The Stories We Tell Ourselves

One wrong turn leads to the next

All actions have consequences. While not always the case, actions that stem from poor or harmful choices tend to feed into additional bad decisions. This starts a feedback loop, that can affecting our mental outlook on new situations and further entrench those negative actions. At some point, our perceptions of events become wholly distorted. We no longer see things as they are but rely on assumptions based on cognitive distortions to define our reality. The cyclical effect of negative decision-making is a common mechanism leading to depression.


Feedback of positive and negitive choices


In the 1980 book Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy, David Burns popularized helping individuals identifying these distorted perceptions of reality as a means of addressing depression. By understanding the common types of cognitive distortions, individuals can identify the falsehoods, over exaggerations, or non-logical assessments that frame their negative perceptions. Learning how this reactive mechanism shapes your choices can be the first step in breaking the negative feedback loop that is promoting poor choices.

If you’re not suffering from depression, should you care about understanding how and when the most common cognitive distortions appear in your life?

Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Hiadt, authors of The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas are Setting Up a Generation For Failure, make a strong argument that you should. A primary conclusion of the book was that teaching all college students about cognitive distortions will give them a powerful tool for becoming more resilient and self-confident in everyday life. I would extend this to say that not just college students can benefit from these self-assessment tools. Anyone could teach themselves to observe when the mind is developing a largely negative perception of a situation and take a moment to check the validity of those thoughts. Are they real, or are they a cognitive distortion?

My common distortion

The cognitive distortion of magnification (believing something is much more significant than it actually is) is the primary driver behind me choosing to procrastinate. For example, I’m prone to postpone writing emails. I can come up with any number of reason why but regardless of the specific logic, my fault is that I give it much more weight then it deserves. Having procrastinated the task when I had the opportunity to complete it pushes me to start making should statements to internally motivate me to get the task done. Those statements sometime work but they also build a sense of guilt. If I procrastinate long enough, the effects of magnification and should statements grow, pushing me closer to emotional reasoning as there are now multiple negative experience connected to the task and I can begin to view the task itself as a negative action. I can’t just ignore writing the message so by letting myself fall to the cognitive distortions I significantly increasing the mental commitment required to completing the task. I made a simple task hard by not realizing I was misrepresenting reality.

The 10 Cognitive Distortions

All or nothing thinking

  • Having a winner’s take-all perspective or belief that all engagements are a zero-sum game means you are likely to view most circumstances as having simplified binary outcomes. You are unwilling to pursue collaborative effort because you fear the other individuals will take all the credit for the final product.

Overgeneralization

  • We take the result of a single adverse event and apply it to all potential future similar circumstances. You are fired from a job and claim, “I will never find a job again.”

Mental Filter

  • Focus only on the negative elements of a situation. You experience engine trouble on your way home from work. Your car requires repair but does transport you back to your house. You complain about the repair without appreciating that you are not currently stuck on the side of the road.

Discounting the positives

  • You can never do good enough or be happy with the outcomes because you’re too busy thinking about how it could have been better.

Jumping to conclusions

  • The core of most communication issues between people. You make an assumption and use it to set your perspective about how things will come together.

Magnification or minimization

  • You alter the scope of a negative or positive event, thereby increasing or decreasing the significance of the circumstance.

Emotional Reasoning

  • Emotional reasoning occurs when you feel an emotion and use that feeling to define an objective reality.

Should Statements

  • Declaring that you should or must do sometime. These can build a great deal of stress around meeting expectations that may or may not be realistic.

Labeling

  • Categorizing an individual based on a singular experience. Similar to the process of overgeneralization. “I did such a poor job on that presentation. I am such an idiot.”

Personalization and Blame

  • Holding yourself or someone else personally responsible for an event that was not entirely within their control.

Make it better

Understanding the relationship between procrastination and cognitive distortions allows me to get of feel of the true cost of putting off a task. It also provides multiple check points at which I can evaluate if I’m simply fooling myself. Acting on these opportunities to call yourself out on your own misjudgments will make life better. It is a simple thing to do but not easy.

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