Cognitive Distortion 101
To start off, what is disordered thinking, exactly. Disordered thinking is the result of cognitive distortions which are a pattern of irrational or exaggerated thoughts that make up your mental state. Cognitive distortions are the inner thoughts that cause you to falsely perceive reality. For instance, your general mindset is negative in language and perpetrates a pessimistic outlook on life. In this case, something goes wrong in your life, and your reaction looks like “Of course something went wrong. Everything goes wrong” or “I deserve for things to go poorly because I’m not worthy of happiness or success”. Regardless of whether you believe life is awful or you are awful, your cynical viewpoint is detrimental to your mental health and resistive toward positive change.
This is because negative thinking inspires negative emotions which in turn produce more negative thoughts. The frame of mind in which you interpret your circumstances (environment, life events, interactions) shapes how and when you find meaning. For instance, you think things will always go badly, so you acknowledge when things go wrong and overlook moments when things go right.
It is widely agreed that people who suffer from cognitive distortions are more susceptible to depression, and severe, extended, repeated depressive episodes at that. Not only is depression a toll on general mental health, but it is also a large contributing factor to drug and alcohol addiction.
However, there is hope! The key to removing your cognitive distortions is by challenging and changing disordered thinking patterns through cognitive behavioral thinking (CBT) and general mindfulness.
Types of Cognitive Distortions
A lot of people in recovery have a strict, all-or-nothing way of thinking. This black-and-white way of thinking splits life into good or bad. In reality, this simplified thinking hinders you because most things in life are neutral, and not meant to be labeled or judged as positive or negative occurrences. When you are constantly judging you’re every action in recovery as “good” or “bad”, you end up categorizing yourself as “successful” or a “failure”. Due to this, it is important to remember that self-criticism is only helpful and healthy in moderation and through an objective lens. The all-or-nothing mentality is a sickness of the perfectionist.
Instead of regarding things as one or the other, remember that life is full of gray areas. In response, tell yourself that you are “good enough” and acknowledge your “partial successes” with pride.
Overgeneralizing is exactly what it says. When you overgeneralize, you take a single (or small sample size) experience and equate the emotions it evoked to all similar situations. If something bad happens once, you expect it to happen over and over again. For instance, you go to an NA meeting for the first time and the group leader singles you out, making you uncomfortable. When a friend suggests going to a different NA meeting, you dismiss the idea by saying “no way, NA is a cult of jerks” despite the fact that you’ve only been to one meeting.
Alternatively, it is wise to accurately analyze your experiences, giving merit to the myriad of possible outcomes without exaggerating.
Disqualifying the Positive
When you reject your positive experiences, insisting they “don’t count”, you are disqualifying the positive. You can spot when you’re disqualifying the negative by recognizing a persistent skeptical attitude despite contradicting positivity in your life. Disqualifying the negative typically presents as verbal or mental self-judgment like “They don’t care that I’m four months sober, they’re only congratulating me to be nice.” Instead of focusing on success, you focus on the negative aspects. This distortion is common, often associated with all-or-nothing thinking.
Catch yourself when you’re refuting your successes and remind yourself that you are proud.
When you filter your interactions, you pluck out the information that confirms your preconceived biases about yourself and life as a whole. For example, when you have a negative mindset, you subconsciously search experiences for negative exchanges. You then hyperfocus on the one bad and forget the good things that surrounded it.
Start combating this way of thinking by recognizing when it happens and asking yourself if filtering your experience benefits you.
Jumping to Conclusions
When you make assumptions you consider definitive with little to no evidence. For instance, you “mind read” by inferring your friend’s intentions and emotions from their behavior or body language. You take precautions to avoid the worst-case-scenario you’ve created in your head. In this case, you want to ask your mother for helping finding treatment, but you fear her rejection, so you continue using. Another example, you “fortune-tell” by predicting the outcome of an event. You want to quit drinking, but you tell yourself sobriety isn’t possible, so you never attempt to recover.
When you see yourself jumping to conclusions, ask the person what they are actually thinking. Additionally, when you are afraid of future outcomes, ask others if your fears are rational or not.
When you assume the emotions you feel are indicative of reality you use emotional reasoning. Consequently, emotional reasoning leads you to think that your feelings toward a subject relate to facts instead of opinions. For example, if you dislike the way you acted before you got sober, you believe anyone who isn’t in recovery is stupid. Vise versa, you have no problem stopping after one beer, so you think alcoholism isn’t real.
When you share your emotion-based reasoning, listen to how others react. When people are shocked or offended by your statements, take the time to figure out why.
Magnification (or minimization) is the act of misrepresenting the “weight” of the importance of an event. To expand, it is when you blow a situation way out of proportion— giving greater weight to a perceived failure and less weight to perceived success. Often, this is referred to as “making a mountain out of a molehill”. It is common for those who suffer from this distortion to minimize their successes and magnify their failures, having the exact opposite response for other people. An intense form of this is called catastrophizing which presents as the excessive magnification of the worse potential outcome or experiencing an unideal experience as devastating.
Keep in mind that things are typically never as bad as you make them out to be. Apologize for mistakes and move on. Accept failures and celebrate success.
Personalization and Blaming
Personalization is accepting blame for something that was out of their control. For example, you and a friend start your recovery journey together and your friend relapses. You take the blame for your friend’s relapse despite having no control over them. The opposite reaction is blaming distortion which is when you refuse to accept blame for your mistakes. This is considered a “victim mentality”. For example, you back into a car when driving drunk and say the person shouldn’t park so close to another car and expect not to get hit.
Remember that you have a tendency to blame yourself unfairly, and monitor your emotions accordingly.
If you find yourself blaming others, reflect on your part in the situation.
Must and Should Distortion
Too toxic words to remove from your mental dictionary are “must” and “should”. These words are verbal reminders that you expect the world to be different than it is. This is a pointless exercise that tortures the mind— dwelling over things that did or did not happen is a waste of time. For example, you have this distortion in recovery if you tell yourself “I should’ve quit drinking months ago” or “I must complete my 12 Steps in 12 months.” Demanding achievements in the past, present, or future is setting yourself up for disappointment because you’ll move the goal post each time. “Should” and “must” also often backfire. The thing you tell yourself you “should” do may now become unappealing.
Remove words like “must” and “should” from your mind. Take pride in your positive actions and work on fixing negative behaviors. Everything else is out of your control, and that’s okay.
Always Right Distortion
When you believe you are always right, and being wrong is inconceivable, you have this distortion. This typically presents by the person always “proving” that they are correct. Often, you will prioritize yourself over other people.
It is impossible to be right 100% of the time and that is okay.
The change fallacy is when you use social control to force others to act according to your desires. It is the belief that your happiness relies on other people’s actions. In addition, you believe people should change to please you and force them to comply. For example, you’re in a relationship, and your partner is in recovery. You force them to join your friends when you go out drinking despite their concerns about alcohol.
You can’t change other people, and that’s okay— that’s how it should be. Express your desires and understand if others disagree.
The fairness fallacy is the belief that everything should be fair. Often, people who suffer from the fairness fallacy become angry when they perceive situations to be unfair and try to balance the scales. Typically, this fallacy leaves you with an unwarranted sense of justice which you dole out without rational reason.
Justice is not something a singular person can provide. Instead of punishing others, take a step back and sympathize with the person who wronged you.