Your brain lies to you on a regular basis. How do we know? Follow the steps in this video:
1) Magnification. When you look in the mirror in the morning, do you zoom in on zits? Wrinkles? Do you then use that image to conclude you are ugly? This is magnifying. It’s hyper-focusing on the negative to the exclusion of the rest of the picture.
Why it’s a distortion. It’s like a camera outside on a beautiful day zoomed in on a pile of dog sh*t.
2) Negative Self-Labeling. How do you talk to yourself when you make a mistake? Do you think things like “I’m stupid, I’m a failure, I’m a loser, I’m worthless”? It is name-calling – just like in the schoolyard, and really just plain mean.
Why it’s a distortion. Would you ever be as mean to a friend as you are to yourself? When a friend makes a mistake, do you judge them stupid? If a friend fails at something, do you think they are a failure? Even if a friend does something wrong, do you think they are worthless?
3) Catastrophizing. When someone is late, do you worry that they were in an accident? If you make a mistake on a project, do you worry you will be fired? This is catastrophizing – expecting the worst case scenario.
Why it’s a distortion. How often has the worst case scenario actually played out in your life? Think back to worries that you have had in the past – worries that you were 100% sure about. Have they all come true?
4) Always/Never. “I always say the wrong thing.” “This always happens to me.” “People are always mean.” “I can never rely on anyone.” Directing always and never thoughts at yourself causes low self-esteem. Directing them at others causes difficulty sustaining relationships and disappointment in life.
Why it’s a distortion. There is “always” a counter-example :).
5) Personalization/Overestimated Control and Responsibility. Personalization is an odd combination of both overestimating and underestimating your place in the world. You feel so unworthy that when something goes wrong, you worry that it’s your fault, even when you had nothing or very little to do with it. For example, your child comes home with the flu. Instead of noticing it is going around the school, you think, “this wouldn’t have happened if I had made him wear a jacket.” Or, your friend seems unhappy. Instead of assuming he’s tired or had a bad day, you think, “I must have done something wrong.”
Why it’s a distortion. No matter how much you love someone, you cannot live their life. And most people are thinking about their own path and not about you.
6) Superstition. Most people scoff at the idea of superstition, but have you ever told yourself not to “get your hopes up”? When you come up with a brilliant idea, do you preface it with, “I don’t know if it will work, but….” If you prevent yourself from enjoying the anticipation, you condition your mind toward pessimism. Not only does this take the joy out of life, it also becomes self-fulfilling.
Why it’s a distortion. Willing yourself not to get your hopes up will never help you to succeed. At best it will not affect the outcome. At worst, it will sabotage the outcome because you will lose the creativity and confidence to move forward.
7) Negatively Biased Mind-Reading. Mind reading is a type of over-personalization. You assume that people are thinking badly of you when often they aren’t thinking about you at all. Have you ever heard of “resting bitch face”? I was so relieved when I learned it was a thing. There have been so many times when I assumed someone was judging me, only to find out that their expression was just their normal face!
Why it’s a distortion. Have you ever found out that you were wrong after assuming you knew what someone was thinking? Has anyone ever been wrong about what you were thinking? We all have our own minds, and there is no way to get inside another’s.
8) Fear of Judgement/Need for Approval. People are social animals. It is human to want to be liked. But when you worry too much about what people think, you lose yourself. You become a chameleon and change your skin. You do anything to please them. That may make someone like you for the moment, but the relationship will be superficial and unsatisfying for both of you.
If I could blink and make you give up one distortion, this would be it. You simply cannot have confidence in yourself or live the life you were meant to while worrying about the opinion of others.
Why it’s a distortion. Most people are too busy thinking about themselves to have time to scrutinize and judge you. Ironically, fear of judgment does not make people like you. It makes them uncomfortable because they can never really get to know you. While you may outwardly fool them, there will always be an undercurrent of deception.
9) No-Win Situation. Damned if you do and damned if you don’t. Sometimes in life, there really are no-win situations, such as when you have conflicting responsibilities, and no matter which one you attend to, you will be neglecting the other. However, often we create imaginary conflicts in our mind.
For example, when you have limited time to see friends and a significant other, do you feel guilty no matter who you are with? When two family members need your help do you feel guilty no matter who you help first? No-win situations eventually lead to indecision, paralysis, and excessive guilt, whether they are real or imagined.
Why it’s a distortion. We find ourselves in this predicament because we overemphasize the importance and immediacy of each choice. Did the world end, even once, when you made a choice that you initially thought was no-win? Never. You’re used to feeling bad, so your mind finds a way to oblige.
10) Imposter Syndrome. You work hard. You achieve success, and it feels great! People are impressed. You’re getting praise, admiration. It doesn’t even matter what realm. It can be academic, business, philanthropy, and even social. Whatever it is, after awhile, you start to wonder, “do I really deserve this”? “What happens if I’m exposed as the fraud that I am”? “What happens if I can’t sustain it”? “I’ll disappoint everyone.” “They’ll judge me.” “I’ll judge myself.” “I’ll fail, and I’ll never recover.”
Why it’s a distortion. Albert Einstein, Bill Gates, JK Rowling, George RR Martin. Enough said.
11) Generalized Unworthiness/Inferiority. “All I want is to be happy.” When you’ve been depressed or anxious long enough, that is your most sacred desire. The problem is, you believe that you don’t deserve happiness. So you sabotage your relationships, you sabotage your work, and you punish yourself with thoughts of guilt and shame. You put everyone above yourself and feel uncomfortable around people, certain that they can sense your unworthiness.
Why it’s a distortion. Do you really believe that everyone who has confidence, love, success or happiness “deserve” what they have? Can you not think of one person who has what you want who doesn’t “deserve” it?
12) Comparing to Others. We all do it. We look at other people and think they have a better life, more fun, more friends, more love. The tendency has been around since the time of the bible and was apparently so strong that not coveting had to be spelled out in the 10th commandment. Social media has exponentially worsened the problem, leading to a significant increase in depression.
Why it’s a distortion. How much of yourself do you show to the world? You can never really know what is going on in another person’s life. Most people show only certain parts of themselves, particularly on social media where it is easy to hide behind a screen. It’s as if everyone has their very own public relations specialist. What they show is never the full picture.
13) Should Have/Shouldn’t have. It’s important to learn from our mistakes, but getting stuck in the past will only sabotage your future.
Why it’s a distortion. We are all on a path, and we don’t know where it will lead us. If I had studied more in college, I would have gone to a different law school, never met the love of my life and never had my children who are the grace in my world. The past is over and gone. Every new day provides a clean slate, and the only question is, what will you do with it?
14) All or Nothing/Perfectionism. If I’m not the best, I’m the worst. I’m either smart or stupid. Life is amazing, or it is terrible. When you engage in this distortion, you will regularly find yourself disappointed and beaten down.
Why it’s a distortion. Life is rarely black and white. If you think it is, you are missing the big picture.
15) Hoops before Happiness. “I’ll be happy when I lose the weight.” “I’ll be happy when I make x amount of money.” “I’ll be happy when I get an A.” “I’ll be happy when I get that promotion.” If you live your life with these thoughts, any happiness you have will be short-lived.
Why it’s a distortion. There will always be another hoop.
So how did you do? How many of these cognitive distortions did you find in your thoughts? Let me know in the comments below! Now that you recognize how your thoughts lie to you, it’s time to change them. The next post will show you how. In the meantime, download your Cognitive Distortion Checklist to use when you find yourself in a negative spiral.
VERY good list regardless of what stage of depression you´re in these suggestions are excellent
Thank you Barry! I’m glad you like them. I’ve used them myself for many years. Depressed or not, they make a great reality check. If you like, you can download a summary checklist here: https://beatthebully.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/02/Cognitive-Distortion-Checklist.pdf. My next post will be on how to combat the distortions.