If you ever feel in your gut that what you are thinking about yourself, or about a situation, is not really true but you are still not able to shake away the feeling, and you feel yourself being pulled down on account of that, you may be experiencing the effect of cognitive distortions.

Like if you think you are no good because you have made mistakes in the past, or if you think your boss is angry at you because he did not smile at you in the morning, or if you think that if you do not score above 90% in your exams, your life is over, these cognitive distortions are at play.

Simply put, cognitive distortions are thought patterns that convince us of things that are not necessarily true. Since our mental well being depends upon the thoughts that cross our minds these work very heavily on us in case of negative thought patterns. We may keep feeling that we are right in our assessment of the situation and may end up making either ourselves, or others, or both, miserable.

There are at least fifteen cognitive distortions that touch us some time or the other, some more than the other, and sometimes more than one at the same time. Recognising that we are being a victim to these cognitive distortions allows us to deal with the situation in a more rational way and sometimes is instrumental in helping us salvage our breaking or broken relationships, as well as lifting our own sense of self esteem.

Over the next four blogs, we will touch upon these fifteen distortions, recognising them and how to counter them.

  1. Filtering: As the name suggests, filtering refers to leaving out something – in this case, the positives. Like using a camera filter that allows light of a specific kind and filters out what is unneeded. It is developing a blinkered view of what can be seen and leaving out what goes against a view that one has formed. For example, if a person generally feels like a failure, and he disregards the promotion he has been given, with a dismissive ‘it was a mistake’, or ‘anyone could have done what I did’, but dwells upon the negative only, he is a victim of this distortion.

To beat this, one needs to closely look at all these situations and objectively see both sides of the coin. One can use Socratic questioning technique and ask oneself if what they are feeling is really absolutely true or are there points that they have been ignoring. What is the evidence in favour of their thinking and what is the evidence against? Is there a different way of looking at things or is theirs the only way? And, am I looking at the situation through a negative filter? If so, only the negatives will pass through and the positives will be left out.

  1. Black or White thinking: Life is never either Black or White. There are various shades of grey in between and all of us fall somewhere in this spectrum. But a person with this distortion working on his brain fails to understand that sometimes. So he is either perfect, or a complete failure. There is no in-between. Thus, if a student says, if I don’t score 90% in my exams, I am a failure. Or, if an executive says if I don’t get the promotion this year, I am no good, they are both disregarding the importance of doing well, despite not getting what they want.

One needs to be realistic in life to be able to counter this distortion. If I work on the premise that I am perfect and I am not allowed to make mistakes, I will always remain a victim of this distortion. If however, I realise that it is alright, and even healthy, to make mistakes, I will be able to release myself from this prison that I have trapped myself into.

If I develop an attitude where I am comfortable with being good at things and allowing myself an occasional slip, I’m good. Like having a cheat day in my diet or skipping gym in favour of a party once in a while, should be acceptable slips and should not bog me down.

  1. Overgeneralisation: Based on one bad experience with a girl, if someone decides that all women are cheats and undependable, he is overgeneralising. He is not making allowance for the fact that there might be others who may not be that way. This leads to disappointment and shutting down avenues which one can explore.

Or if after an accident someone says ‘it happens only with me – I never catch a good break’, he has fallen prey to Overgeneralisation as well.

One needs to look at the situation mindfully and arrive at a more accurate perspective. Is it really true that ALL women are undependable? Or is it possible that there are some women who are loyal, and truthful as well? And is it also true that there are some men, even who are cheats and undependable? Would it be fair to brand all men as thus, in that case?

Also, is it true that it ALWAYS happens ONLY with me? Or have there been times when I have actually had good breaks? And have I not seen others having bad breaks? Is such an absolute statement actually true?

Looking at these things more mindfully and asking oneself the right questions allows us to get past these distortions and enables us to have a more accurate and hence more palatable view of life. In the next blog, we will look at Jumping to Conclusions, Catastrophising, Personalisation and Control Fallacies.