As discussed in the previous chapter, cognitive distortions are thought patterns that may convince us of things that are not necessarily true or correct. Since our mental wellbeing depends upon the thoughts that cross our minds, these distortions can cause severe damage in case of negative thought patterns. We may keep feeling that we are right in our assessment of the situation, may make incorrect decisions, may take incorrect actions, and may end up making either ourselves, or others, or both, miserable.
Some cognitive distortions may impact us more than others and sometimes more than one distortion may be present at the same time. Recognizing that you are a victim to these cognitive distortions may enable you to deal with the situation in a more rational way. It may be instrumental in helping you salvage your breaking or broken relationships, looking at the world from a more accepting point of view and lifting your own sense of self-esteem.
Cognitive distortions are also very sneaky. They make their way into our lives and take over our thinking so sneakily that sometimes we do not even realize when we become the victims to these distortions until they are pointed out to us. More awareness and internalization of these distortions and modifying behavior through cognitive restructuring will make our thinking more adaptive and speed up the recovery process. We shall touch upon nine cognitive distortions, recognizing them and learning how to counter them. Read, re-read and internalize them in such a manner that if you have a thought, your categorization should immediately kick in and you are able to mindfully stop yourself from giving in to the distortion. Unless you know these well enough to explain them to a five-year old, you don’t understand them well enough. So, read them again.
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. Filtering, as a cognitive distortion, refers to developing a blinkered view of what one sees and leaving out what goes against the view that one has formed. For example, whenever you get a harm thought, you may pointedly notice it, but when you don’t get a harm thought in the presence of something that can be construed as a weapon, you do not acknowledge it or do not even realize that you haven’t gotten the obsessive thought. This means you may be filtering out all the times you do not get a thought and may believe that you ALWAYS get the harm thought, which causes you to become anxious.
For cognitive restructuring in this distortion, you need to closely look at all these situations and objectively see both sides of the coin. You can ask yourself whether your feelings are absolutely true or not. Or there are points that you have been ignoring. What is the evidence in favor of your thinking and what is the evidence against? Is there a different way of looking at things or is yours the only way? Are you looking at the situation through a negative filter? If so, only the negatives will pass through and the positives will be left out. When you learn to look at the situation from a rounded perspective rather than at an episodic level, you may be able to see more clearly and reject the filtered thinking for a more appropriate view.
2. Black or white thinking: Life is never either black or white. There are various shades of grey in between and all our situations, achievements, objectives, goals and so on may fall somewhere on this spectrum. But a person with this distortion may sometimes fail to understand this. So, he is either perfect, or a complete failure. There is no in-between. Thus, if your mind tells you that to be a good person you are allowed to have zero harm thoughts, you may consider yourself to be a terrible person just because of a few stray harm thoughts and you become a victim of this cognitive distortion. You may need to develop a realistic view in life for cognitive restructuring in this distortion by realizing that it is alright, and even healthy, for you to be imperfect and to make mistakes sometimes, that it is common for everyone to have harm thoughts and that does not make one a bad person, you may be able to release yourself from this cage that you have trapped yourself in. The pressure to always be perfect or have low self-worth will be lifted and you may be able to accept yourself a lot more.
3. Overgeneralization: Based on one bad experience with a girl, if someone decides that all women are cheaters and undependable, he may be a victim of the cognitive distortion of overgeneralizing. He may not be making allowance for the fact that other girls may not be that way. This may lead to disappointment and resentment and possible shutting down of avenues which he could have explored.
Or if after a breakup someone says ‘it happens only with me – I never catch a good break’, he may have fallen prey to overgeneralization as well. He may not be open to the idea that her generalization is not true. Particularly in Harm OCD, based on one incident in the past where you may have fought with a friend as a child and ended up hurting him more than you wanted to, if you decide that you are a horrible person who always wants to hurt others you may be overgeneralizing.
In this case, you may need 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? Is it also true that there are some men who are cheaters and undependable too? Would it be fair to brand all men as cheaters, 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? Have I not seen others having bad breaks? Is such an absolute statement actually true? Finally, in relation to the Harm OCD thought, is it really true that you always enjoy the thought of hurting others? Or is there evidence that proves that you have not only refrained from hurting others when you could, but also did not enjoy it when you did? Is it also true that others may have hurt you by mistake? Would it be fair to brand all such people as psychopaths, in that case? Are such absolute statements actually true or am I exaggerating and overgeneralizing? An accurate assessment of these absolute statements may help us realign our thinking to a more correct position.
4. Jumping to conclusions: When we end up making decisions without considering all possibilities or all variables, we may be victims of the cognitive distortion called jumping to conclusions. There may not be sufficient evidence to prove the conclusion that we may have arrived at. This distortion often manifests itself in one of two types – mind reading or future seeing.
For example, if you end up causing someone an injury by mistake, you may end up thinking – everyone must have realized what an evil person I am and they must hate me for it, it would be an example of mind reading. If this makes you think that your friends will stop being friends with you because of a mistake like that, it would be an example of future seeing. Since these thoughts may lead to an estimation of whether you are a good person or not and determine your actions, it would be wise to challenge these negative thoughts. You may once again, need to take stock of all the evidence you have.
In the case of mind reading, you may ask yourself questions like did I cause the injury on purpose? Was the injury so terrible that people will hate me for that? Do I have any evidence that people indeed hate me? In the case of future seeing, you could ask yourself if your mistake is really reason enough for your friendships and other relationships to go South. Do you have any evidence at all that your feeling will necessarily come true? Getting correct responses to these questions may help you in dealing with this cognitive distortion better.
5. Catastrophizing: Catastrophizing is taking a minor incident and blowing it out of proportion – imagining the worst possible outcome where any number of possibilities may exist. For example, if you happen to have left the toilet cleaner bottle within reach of your child by mistake, instead of making room for the possibility that it may not be an honest mistake, you may choose to believe that you did that on purpose with the intention of hurting your child and that you are a bad father. You may further think that your partner will leave you because of this and that you will be left alone in the world without any help or emotional support. This may lead you to feel depressed about yourself.
To deal with this, ask yourself this simple question ‘Even though what I think is a possibility, what really is the probability that it will actually come true?’ You may realize, again when you put all the evidence together, that even though the possibility exists, the probability of something like that coming true is minuscule. You may recollect that there may have been similar instances in the past when your partner was understanding about them and also when you have been understanding about the mistakes that your partner may have made. So, is the assumption that you are making even remotely true?
6. Personalization: Personalization is when you think that you are totally or partially responsible for everything bad that happens around you, including acts of God. For example, if your co-worker is feeling unwell, you may wonder if it is because you poisoned them in some way. Your mind does not allow you to consider the possibility that your co-worker’s illness may be because of some bug they may have caught and may have nothing to do with you.
Once again, this is a result of not looking at the various possibilities and only choosing to pick the one that causes the most anxiety. When you are a little more mindful of the other possibilities and choose not to dwell on that one possibility that seems real, despite lack of evidence, you may be able to better handle the distortion.
7. Control fallacy: Control Fallacy refers to the distorted thinking related to control. It may manifest in two ways. You may have the feeling of being totally in control of (read, responsible for) situations around you or the feeling of not being in control at all. In Harm OCD it manifests in the first way – that you are responsible for everything happening around you. You may disregard the importance of external factors in any event. For example, thinking that you (and only you) are responsible for any accident in your town is a control fallacy. So, you may keep checking the news for your name to appear and keep waiting for the police to accost you when there is an accident.
On the flip side, thinking that if you have an urge to hit someone, you will not be able to control it at all and that your hand will automatically pick up a weapon and hit someone is also an example of this fallacy. If without your active motor intervention, you are not able to even lift a finger off the table, how will causing harm to someone happen automatically? Insight is important in identification of control fallacy and disallowing it to govern your decisions and actions.
8. Shoulds: Also called ‘Rigid Rule Keeping’, this is a situation when we have a list of rules about the way things should be. If things aren’t the way we want them to be, it affects us. If we have these rules for ourselves, it upsets us, if we break any of them. When we create rules for ourselves and for others that do not have a basis in logic, but are more out of stubbornness, we may end up making ourselves miserable or angry when the rules are not followed. For example, if you believe that you should not get harm thoughts when you pick up a hammer, you are engaging in rigid rule keeping. Understanding that the words ‘should’, ‘must’, ‘ought to’, and ‘have to’ constrain us and make us rigid, can help us deal with this distortion better.
9. Emotional reasoning: ‘I feel it, therefore it must be true’. When we are not able to separate fact from feeling and think that whatever we feel is actually true, we may let emotional reasoning get the better of us. If you feel that you really want to harm your child despite loving him so much just because you have had harm thoughts (brought about by your Harm OCD), you may be allowing emotional reasoning to cloud your judgment. The feeling here is that you are a bad person. The fact is that you know that everyone gets harm thoughts. But you choose to let the feeling decide the course of action and not the facts of the situation. The solution to this distortion is to be mindful about separating fact from feeling and be able to operate from the fact mindset, rather than the feeling mindset.
At some level, most people may be aware of some cognitive distortions at play in their lives, even if they can’t name them. They may still be unable to change themselves. As can be seen, sometimes multiple cognitive distortions work together to contort our worldviews for us. In the interest of our own mental wellbeing, it is important to know about these distortions and make sure that they are properly identified, dealt with, and eliminated. Worksheet 2.3 has been provided to practice cognitive restructuring. Fill it in regularly as a way of restructuring your thinking as a habit and you will find your cognition changing over a period of time.