negative? This is mental filtering.
Disqualifying the Positive
A more extreme version of the mental filter. Burns first describes it colourfully as a ‘spectacular mental illusion’. This is when a person doesn’t just focus on the negative but creates a negative from something neutral or positive. A common example of this is one that many of us are prone to disqualifying a compliment!
Personalisation and Blame
This distortion manifests in one of two ways. The first is from feelings of inadequacy and leads to a person often assuming negative responsibility for an event or situation despite there being no reason to do so. The other side of this stems from feelings of superiority or grandiosity which leads a person to always assume others are to blame and responsible for any negativity present.
This is a case of interpreting emotions as evidence of absolute truths. If a difficult problem arises, the person may deem it impossible to solve or that everything is ruined (e.g. ‘it feels overwhelming so there’s nothing I can do about it’). This person is unable to gain perspective and cannot see that their emotions are a product of their thinking, but aren’t hard facts in and of themselves.
Cognitive distortions are coping mechanisms we learned from a young age
Understanding where these unhelpful thinking patterns come from requires an understanding of ‘core beliefs’. Core beliefs are ingrained, rigid and generalised beliefs that are learned early on in our lives. Positive core beliefs (‘I am a generally good person’ etc.) are protective, and negative core beliefs (‘I am not good enough’, ‘the world is a dangerous place’ etc.) are often found at the heart of experiences of poor mental health. Once they are established, core beliefs are quite resistant to change without effort.
This is where our cognitive distortions come into it. Each of the above distortions help maintain the status quo of our core belief. For example:
- If you believe that others have more inherent worth than you, when someone pays you a compliment you’re more likely to dismiss it as ‘they’re just saying that’ (disqualifying the positive), thus proving that you really aren’t as good as other people, because in your mind this person was just being polite.
- If you have a core belief that others are unreliable, you’re more likely to prematurely assume someone will let you down (jumping to conclusions), and hence choose not to rely on someone for a task, ultimately reducing the likelihood that you’ll learn that others can be relied upon (because you never get proven wrong).
- If you have a core belief that others’ happiness is your responsibility, when someone you care for is unhappy you’re more likely to shoulder the blame yourself (personalisation), minimising the opportunity to help that person see how they can also take responsibility for their wellbeing (and thus, ultimately prove that their happiness isn’t your responsibility).
Ignorance is not bliss when it comes to cognitive distortions
While these cognitive distortions were originally used to describe depressed individuals and are prevalent in many diagnosable disorders, nobody is immune from illogical thinking.
These are methods of coping we all engage in, and it is common that we don’t recognise them as it has been our way of operating for as long as we can remember. However, they might be having a sizeable impact on your daily functioning, mood, and interpersonal relationships. Understanding where they come from and how they arise will involve the help of a therapist who will assist you to see the patterns you engage in, how these patterns affect your mood, and the outcome of the situation as well as where these patterns came from in the first place. It usually doesn’t take take many sessions for you to start to gain insight and understanding, which can then follow through to improvement in your day-to-day functioning. Taking the time to observe and learn about the rigid patterns or barriers you have up is an eye-opening experience and will ultimately allow you to be the best version of yourself. This is a case where ignorance is not bliss, and we should resist telling ourselves the usual stories in order to live happier lives.
If you’d like to book in with a psychologist, you can do so here. If you’d like to understand more about Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, and how core beliefs and cognitive distortions can be overcome, Sarah Edelman’s Change Your Thinking book is a great read.