Distorted Thoughts = Distorted Life

Distorted Thoughts = Distorted Life

I once knew someone who always assumed the worst.  No one was ever trustworthy.  If her kids went on a canoe trip, they were going to drown.  If a stranger struck up a conversation in the grocery store, she just knew the person had an agenda and it wasn’t good.   If a supervisor said something about her work, she knew she was going to get fired any minute.  There always had to be someone to blame.   Nothing happened by accident; someone had to have caused her suffering.   At the same time, she constantly criticized herself. She never measured up to her own expectations.  The rare times she noticed something good in her life, she quickly dismissed it, telling herself it couldn’t be true or surely it wouldn’t last.  She was isolated and miserable.   

To be sure, she had been through a lot of pain in her life.  At the same time, however, she suffered more because of the “lessons” she had learned from the pain.  From her experiences, she learned not to trust anyone.  In fact, some people are trustworthy and others are not.  Some individuals are trustworthy in some ways but not in others.   Her thinking was faulty.  Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) calls these faulty ways of thinking “cognitive distortions.”

Some people, just like this person, come to therapy because their cognitive distortions become debilitating.  One of the things I do in therapy sessions is point out faulty thinking.  When she says, “I know I’m going to be fired.” I ask “How do you know?” or “What evidence do you have that is true?”  We explore when in her life she learned to assume the worst but we don’t dwell there.  Week after week, we identify patterns of faulty thinking and DBT skills she can use to challenge her distorted thoughts.  We analyze the consequences of faulty thinking – being isolated and miserable or being in conflict with family, friends, supervisors and co-workers. In the process, she learns to identify and dispute cognitive distortions.  Over time, she will restructure her thought processes and break her dysfunctional habit of faulty thinking.

We humans all have cognitive distortions to some degree that are similar from person to person. Cognitive distortions are those pesky ways we think in order to try to make sense of the world.  Trouble is, the world doesn’t always make sense.   Life is uncertain.  We can’t know everything.  As the cat hanging from the bar says, “Shit happens.”   To some extent, pain happens; suffering is what we do with it.  In trying to make sense of a crazy world, cognitive distortions inadvertently make the pain worse.  Examples of cognitive distortions include:  

Mindreading.   I firmly believe I know what someone else is thinking.  Truth is, none of us ever knows what someone else is thinking.  

Storytelling.  I tell myself stories about why things are the way they are, making assumptions and jumping to conclusions.  Truth is, we can only guess why things are the way they are. 

Crystal ball-gazing.  I believe I know what is going to happen.  Truth is, none of us ever knows for sure what is going to happen in any given situation.   

Assuming the worst.  All-or-nothing thinking.  I see the world in black and white.  People are all good or all bad.  Choices are right or wrong.   Nothing good ever happens to me.  Truth is, few things in this world are black or white.  Most people have both good and bad qualities.  While some choices are wrong (e.g., murder), most choices are more (or less) effective than others.    Good things happen even in the midst of problems, even if we don’t notice.

Over-Generalizing.  I take one instance and assume it applies to all similar situations.  Truth is, every situation is unique even when there are patterns.

Catastrophizing.  Whether mindreading, storytelling or crystal ball-gazing, I assume the worst.  Truth is, the worst rarely happens.  Usually, reality is somewhere between the best and worst possible outcome.

Personalizing or Blaming.  I blame myself or I blame someone else.  Truth is, it’s rarely all one or the other.  And sometimes, stuff just happens and no one is to blame.

Criticizing.  I criticize myself and others:  “I should have … Why didn’t she … If only I had … He messed up. “  The ways in which we judge ourselves and others are seemingly endless.   Truth is, most people do the best they can most of the time given the situation and what they know at the moment.

The process of identifying and changing patterns of faulty thinking is called cognitive restructuring, a key component ofCognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT).   Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) builds on CBT and uses cognitive restructuring to help clients reduce their suffering and create a life worth living.

There is no definitive list of cognitive distortions and those listed here are just a few.   For more on identifying and challenging your cognitive distortions, go here.   For more information about Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), go to the Beck Institute.  For more information about Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), go to Behavioral Tech.

If cognitive distortions are making you miserable and this practical approach makes sense to you, give St. Louis DBT a call to set up a phone consultation.  We can be reached at 314.932.7415 or info@stldbt.com.  At St. Louis DBT, you will find a warm welcome from experienced therapists who care about you and want you to help you avoid needless suffering.

One of my previously-very-negative clients called the other day to update me on her progress.  While she still has the urge to use faulty thinking, she has learned to notice her faulty thinking, challenge it and use DBT skills to avoid acting on her irrational thoughts.  In time, the urges will be less frequent but they will never go away altogether.  She is human, you know.  

Sandra Miller, MSW, LCSW and sometimes blogger, is one of five therapists who see clients at St. Louis DBT, LLC.  Learn more about St. Louis DBT.