Does any of this sound familiar?
You receive praise for a successful project completed at work, but your team has a few points of constructive feedback about what could be done more efficiently next time, instantly the positive comments are erased, and you only focus on the criticism and how you “messed it up.”
You get into a minor car accident while driving on the freeway and now avoid freeways at all costs, even adding an hour to your drive time, believing that all freeways are dangerous and it’s only a matter of time before you get into another accident.
You refuse to travel because of an endless list of catastrophizing “what if’s” that you are sure will come to pass.
Life is unfair, and no matter how hard you try, someone, something, or some circumstance always seems to derail you.
These are a few examples of a psychological phenomenon known as a cognitive distortion. A cognitive distortion is a negative thought pattern or belief that seems legitimate, but in actuality is self-generated, untrue, and in a lot of cases, debilitating. These inaccurate beliefs or interpretations only reinforce negative thoughts about ourselves or the world, and they keep us stuck. They give us excuses, they dim our light, our passion, and our drive. They keep us where we are, where it’s safe.
There are a handful of these incredibly sneaky patterns that catch us; the idea that our continued sacrifices will eventually pay off, the constant need to be right, the idea that you can make people change, believing that what you emotionally feel is what must be true, should’s, blaming, taking everything everyone does personally… you may be able to see the common thread in all of these by now.
Every single form of cognitive distortion is inherently self-centered. Which is good news! If the focus of our thoughts has become too narrowed on “us,” all we have to do is shift that focus. When you find yourself caught in one of these damaging distortions try one of these:
Call it Out
If you catch a thought that goes something like “I always forget everything,” “Nothing ever works out for me,” “I should have done that better” you’re dealing with a cognitive distortion. So call it out! Catch the thought and say out loud, “that’s not true.” You may not feel it at first, but the more you identify these fallacies, the less time you’ll spend believing them.
Is it True?
` Is it really true that nothing ever works for you? Is it really true that you forget everything? Is it really true that you should have done that thing differently? When negative or fearful thoughts arise, get factual. Examine and observe the evidence the way a scientist would. I guarantee you’ll find that not only are these untrue but that you’re way more successful, capable, and discerning than you realize. Extra credit: write down every single experience you have had that contradicts your negative thought.
“Spend the afternoon. You can’t take it with you.” That is a quote from author Annie Dillard, and a perfect reminder as to why getting present is the prescription not only for cognitive distortions but for life. The moment a negative thought arises, or fear begins to pull your focus away, notice one beautiful thing. Bring your attention to your breath. Notice one of your senses, like the way your clothes feel on your body or the smell of coffee in the air. This shifts the spotlight away from you and onto the moment, which is all we ever really have.
Left to its own devices, our ego, will set our minds off on a tangent of negativity, none of which is factual or supportive. But even this reality can be softened by remembering that one of the ego’s jobs is to keep us safe. When it tells us lies about who we are and what we can do, it’s only using its powers ineffectively. Thank it for its help and kindly ask it to focus more on scanning the area for imminent dangers like lions or sudden wildfires and while it’s busy doing that, look around you. Give thanks for all of your blessings, for your health, your loved ones, and for all of the reasons you are wonderful.
Kabbalah teaches that where we focus our consciousness is what we expand. When we hold a consciousness of negativity, we create more. When we shift our consciousness to one of positivity, we experience the endless blessings meant for us. Spend your afternoons, and mornings and nights for that matter, as positively as possible and watch your life reflect all the truth of who you really are.
THOUGHT INTO ACTION
Find time this week to enjoy your afternoon, no matter what you’re doing. As you do, notice any cognitive distortions that try to ruin the fun. Write them down and get to work disproving them.