If you’re a walking, living, breathing human being, then it is an unfortunate inevitability that you will incur thoughts that are inaccurate, useless or downright harmful. These thoughts are based on your interpretations of external events, and directly impact how you feel and your subsequent actions. Our incorrect interpretations of circumstances can be referred to as “cognitive distortions”, and it’s essential we become aware of what they are so we can mitigate the hold they have over our lives. I am all too familiar with the way in which distorted thinking can swiftly alter my mood from whimsical and cheery – to anxious, self-conscious and insecure. It can happen in the interpretation of a minor glance in which the mere narrowing of eyes is indicative of someone’s dislike of you, or that they may be judging you in some way. This process of jumping to conclusions, inferring, interpreting, guessing – it occurs constantly every single day. It can be a useful social tool, but when we believe every single one of our thoughts, it can become problematic and maladaptive.
Put simply, our cognitions are the acquisition of knowledge through mental processes such as thinking, interpreting, learning, and perceiving the world around us. Like most things, our cognitions are the result of various environmental and biological factors, such how as our previous experiences as well as our genetics. Whilst our cognitions have been influenced by our history and personal experience, they are often automatic and directly influence our emotions and behaviours. Due to the automatic nature of our cognitions, most of us haven’t even considered questioning the validity of our thoughts, and we are guided by the assumption that they are factual, important and ultimately useful. It’s important to recognise that our cognitions are often heavily distorted and that most of the time our thoughts are not objective facts but simply subjective interpretations of the world around us. Due to past experiences, our interpretations can be heavily swayed to be negative – and this perpetuation of negative thoughts creates unfavourable beliefs and maladaptive patterns of behaviour, ultimately culminating in unhappiness, dissatisfaction and mental health problems.
In order to change our thought-processes, it’s important that we become aware of what they are so we can identify in real-time when they are occurring. There are various examples of cognitive distortions that you might be familiar with, and the following provides examples of just a few.
We all know the person that jumps to the worst possible conclusion in every situation. It might be the friend that says “I left the hair straightener on, the house has probably burnt down!” or the boss who exclaims “our profits were down this month, we will have to close the business”. When we think that the worst possible scenario will pan out, this is called “catastophising”. Whilst it’s important to be realistic and manage expectations, assuming that the worst possible outcome will occur is exhausting and unhelpful. This is because for most of the time, the worst case scenario is not actually what happens. It’s important to be flexible and equipped with the tools to be able to handle challenges, but catastrophising often causes people feel unnecessary anxiety and stress, meaning they are less prepared and less equipped to handle whatever challenge is thrust their way.
Polarizing or all-or-nothing thinking
Often referred to as “black or white thinking”, having polarised thoughts means you think about yourself or the world around you in extremes, with little room for flexibility. It can make relationships difficult to maintain, because the standards and expectations you set for other people are unrealistic and unattainable. It can also mean you are unfairly critical of yourself, and the inflexibility and extreme nature of this thought-process can lead to feelings of sadness and inadequacy. People who think like this tend to over-generalise in situations, using words such as “always” and “never” when describing situations. An example of this type of cognitive distortion is labelling yourself as a “failure” after getting a B on a test when you expected to get an A. Or perhaps you might initially perceive your new boyfriend as “perfect”, and then when they make a mistake you immediately perceive them to be a terrible person. This all-or-nothing approach fails to see the world in a realistic way and does not acknowledge that there are a lot of grey areas in life.
Thinking in “Shoulds”
This cognitive distortion occurs when people tell themselves that things ought to be a certain way, with no exceptions or space for subjectivity. You might tell yourself that “people should be on time”, or “my friend should always respond to my messages as quickly as possible”, or “I should be going to the gym every morning”. The lack of flexibility in thinking like this means you set yourself up for disappointment in yourself and other people. Whilst it would be great if most people were on time, or friends spoke to us regularly and that we attended the gym daily, the reality is that sometimes life simply gets in the way. There is often perfectly valid and acceptable reasons why someone might be late or why things do not go according to plan. When we think in “shoulds” we may become disproportionately angry at ourselves or another person, fixating on the fact that things should be going a certain way. This thought pattern is maladaptive because it is entirely unrealistic, and the unwavering rigidity may create tension in relationships or may simply make you miserable and frustrated all the time.
Overlooking the positive
Many of us have a propensity to view situations and external events with a negative lens. We discount the positive attributes of our lives (and indeed ourselves), such as attributing our successes to luck and failing to notice the fantastic aspects of our lives. I can heavily relate to this cognitive distortion, as I previously meandered through life devoid of appreciation and barely acknowledging all the great things about it. Fast forward a few years and after a lot of time devoted to gratitude practices and journalling, I have made significant changes and view the world with a much more positive outlook. When you interpret other people’s actions or random events in a consistently negative way, it becomes exhausting for yourself and those around you. Whilst i’m not advocating for constant positivity in the face of dreadful circumstances, it’s essential that we acknowledge our pessimistic outlook on a daily basis, and make small tweaks to our attitude. This will ultimately reduce our own negative feelings, but will also make you more likeable and better to be around.
This particular cognitive distortion is common in romantic relationships, but can also occur in various other contexts. It is when we predict how another person is going to react, or what they are thinking in response to something you have said or done. This distortion is founded in our previous experiences of the person and how they react, as well as our previous relationships and upbringing. We ultimately guess what someone else is thinking without actually waiting to hear what they have to say. Whilst a small amount of mind-reading can be a useful tool in social settings and can be a sign of empathy and thoughtfulness, if you engage in it a little too much it can lead to feelings of anxiety and sadness. It can create and intensify conflict in relationships, and lead to breakdowns in communication. Even the most intuitive individuals do not know with certainty what is going on in another person’s mind. There’s no utility in trying to infer other people’s thoughts and emotions without explicit evidence, because it just paves the way for conflict, poor communication and animosity.
The importance of acknowledging the way that we think
In order for us to develop into happier people, it’s crucial that we identify our maladaptive thought-processes and acknowledge that these may indeed play a significant role in how we feel on a daily basis. We can ascertain a greater understanding of our thought-processes by engaging in daily journaling practices, or simply being more mindful about how we we interpret and respond to situations. For example, you might notice when you are peering at your reflection in the mirror that you have the unfortunate thought “I am fat” or “I don’t look great”. Or in your working life, you may be in an office every single day for eight hours and you replay rather dramatic thoughts like “I have the worst job. I will never find my passion or purpose in life”. Or after an argument with your partner where they don’t seem to grasp your point of view, you might have the thought “my boy friend never understands me and we always fight”.
It’s important that we identify as many thoughts and perceptions we have throughout the day if we are to change our thinking. It might be useful to focus on one aspect of your life, such as work or relationships if you are finding it overwhelming analysing how you think about certain things. Either way, write down some examples of your thoughts throughout the day even if you don’t think they might be examples of distorted thinking. You can simply write down “today as I was looking in the mirror, I had the thought that I was fat and unappealing”. Once you have identified the thought, it’s important to then explore how that thought has made you feel, and whether this has lead to maladaptive or unwanted patterns of behaviour.
The next thing you can do in this process is challenge the validity of the problematic thought, reducing its relevance and the impact that it has on you feelings and behaviours. In the aforementioned example, you might point out that the phrase “I am fat” is illogical and irrelevant – because “fat” is a subjective term that doesn’t particularly make sense as an objective descriptive word. One cannot be fat, but rather one merely has body fat. Similarly, the phrase “I am unappealing” is not an objective fact, but overtly an (unfair) appraisal of your reflection in the mirror. You can dispute this interpretation by pointing out examples of times where you have felt more body confident, or by highlighting all the amazing and productive things your body can do.
Another tool you can utilise to assist in changing our thoughts is by reframing our initial and automatic interpretation. Rather than immediately reacting to what another person has said or done based on your inference of their intention, you can try and reframe the situation in your mind. You can think of three alternative interpretations in order to reframe the situation and hopefully create a more adaptive response. For example, if an acquaintance from school who you thought were on friendly terms with fails to acknowledge you in the street, your first interpretation might be that they ignored you because they did not like you at school and wanted to avoid a conversation with you. This negative interpretation would lead to feelings of rejection and possibly anger. However, if you stop and reframe the situation, you may find that your initial interpretation does not have much evidence to support it. The school friend may have missed seeing you and it was unintentional that they didn’t acknowledge you. Perhaps they had a dreadful day at work and were too focussed on simply getting through the day that they didn’t notice you. Ultimately, these explanations have as much validity as the initial perception, but they do not cause you to feel confused, anxious or sad.
Ultimately, we all have ways in which we interpret the world around us, and these interpretations have a direct influence on our feelings and behaviours. For us to increase our levels of happiness and experience as much contentment as possible, we need to acknowledge the role that our cognitions, and our cognitive distortions, play in our lives. By exploring how we have grown to interpret our interactions with other people, we can work on ways to change our thought-patterns to be more adaptive and positive. This will have beneficial ramifications on our relationships with other people, as we won’t be so consumed by trying to interpret what they might mean, but simply giving people the benefit of the doubt. Moreover, reducing our cognitive distortions paves the way for flexible and adaptive thinking, which can only serve to enhance our emotional wellbeing and create more security and less anxiety overall.