How Your Brain Lies To You: Cognitive Distortions and How to Reprogram Your Thinking

Our minds can sometimes deceive us. Cognitive distortions, often referred to as thinking traps, are negative thought patterns that distort our perception of reality, leading to irrational beliefs and emotions. Understanding and addressing these cognitive distortions can pave the way for a healthier and more balanced mindset. In this blog, we’ll delve into the world of cognitive distortions, shed light on common types, and explore practical strategies to break free from their grip, ultimately fostering a more positive and resilient mental outlook.

The Little Prince Analogy

Jen Sincero talks about beliefs in her book You Are a Badass At Making Money. While the focus of her book is about building wealth, you can replace money with work, relationships, parenting, self-esteem, or anything else you’re working on.

The subconscious mind is like a seven-year-old prince who suddenly becomes king when his father dies: he’s running the kingdom of your adult life based on information that he gathered, and processed, while doing somersaults and pulling down his pants in the front yard. Meaning, he didn’t really process any of it at all.

When you’re born, you don’t have any attitudes and beliefs about money. You arrive blank, open, game for anything. You base your “truth” about money on what you learn from the people around you and the experiences you have. All this information flows into your subconscious mind before your brain has matured and developed any sort of filter or analytical ability to be like, Hold on a minute, just because Mom and Dad fight about money all the time doesn’t mean money is bad. It could mean he’s jealous that she makes more than he does. Or that she wants him to pay more attention to her so she picks fights with him.

When you’re a kid, all this information comes in through a much simpler, kid-sized perspective, meaning you take what’s right in front of you at face value. So, with this example where you grew up seeing your parents fight about money, you might believe money = fighting= scary = bad. Or: If I make money, I will be yelled at and unlovable. Or: Money scares… me because it looks like someone’s about to get hit every time the topic comes up. And this information, in this very basic emotional form, gets lodged in your subconscious mind like a meat cleaver as the truth. And there it remains for the rest of your life (unless you reprogram it…), serving you well if it’s positive and helpful, and frustrating… you if it holds you back from creating the life you desire.

What are Cognitive Distortions?

Cognitive distortions are patterns of thinking that involve inaccuracies, biases, or irrational beliefs. These distortions can lead individuals to perceive reality in a skewed or negative way, influencing their emotions, behaviors, and decision-making. Cognitive distortions are common and can affect people’s mental health, self-esteem, relationships, and overall well-being. These distortions typically arise from cognitive biases, which are automatic and unconscious mental shortcuts the brain uses to process information. A central tenant of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is identifying the cognitive distortions present in a person’s thinking and adjusting them to be more accurate. Many people find that having more accurate thinking alleviates their depression, anxiety, and other mental health challenges.

Ten Common Types of Cognitive Distortions

  1. All-or-Nothing Thinking (Black-and-White Thinking): This distortion involves viewing situations in extreme, either-or terms, with no middle ground. For instance, someone might see themselves as a complete failure if they make a minor mistake.
  2. Overgeneralization: Overgeneralization occurs when a person draws broad conclusions based on limited evidence or a single negative event. For example, after receiving negative feedback at work, they may believe they are universally incompetent.
  3. Mental Filtering (Selective Attention): Mental filtering involves focusing solely on the negative aspects of a situation while ignoring any positive elements. This often leads to a pessimistic outlook on life.
  4. Catastrophizing: Catastrophizing involves imagining the worst possible outcomes for a situation and exaggerating the potential consequences. This can lead to heightened anxiety and fear.
  5. Personalization: Personalization occurs when individuals take undue responsibility for events or situations that are beyond their control. They may blame themselves for things that are not their fault.
  6. Mind Reading: Mind reading is the assumption that one knows what others are thinking, even without evidence. This can lead to misunderstandings and unnecessary conflicts.
  7. Emotional Reasoning: Emotional reasoning involves believing that because a person feels a certain way, it must be true. For instance, feeling anxious about a social event might lead them to conclude that something terrible will happen.
  8. Should Statements: “Should” statements involve imposing rigid expectations on oneself or others. These can create feelings of guilt, disappointment, or resentment.
  9. Labeling and Mislabeling: This distortion involves attaching negative labels to oneself or others based on past behaviors, rather than seeing the complexity of the individual.
  10. Discounting the Positive: Discounting the positive is the tendency to minimize or dismiss positive experiences or accomplishments, leading to a sense of dissatisfaction or unworthiness.

Challenging Cognitive Distortions

Identify and Label the Distortion

The first step in overcoming cognitive distortions is to recognize them when they occur. This involves becoming aware of your negative thought patterns and identifying the specific cognitive distortion at play. By giving a name to the distortion, such as “all-or-nothing thinking” or “catastrophizing,” you create distance between yourself and the negative thought. This separation helps you realize that these thoughts are not accurate representations of reality, but rather biased interpretations. Increased self-awareness allows you to take a more objective stance towards your thoughts, reducing their emotional impact and giving you greater control over your reactions.

Gather Evidence

Once you have identified the cognitive distortion, the next step is to challenge its validity. Engage in an objective examination of the evidence that supports or contradicts the distorted thought. This process requires you to critically assess whether the negative thought aligns with reality or if it is based on limited information or assumptions. By seeking evidence that contradicts the cognitive distortion, you can gain a more balanced and realistic perspective on the situation. This helps you recognize that the negative thought is not a universal truth, and alternative interpretations are possible.

Cognitive Restructuring

Cognitive restructuring is a powerful technique used to challenge and replace cognitive distortions with more rational and constructive thoughts. Once you have gathered evidence against the distortion, actively work on replacing it with a more realistic and positive belief. For example, if the distorted thought is “I always fail,” reframe it to “I may face challenges, but I have succeeded in the past.” This reframing acknowledges both the existence of challenges and your previous accomplishments, instilling a sense of hope and self-belief. Cognitive restructuring helps break the cycle of negative thinking, fostering a more positive mindset and enhancing your ability to cope with difficulties.

Mindfulness and Meditation

Practicing mindfulness and meditation can be instrumental in managing cognitive distortions. Mindfulness involves being fully present and aware of your thoughts and emotions without judgment. When cognitive distortions arise, mindfulness allows you to observe these thoughts without getting entangled in them emotionally. By becoming an impartial observer, you create a mental space that enables you to detach from the negative thought patterns. Meditation, on the other hand, helps quiet the mind and reduces stress, allowing you to gain clarity and focus. Over time, these practices enhance your resilience and help you respond to cognitive distortions with a calmer and more centered approach.

Seek Professional Help

While self-help strategies can be effective for many individuals, some cognitive distortions may be deeply ingrained or rooted in underlying mental health conditions. In such cases, seeking assistance from a mental health professional is crucial. I like to think about therapy like a personal trainer for the mind. The trainer can help you get a better assessment of where you are, teach you healthy habits and routines, and set you up for a lifetime of wellness. A therapist or counselor can provide personalized strategies tailored to your specific needs and help you navigate the complexities of cognitive distortions. Professional guidance can offer a safe and supportive environment to explore and address underlying issues, facilitating long-term growth and well-being.

Conclusion

Cognitive distortions are like invisible barriers that limit our perception of reality and hinder personal growth. By understanding and addressing these thinking traps, we can liberate ourselves from negative thought patterns and embrace a more balanced and optimistic mindset. Through techniques such as cognitive restructuring, mindfulness, and seeking professional help when needed, we can overcome cognitive distortions and nurture our mental well-being. Remember that overcoming cognitive distortions is a process that requires patience and practice, but the benefits of a more constructive and empowering mindset are well worth the effort.

Find Your Next Read:

When to Seek Therapy and How to Find the Right Psychologist

Emotions 101: Why We Have Emotions and What to Do With Them

Overcoming Social Anxiety: Tips for Thriving in Social Situations

Parenting a Child with Anxiety: Insights from a Psychologist