Cognitive distortions, a concept from cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), refer to biased ways of thinking that contribute to emotional, behavioral and relational difficulties. Everybody engages in this type of illogical thinking from time to time, and for some, it can be at the core of a struggle with depression, anxiety or low self-esteem. The whole premise behind cognitive therapy is to help us think in more rational, broad-minded and productive ways.
In addition to the benefits of reviewing a list of cognitive distortions, I’ve come up with list of “Cognitive Clarities” inspired by the premise behind positive psychology – that we can live more joyful and peaceful lives by not just eliminating the negative, but by continually cultivating the positive. Play around with these mind states and see if it raises your positivity meter.
1.) Prioritize “Needs” over “Wants”
In life, there’s a difference between needs and wants. “Needs” are absolutely necessary to our survival and wellbeing. To experience a decent life, we need a certain amount of food, water, shelter, clothing, energy, love, safety and sense of purpose.
“Wants,” on the other hand, are more optional and often reflect ego. While it’s fun to pursue desires in life, it’s also important to see them for what they are – experiences that may bring us happiness, but on which we should not depend for that very happiness.
So much suffering comes from “wants.” Many people – myself included — are part of the “worried well,” suffering from “first world” problems when we don’t get what we want. While we have our true needs met much of the time, we may still suffer emotionally due to conditioned wants that get confused as needs (e.g., I “need” that shiny new object, promotion at work, or approval from certain people, etc…in order to feel happy).
We’re all wired to want things and that’s not bad. As long as we don’t hang on too tight when we don’t get them, or imbue them with more meaning than they deserve, then we won’t get ourselves into trouble. Often, when we refocus on our true needs, an inner peace arises as we recognize that we have so much already.
Alternatively, it’s near impossible to feel much peace when basic needs go unmet, so check in with yourself about your status in these realms and proceed accordingly. Many folks, including us first worlders, do not experience the deep sense of community and connection that is so human, partly because our culture doesn’t really foster this degree of authenticity and intimacy. So, that’s an area that most of us could continue to look at as a true need to be addressed.
2.) Remove the word “Should” from your vocabulary
Most of us carry around a lot of “shoulds” in our brains. What our parents wanted (or want) for us. What our peers think is the way to live our life. What advertising tells us to do and buy.
While it’s important to consider the value of other people’s opinions, in order to feel true joy and peace, we need to ultimately do our own thinking. A “should” is an external directive. If there’s something in life that we’re struggling to do (e.g., overcome addiction, take a risk, improve our health) and it’s clear that we want to do that for ourselves, then it’s more empowering to simply replace the word “should” with “like.” For example, instead of “I should quit smoking” you can shift the language to “I’d like to quit smoking.” Research shows that people are more successful when intrinsically (vs. externally) motivated.
Believe it or not, a simple shift in language like this can actually be quite powerful. Alternatively, “shoulds” can trigger our stubborn reflex, as our psyches are naturally inclined to resist anything that feels like a directive.
3.) Practice “Rainbow” Thinking
Our human brains can get very uncomfortable when it comes to uncertainty and ambiguity. Accordingly, we often initially categorize events into black/white, either/or, and good/bad dichotomies, rather than seeing the various shades of gray (or of the “rainbow”) that are present in any situation.
Organizing information in a black-and-white way can bring some comfort as things feel more certain and clear. As a matter of fact, studies show that some people actually prefer bad news over no news at all.
And, while it can be quite adaptive to swiftly surmise a situation as safe or dangerous, most of the time we’re not in such precarious positions and therefore, better off stepping back to survey the big picture. A premature “this is great” can get us into trouble (e.g., impulsive decisions). And, a he/she is “all bad” (or all good) can cut us off from truly getting to know another person.
Whenever possible, it’s best to take a broad-minded approach and view things in their full complexity. This “rainbow thinking” includes things like acknowledging and accepting both sides of ambivalence. It’s common to have mixed feelings about many things, including important decisions, so it’s best to accept that ambivalence rather than fight it.
Another example of rainbow thinking involves distinguishing the person from their behavior (i.e., people are good at their core, but sometimes their behavior doesn’t reflect this). This broader perspective can help us feel more compassion and understanding – two key components of healthy relationships.
4.) Apply Body-Mind Reasoning
Our triune brains consist of reptilian (reflex), limbic (emotional center) and neocortical areas (abstract/analytical thinking). These competing interests of impulse, feeling and logic can sometimes wreak havoc in our lives as in the oft-experienced “my heart says yes, but my mind says no”.
Emotions are rooted in our physical self and there is much wisdom to be gleaned from the feelings that arise in our bodies. The emotion of fear, for example, can warn us of true danger. Sadness tells us that something important has been lost and that we need to grieve. And, a physical ailment like chronic back pain may actually be an indicator of some latent psychological pain that needs tending.
With that said, far too often people let their feelings (emotions) guide them in their actions, when that is but one piece of the puzzle. For example, somebody may feel unworthy and accordingly, have low expectations about themselves and others. But, since all people have intrinsic value, this is a distortion of thinking. In this situation, emphasizing logic (the neocortex side) can help one obtain a more realistic self-image.
Listening to both our heart and mind – which is more art than science – tends to bring the best results, both emotionally and intellectually. Interestingly, some cultures (e.g., Buddhist-based communities) use the term “heart-mind” instead of dividing the two, as is more common in the West.
5.) Balance Positive and Negative
Our minds are naturally biased toward the negative for survival purposes. This is a trait that has evolved over millions of years, whereby the least vigilant individuals were (sadly) the most likely to get eaten by a predator! Since we’re wired this way, we need to really put effort into noticing the positive more. In other words, we need to learn how to “appreciate the non-toothache” as the lovely George Mumford said when referencing esteemed Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh (June 20, 2015, EBMC talk).
While it’s wonderful to spontaneously feel joy or excitement about something (and that marks an opportunity to deepen into those states) there’s also tremendous power in cultivating positivity when it’s not there at first glance.
Gratitude or appreciation practices now have much data to support their benefits on a tangible level – emotionally and physically.
With that said, we also need to be truthful about what’s happening in our lives and those around us. That’s the balancing part. In other words, don’t be in denial, but don’t magnify the negative either.
6.) Seek to Understand (rather than assuming)
Instead of assuming what other people think, check it out for yourself, or let go of the energy you’re putting into what’s likely a fantasy. While we may have some inkling about what others are thinking, the fact is that we can’t read their minds. For example, studies show that it’s easy to misinterpret facial expressions and nonverbal communications, which then may cause us to worry or fret unnecessarily.
Most of our assumptions stem from cognitive templates formed early in life (which then get reinforced over the years). Meaning, they’re out of date and may omit a lot of what is happening in the present time reality.
So, if you find yourself harboring many presumptions, try to shift it by applying curiosity to start, followed by a healthy dose of authentic, assertive communication. Both can lead to greater understanding.
7.) Make Realistic Predictions
I often like to say “think like a scientist” – go with the odds vs. the worst case scenario. Catastrophizing is a common human affliction. Try to see it for what it’s worth – a habitual cognitive pattern. It’s best to look at all the data that’s available, versus the (usually small) possibility of something going wrong.
Yes, things don’t always work out the way we’d like and bad things happen, but so much of that is beyond our control. What is within our control is the choice to see things more broadly and realistically. I think a lot of habits of catastrophizing stem from early times in life when we were truly more vulnerable and had less power, whether facing conventionally traumatic situations or not. As adults, we need to remind ourselves that we have more power than we think and that even if things go “wrong,” we most likely have the tools to handle it.
8.) Don’t Take Anything Personally (except the compliments :-))
Not taking things personally is much easier said than done. But, the reality is that most of the time what other people say and do says much more about them than it does us.
For example, people tend to give out what’s inside of them. If they’re critical of others, it’s probably because they’re critical of themselves. We’ve all had that experience where we can tell somebody is taking out their frustration on us when we did little, or nothing, to provoke them. You see this all the time with road rage incidents, where somebody cuts in front of another car and the driver then yells out their favorite expletive. Clearly, the angry driver must have some pent up stress to exhibit a reaction that’s so blown out of proportion. (And, the fact that road rage is so common is a testament to the baseline stress level in our culture.)
As author and spiritual teacher Don Miguel Ruiz wrote in the Four Agreements, “You take it personally because you agree with whatever was said.” (Don Miguel Ruiz, The Four Agreements, p. 48).
When we see others react in certain ways, we must remind ourselves that their behavior is about them, rather than essentially agreeing with it. It doesn’t mean we deny our role in the dance of life by neglecting our responsibility to be a thoughtful and caring human being. We still need to reflect on our own behavior, including ways to improve ourselves. But, it is important not to internalize the negativity of others.
With that said, since I believe human beings are loving at their core (and when a caring attitude isn’t present it simply means that that innate part has been shut down), go ahead and take all the positive that comes your way as more personal!
9.) Cultivate Presence
Most of us in the Western world and perhaps beyond, spend a lot of time fretting over the past and worrying about the future. While “living in the now” has become a bit of a hallow catchphrase (unfortunately), there is real value in engaging in practices that help us be more present.
For example, there’s lots of convincing data demonstrating the benefits of practices like mindfulness meditation, including increased compassion, lower baseline fear and greater overall happiness. And, while meditation is one way to cultivate presence, there are many, many more avenues as well. Taking 30 minutes to read a book. Choosing to do one thing at a time rather than multitask. Creating art. Engaging in a gratitude practice. These are but a few ways to help cultivate presence. Sometimes, it’s about just pausing and taking in the beauty of the moment.
Next time you’re in a negative emotional state, ask yourself, “Is anything bad happening right now?” Most of the time, the answer will be no. We might think to ourselves, “Right now, things are ok, but what if X or Y happens (or doesn’t happen)?” It’s true, painful things can happen and while we want to plan for ways to minimize our suffering and increase our happiness, far too often people end up missing many of the wonderful, simple moments along the way by getting caught up in the past or future.
10.) Be Curious
If you want to feel lousy and make others feel lousy, imbue your life with judgment (and in this context, I’m referring to negative judgment, not simply being discerning or thoughtful as in ‘having good judgment’).
But, if you want to feel more connection and ease, be curious!
For example, say you forget to do something important at home or work. Instead of beating yourself up, apply some curiosity to better understand how it happened and how you can avoid it in the future. Similarly, if you find yourself judging another person (e.g., “she is such a Debby Downer”), try to understand the possible roots of their behavior. Remember, all behavior “makes sense” when you look at it up close. Granted, the behavior may or may not be healthy, but it will make sense.
The #1 antidote to a compulsively judging mind is curiosity. If you find yourself harboring self (or other) critical thoughts, instead try to bring understanding to the situation. You’ll be in a much better position to see things clearly, and accordingly, take wise action.
About this Contributor: Kim Pratt, LCSW is a passionate advocate of personal growth and healing. She has been a licensed clinical social worker for the past 10 years, and in private practice as a therapist to adults of all ages since 2007. Prior to her clinical career, she worked in the information technology sector in the SF Bay Area. She is a proud spouse of 14 years; co-parent to two beautiful non-human beings; a longtime practitioner of mindfulness meditation; and an aging jock. Her formal education was received at UC Berkeley (Masters in Social Work) and the University of Michigan (B.A. in Anthropology), where she also played varsity tennis (Go Blue!). To learn more about Kim’s therapy practice, please visit: www.kimpratt.com.