Putting Thoughts on Trial – Part II
Cognitive Distortions: Focusing on the Future
When we begin to think negative thoughts about ourselves, the truth is that we’re not very creative, and the thoughts tend to fall into identifiable and predictable categories. In cognitive behavioral therapy, we call these “cognitive distortions” and they often operate as traps that keep us stuck in inaction.
In addition to asking yourself some basic questions about the nature of the belief, such as whether it is true, whether it is helpful, and whether it is under your control (LINK TO PART ONE), it is important to run these negative thoughts through the test of these common cognitive distortions.
Jumping to Conclusions
In a number of ways, anxiety can be thought of as an evolutionary advantage in that at one point in human existence, worrying about potential threats, identifying them, seeking safety, and increasing focus on doing things well was all essential for our survival. This in the context of today’s world where survival is less dependent upon meeting basic needs for safety and more focused on our ability to experience love and belonging, denotes a context where that anxiety is no longer adaptive.
Remaining stuck in trying to predict the future (fortune telling), interpreting the meaning of a situation without adequate evidence (mind reading), and thus expecting things to turn out badly, are all symptoms of this maladaptive anxiety in the ways that it is not serving you.
For example, believing that you will not be successful in a job interview despite thorough preparation, assuming that “they think I’m dumb” and your choice to subsequently protect yourself by not putting yourself out there will likely lead to dissatisfaction. As with this example, often it is not only the maladaptive belief, but one’s response to it (by not trying) that creates difficulty in one’s life.
Catastrophizing and Disqualifying the Positive
Similarly, falling into the trap of catastrophizing is believing that one’s mistakes are excessively important, and escalated to a point within one’s own mind where the focus is placed on the worst possible outcome of a situation. Within this state of mind, the smallest indiscretion leads one to believe that they will lose all progress, all support, all that they have worked for.
In recovery, this may be best explained by the difference between a “lapse” and a “relapse”. What differs between the two concepts begins with the self-talk that is told to oneself in the moment of fault, and whether the mistake can be viewed within the context of the positive accomplishments of recovery thus far, or only as proof of overall failure.
Coupled with the thought trap of ‘disqualifying the positive’, one may be active in their choice to ignore the good things that have happened and focus only on the negative evaluations they have received. A choice, in this case, to look for the positive would be the antidote to allowing these types of thoughts to take over.
One of the most destructive types of thinking traps is making “all-or-nothing” statements, whether internally towards the self, or relationally towards others. This might look like saying things to yourself like “I always disappoint everyone”, or “every time I try, I just end up making it worse”. Similarly, telling someone you’re in a relationship with that they “never do the dishes”, and are “always late” tends to invite arguments rather than produce productive problem-solving.
Using the language of absolutes such as ‘always’ ‘never’, and ‘every’ is unhelpful in that it does not leave room for there to be alternative explanations for the times that the opposite has been true. Thoughts like these fixate the mind on the negative and ignore the possibility for alternative explanations.
Solution-focused therapy encourages taking the opportunity to look for solutions among the times when the problem at hand does not present as an issue and replicating that which works. Without first admitting that there are times when this is not a problem, one is closed off from those solutions as well.
Continue reading about cognitive distortions and how to take ownership of your thoughts in our next post!