I admit it. I’ve had some work done. A cognitive nip here, a mental tuck there. I feel good. Heck, I look good. Whether we’re willing to admit it or not, all of us could probably benefit from having a professional get in our heads every once in a while. Look under the hood. Monitor the dipstick. It’s maintenance.
Maintenance usually involves an overhaul. An overhaul of my ideas and what I hold to be true. What I consider when I make decisions. What I cling to as validation for my choices. Ideas that may not actually be accurate. It is a very real and very common tenet of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy that we humans believe distortions. We cling to versions of reality that can be found anywhere on the spectrum between truth and fallacy.
I joke with my friends that we shouldn’t let my copays go to waste whenever I share a kernel of knowledge from my work with psychology professionals. Many of the lessons are easily applicable across a broad base. The basis of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy is that our emotions affect our thoughts which affect our behaviors. It’s triangular between the three. What we think changes how we feel and then how we act. Likewise, how we act changes how we think and feel. And, how we feel changes how we act and think. Stay with me.
If I look in the mirror and think “I look fat” and feel shame and then I reach for a candy bar, I will probably feel sad because I’ll think “I’m a failure” because I just ate a candy bar and will still look fat.
Not so unfamiliar a thought pattern, is it? Thinking, emotions, and behavior. Right there. But, it’s not always as easy to see the triangle happening between the three—sometimes the thoughts are really ingrained and subliminal and the actions are veiled even to ourselves. It gets hairy. It’s why the professionals get paid to do their jobs.
I remember the day that my particular professional handed me a paper with the 15 Cognitive Distortions listed on it. Google it. You’ll find them, too. They’ve been accepted and they’re used widely in helping people to figure out how we might see things a little less accurately than they really are. I was pretty pissed that day. Being shown—not told—that something isn’t how I thought it is tends to be a pill I don’t swallow very happily.
What? You mean that I shouldn’t save my friend from herself? I should just let her throw her life away and go down the road to ruin because she’s making a choice that I don’t agree with? How could I live with myself for letting her do that? How could I stay friends with her after failing her so?
You see, I was a caretaker, among other things. I knew what people should do, how they should do it, and when they should do it. I could give you ten reasons why it should be done and assure you that Andy knows best. But you know what? Andy didn’t know best. That is simply untrue. It was a distortion. Consider the 15 Cognitive Distortions that I paraphrase from those presented by Aaron Beck and David Burns. With each, I’m including a small example from my distortion arsenal:
1. Filtering: Taking the positive aspects out of a situation and focusing only on the negative. “That typo ruined the whole magazine.”
2. Polarized Thinking: Things are either/or—there’s no gray, but just black or white. “Either I answer all the emails in my inbox immediately or I’m not doing my job right.”
3. Overgeneralization: If something happens once, we might think it’ll always happen that way. “I didn’t get any feedback from that Facebook post, nobody cares. I’m going to stop posting.”
4. Jumping to Conclusions: Without having firsthand knowledge, we think we know what someone else will do or what they’re thinking, particularly about us. “Oh, he’s super busy and important. He doesn’t want to talk to me.”
5. Catastrophizing: Using the “what if” scenario to try to minimize or maximize a situation out of proportion. “What if I print that review and someone doesn’t like it and the world ends?”
6. Personalization: This happens when we interpret unrelated events to be about us. “She just walked across the room when I got here—she hates me. She’s probably talking about me right now to that person. Look. He scowled. He hates me, too.”
7. Control Fallacies: External control fallacies include those that are based upon things happening to us, “My piece isn’t that good because my internet connection was bad and I couldn’t research”; internal control fallacies are those that are based upon what we think we caused, “Why are you upset? Because of something I did?”
8. Fallacy of Fairness: We think we know what is fair and we expect people to agree with us. “It was my turn to get the good assignment even though she knows more about the subject. I should’ve gotten to pick.”
9. Blaming: We either blame others for our feelings, “He makes me feel worthless”; or blame ourselves too much, “I’m just being too sensitive again.”
10. Shoulds: We have ironclad rules about how people should behave. “She should have gotten me a card, I remembered her birthday and got her one.”
11. Emotional Reasoning: We believe that what we feel must be true, automatically. “I’m sad because you said that, therefore you must be wrong.”
12. Fallacy of Change: We expect people to change to our liking if we pressure or cajole them enough. “He knows I hate it when he drinks too much, he’ll stop doing it for me.”
13. Global Labeling: Taking one error and making it true for all situations. “She didn’t tell me the truth. She is a liar.” Or, “She moved to another city. She always abandons her friends.”
14. Being Right: We always have to be right no matter what the circumstances are or how it makes another person feel. “Didn’t I tell you that was a mistake? Yeah. I was right.”
15. Heaven’s Reward Fallacy: We expect our self-sacrifices to pay off, as if there’s a big scoreboard in the sky. “I just need to grin and bear it. Then, I’m sure I’ll get the raise I deserve.”
Here’s the deal. There might be some truths to these claims but there might not be. Where we get into trouble is when we base our thoughts, actions, and feelings on these ideas without pausing to reflect. Depending on the typo, it could ruin a magazine. A person can be busy and not want to talk, but I won’t know until I ask…and suggest a different time to talk. Things beyond our control can impede our progress but we can also mitigate problems by way of what we can control. Nobody will change because you want them to. And yes, some victories are hard won, but we shouldn’t have to suffer as a matter of course to get what we want in life.
I know which distortions I tend to cling to—I come by some of them honestly as a Scandinavian Lutheran Martyr…and some of them I’ve developed on my own, lobbing shoulds and shouldn’ts around like grenades.
It’s when I can look at that list and laugh that I know I’m on the right track. I can see them. I can laugh at them. And, I can try not to think them. That’s when I can avoid the triangle of negative thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that might lead me to make unhealthy choices. If I see a situation for what it is and try to change it, I may not need to find a way to cope with it. I may just change my true reality to be better.
At the end of the day, what I hope for all of us is that our realities can be truthful and, in them, we can find comfort. And, if we need to, get a little work done. Spread our copays around. Pay it forward.