This article is part of our discussion on cognitive distortions.I cover 10 common cognitive distortions. So just as a refresher, cognitive distortions happen when our thinking gets twisted or exaggerated. But many of the time we do not notice that we’re thinking this way. It often likes true, so we just go with it. But cognitive distortions make us feel more sad, anxious, depressed, or ashamed because we end up believing something that isn’t necessarily true or helpful.
Learning to recognize the common cognitive distortions is the first step to gaining some power over cognitive distortions in your life. In this article, you’re going to learn how to challenge and replace those distorted thoughts. You can change how you think so that you can change how you feel. But before we jump into that, we need to talk about the benefits of distorted thinking. Relationships can be hard, and I think a lot of people feel stuck and trapped in a bad relationship, or they feel like they just aren’t capable of having a good one. But here’s the thing: having healthy relationships is a skill that can be learned.
In my article you’ll learn how to create safety, how to manage stress in a relationship, how to change how you feel, and how to foster joy. Imagine how it would feel if when a problem comes up in your relationships, you knew that it was figureoutable. Everyone says “Be positive,” but almost everyone spends some time thinking negatively. Why is that? Distorted thinking kind of screws us over in the long run, but we do it because in the short term it has some benefits. So the first benefit of negative thinking is that it’s comfortable. So have you ever heard someone say, “I’d rather expect to fail and be pleasantly surprised than expect to succeed and be disappointed”? Negative thinking is just another subtle method to attempt to avoid pain. We seek to protect ourselves from disappointment by expecting the worst or by labeling ourselves as broken. So let me give you an example. Let’s start with the first cognitive distortion, all or nothing thinking.
If you look carefully at each type of cognitive distortion, you’ll see that it does something for you. It has a secondary gain, a benefit that in the long run really isn’t that helpful. Distorted thinking helps us avoid responsibility, prevent risk, or try not to feel so vulnerable. This is called a secondary gain. We don’t notice that we’re doing it, but it does something for us. Cognitive distortions may make you feel vindicated, but in the long run, thinking this way leaves you miserable. Okay, second benefit of distorted thinking is it’s easy. It takes a little effort. Maybe we learned to think this way from a parent or we developed this way of thinking to cope with stressors, but when this type of thinking is habitual it changes from a defense mechanism to a paradigm.
The whole way that we see the world becomes distorted, and this leads to depression and anxiety and anger, loneliness and unachieved dreams. So again, short-term avoidance leads to long-term suffering. The another benefits we get from negative thinking make it difficult to let go of. It’s often not helpful to say “Just be positive” because people just don’t believe or don’t want to risk believing the positive thoughts. If we want to overcome distorted or negative thinking, we have to recognize our thinking, explore what it does for us, and replace it with more truthful or more helpful thinking.
I challenged you to identify which type of cognitive distortions you use. In this section, I want you to write about those secondary gains you get from thinking this way, how it maybe serves to protect you or if it helps you avoid uncomfortable emotions. I Now that you’ve identified what you get out of distorted thinking, let’s explore how to change it. Think about a recent time you got really emotional, or you can use this activity the next time you do.
So we’re gonna use James’s example to look for these distortions and get started changing them. One of the running themes in James’ thinking was that he is a loser, he was a failure, that he was never going to be successful or able to achieve his dreams of becoming a pilot. He would tell himself, “I’m such a loser. I’m never going to amount to anything. I lose at eachthing.” Okay, so the first thing to do is to notice and to name. This is learning to identify how you think. Now because we don’t know we’re thinking falsely, it’s really helpful to get the help of a therapist or a friend or write down how you’re thinking about a situation.
So in therapy, I So in therapy, I would help James identify the cognitive distortions in his thinking. When he says, “My life will always be a failure,” I would help him notice that he’s catastrophizing. When he says, “I’m such a loser,” I would help him notice that he was labeling himself. When he says, “I fail at everything,” I would help him notice he’s using black and white thinking.
So then next, check for distortions. So for example, start to catch yourself when you say words like always or never or when you’re making assumptions, and then you can say, “Oh, that is black and white thoughtful.” In treatment, I assist James attention many time he declare consistently or nor. Over the course of a couple sessions, James started to notice himself talking this way, and then he would start to catch himself. So then instead of saying, “I fail at everything,” he starts saying I messed up that job interview, but maybe the next one will go better. Or “At least I have more opportunities to interview for other jobs.” Third, explore. What does this thought do for you? Is there any benefit?
Does this thought give you a sense of control? Does it help you avoid taking responsibility, or does it protect you from feeling vulnerable? James was able to see that most of his distorted thinking just helped him to stop trying. It excused him from putting in the effort to go to a trade school or to work on his resume, and it gave him an excuse to just spend more time gaming. When James was able to see how his mind was distorting things, it made him kind of mad. And that helped him get motivated to do something different. Okay, now is where you challenge the thought. So here’s a couple of ways to do that, right. If you told this thought to your kindest, most reasonable, rational friend or family member, what would they say to you about this thought? You could ask yourself, what would you tell a friend if they had this thought to help them? And you could ask yourself, are there some other ways of seeing this problem? You could try reframing your thinking.
That means looking at the problem from a distinct viewpoint. And you could check out the six-pack exercise to learn more about that. Look for exceptions to this thought. Is your statement partially wrong or is your way of thinking possibly false? In at least one situation, you try to see both sides of a situation. People are usually a combination of good and bad. Situations have pros and cons. And watch for extreme wording, and try to be precise instead. So alternatively of saw, “You never take out the waste,” say “You did not take out the trash today. This is becoming a plan.” Okay, here’s another method to challenge your thinking. Just try thinking the opposite for just a second. And then what action would that motivate if you did believe the opposite? And which action is going to be more helpful?
So, for example, if I believe that I’m always going to be a failure, that motivates me to quit, right. That’s the action it motivates, so if I believe the opposite – I can be successful in the future – then that would motivate me to take action towards success. Another thing to do is to ask yourself, how would your life be different if you stopped believing that thought? Just do that thought experiment, and then choose. So out of all the different ways you could think about a situation, which one is going to be the most helpful for you? If you were to be more truthful or more hopeful or more vulnerable, what would you think or say or do differently?
When James would tell himself that he was a failure and that his life was hopeless, we started to challenge that thinking. James started to think differently. So instead of saying, “Everything is hopeless,” he would say, “Oh, that didn’t go very well.” Or he would say, “What can I learn from this?” And instead of saying, “I’m a failure,” he would say, “I made a mistake, but I can try little by little to change just one thing at a time.” Instead of saying, “I hate my job,” he would say, “I don’t enjoy work, but there’s other parts of my life that I do enjoy.” He learned to focus on progress and not perfection. He would say things like, “Oh, just because I haven’t found the success I want yet, it doesn’t mean I never will. I’m going to keep trying until I get there.” After we challenged his distorted thinking, James was feeling a little bit more motivated. He started doing one small thing each day to improve his life.
He started exercising just a little, he started looking for a better job, he started working on his resume, and he started taking one online class at a time. Before long he had left his job at the restaurant and he’d gotten trained to be a commercial truck driver. So this job paid a lot more, but it also freed him up to take courses that he could listen to while he drove. So he started taking courses on things like money management, and then he would save his paychecks and started paying off his debt. He took courses on how to have better relationships and on other topics on how to improve his life.
And at this point he still hasn’t achieved his goal of becoming a pilot, but he’s starting to feel even more optimistic about the future, and he doesn’t struggle with depression as much as he did before. You really can learn to change how you feel by changing how you think, and it starts with just these little baby steps. Noticing how you think, identifying if it’s distorted thinking, challenging your thoughts, looking for different ways to think, and then choosing which type of thought is going to help you live the life that you value. Use the exercise in the workbook to practice CBT on yourself, and start getting your life headed in a more positive and empowered direction.