A Christian Counselor Speaks
Part 1 of a 2-Part Series
We all have negative thoughts from time to time, but this is especially true of people dealing with anxiety and depression. Cognitive distortion is a term used to describe a pattern of thinking that habitually shifts life events into a negative framework. These distorted messages or automatic thoughts occur so rapidly that we hardly notice them, let alone stop to question them. Furthermore, we come to believe that these distortions are true. This can lead to feelings such as sadness, shame, hopelessness, and inferiority, which can perpetuate anxiety or a depressed mood. The first step to overcoming cognitive distortions is to learn to identify them. Some of the most common distortions we experience are discussed in this article.
All or Nothing Thinking – Give Yourself a Break
All or nothing thinking occurs when you see things purely as black and white. You view life in absolute terms, such as “always,” “every,” or “never.” For example, if your performance falls short of a perfect standard, you see yourself as a total failure. “If I’m not the best, I’m a flop.” “If I am not performing perfectly, I’m a loser.” “If I score ninety percent, I am a failure.” “A character flaw means that I’m all bad.” But ask yourself: “Are my expectations realistic?” “Why must I bat one thousand?” “Could giving myself a break not brighten my mood and release unrealistic expectations and anxiety?”
Overgeneralization – Learn to Be a Healthy Optimist
Thinking in an over-generalized way means that we often see a single event as evidence of everything being awful and negative, and a sign that everything will go wrong. For example, “I always ruin everything.” “No one will ever love me.” “No one likes me; everyone hates me.” “I will never do well at math.” Such broad statements are unfair, depressing, and inaccurate on many levels. Catch yourself overgeneralizing. Understand that just because some things didn’t go as planned does not mean I never succeed. Be a healthy optimist: expect to find something good in every situation. This idea leads to the next cognitive distortion, namely, discounting the positive.
Discounting the Positive – Treat Yourself as You Would Treat Others
To discount the positive is to insist that your accomplishments or positive qualities do not count. If you do a good job, you may tell yourself that it wasn’t good enough or that anyone could have done as well. Discounting the positive takes the joy out of life and makes you feel inadequate and unrewarded. You fail to receive from others what you would graciously offer to them. Why not treat yourself in the same way that you treat others and do yourself the same favor?
Find Alternatives to “Should” and “Must”
This cognitive distortion speaks to the demands we place on ourselves. You tell yourself that things should be the way you hoped them to be. For example, “I should be happy and never depressed or tired.” “I must do everything perfectly.” “I must not make mistakes.” “I should have known better.” We think that can we motivate ourselves with such statements, but the usual result is that we feel inadequate, frustrated, ashamed, and at times hopeless. One solution is to replace “should” with “would” or “could” ̶ for example, “It would be nice if I did that.” “I wonder how I could do that.” Alternatively, you could replace “should” with “want to” ̶ for example, “I want to do that because it is to my advantage, not because I think I should or must.”
You Are More than a Label
Labeling is an extreme form of over-generalization. It involves giving yourself a label or a name, as though a single thought or word could describe you completely. For example: “I’m stupid.” “I’m a loser.” “I’m boring.” “I’m dumb.” To describe yourself in such a way means that the label applies in every way, all of the time. Granted, you may have had a moment where you did something stupid, but at other times you responded quite intelligently. Individuals are too complex to satisfactorily describe them with simple labels.
Catastrophizing – You Always See the Worst
Catastrophizing involves thinking in a magnifying or minimizing way. It occurs when you exaggerate the importance of negative events and minimize or downplay the importance of positive events. Depressed individuals often exaggerate the positive qualities of others and understate their negatives qualities. But this thinking becomes reversed in your own case when you catastrophize. When you respond in this way, you are unable to see any other outcome than the worst one. For example, if you made a mistake at work, this turns into: “I am going to get fired, then I won’t be able to pay my bills, and then I will lose my house.”
Personalization and Blame – Where Do You Place Responsibility?
Personalizing is the tendency to relate everything around you to yourself. For example, thinking that everything that people do or say is some kind of reaction to you. It also includes a tendency to compare yourself to others, as you try to determine who is smarter, more talented, or better looking. Underlying this is the question of your self-worth, for you are constantly seek to test your value as a person by measuring yourself against others. But given your tendency to emphasize your negatives, you unfortunately usually come up short and feel diminished. This cognitive distortion leads to guilt, shame, and feelings of inadequacy. The basic thinking error is that your value is determined by each experience that you interpret. Blaming, on the other hand, is the opposite of personalizing. Whereas personalizing puts all the responsibility for your difficulties on yourself, blaming puts it all on something outside of yourself. Blaming often makes someone else responsible for the choices and decisions that are often your own responsibility.
Christian Counseling to Identify and Challenge Cognitive Distortions
As a Christian counselor, I often help individuals to challenge the automatic thoughts that contribute to their anxiety and depression. Once such thoughts are recognized, the individual can begin to replace them with more accurate and realistic facts and/or positive thoughts. The best way to overcome cognitive distortions is to work with a therapist who can help you learn to process and reconstruct the thinking patterns that are causing the distress. As a Christian counselor, I would look forward to helping you begin that journey. To find out more, contact me here.
“Chess Knights in Battle,” courtesy of Ken Teegardin and www.SeniorLiving.Org. Flick CreativeCommons (CC BY 2.0); “Family,” courtesy of icultist, (CC BY 2.0); “Family,” courtesy of Arztsamui, Freedigitalphotos.net