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Cognitive Distortions: The Unhelpful Stories we Tell Ourselves

As a therapist, one of my jobs is to help you identify thinking patterns that may not be serving your growth and well being. Unhelpful thinking patterns are also called cognitive distortions. These are thoughts that aren't factual, true, or helpful. I often refer to thinking patterns as stories that you tell yourself. In today’s post, I’m going to dive into common cognitive distortions that may be popping up in your life.

Your brain is a storyteller

Thoughts can be seen as a story created by your brain. When something happens in your life, your brain automatically gets to work interpreting and creating meaning behind the event. This is how we learn from our experiences. When we experience an event that is especially intense (either positive or negative) our brain is likely to create a story or thought pattern about that event. In the future, if a similar event occurs, your brain will pull that story out and use it to guide your behavior. We all have a lot of information to process in a day, so it can be helpful for the brain to create these stories to help us act quickly in familiar situations. However, when your brain creates a story that is inaccurate, unhelpful, and prompts you to behave counter to your goals, that story can be considered a cognitive distortion.

Helpful stories versus unhelpful stories

Sometimes the stories the brain creates are really helpful for survival. Other times, not so much. For example, if you burn yourself on a hot stove as a child, your brain is going to quickly learn that stoves are potentially dangerous and that you should use caution. In this case, the story your brain has created is mostly helpful. There’s not really a downside to being careful around hot stoves, so this isn’t really a cognitive distortion.

Alternatively, let’s say that in your first romantic relationship, your partner cheats on you. This painful experience may cause your brain to tell the unhelpful story “everyone cheats so nobody can be trusted.” This story makes it hard for you to form other happy relationships. It’s also not very accurate because there are people out there who are trustworthy. This story is a good example of a cognitive distortion.

Common unhelpful thought patterns

There are a few common categories of cognitive distortions that pop up for many people. Do you recognize any of these in yourself?

  • Catastrophizing- also known as “worst case scenario” thinking. If your friend is late to meet you for dinner, your first thought is that they’ve died in a car accident.

  • Overgeneralization- Making assumptions about a broad category of things based on a limited experience. You’ve been cheated on once by a man, so all men are dishonest and untrustworthy.

  • Black and white thinking- a.k.a all-or-nothing thinking. If you fail one test, you’re doomed to fail out of college, not find a good job, and die penniless and alone.

  • Personalization- Assuming you’re to blame or that an event is about you. If your boss is grumpy, you assume she is mad at you because of a mistake you made, despite no evidence.

  • Minimization/maximization- You make too much or too little of something. You write one lame blog post, so you’re a bad writer overall. Or, you write 15 great blog posts, but they don’t really matter and you’re still a bad writer.

  • Mind reading- Assuming you know what another person is thinking without actually asking. Your girlfriend doesn’t answer your text so she must hate you and want to end it.

  • Jumping to conclusions- Making an assumption based on a limited set of facts. You get home from work and none of the chores have been done. You assume your teenager forgot to do it because they were being lazy. In actuality, the teen got home from late school and is finishing a big project.

Impact of unhelpful stories

Unhelpful stories can cause a lot of painful emotions and poor decision making. People often become fused with unhelpful stories to the extent that they don’t recognize that their thoughts are not facts. In fact, we are all free to ignore our unhelpful thoughts, gather more facts about the situation, and choose a course of action that feels more balanced and realistic. A therapist can help you learn to identify unhelpful stories and create new ones that better serve your life. If this sounds like something you’d like to work on, please reach out to me today to set up an appointment.

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