- Singles can experience distorted thoughts about their singlehood.
- These cognitive distortions, like all-or-nothing thinking, cause negative emotions and hinder personal growth.
- Identifying distortions and adopting alternative thoughts can reduce feelings of dysphoria around singlehood.
Cognitive distortions are patterns of irrational thinking that can lead to an unrealistic view of reality. I’ve noticed that singles with intense and prolonged feelings of discomfort about their singlehood status (i.e., dysphoric singlehood) often express thoughts riddled with cognitive distortions.
The problem with these thoughts is that they trigger negative emotions. If one has the thought that they are completely undateable (an example of all-or-nothing thinking) and believes it with pure conviction, then it makes sense to feel intense anxiety. The issue, of course, is that not all thoughts we have are accurate, meaning some people suffer needlessly.
Identifying and challenging distortions
Thought work is the “bread and butter” of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) therapists. Helping clients to identify and evaluate the accuracy of their thoughts and then rework them into more nuanced, realistic ones is what makes CBT one of the best forms of therapy for depression and anxiety. It’s not necessarily an easy process, especially if your mental health is very poor, but it can be done by paying attention to counterevidence, taking baby steps, and using the proper professional support.
For some, simply being aware of distortions and how they can be challenged can be useful. In this post, I’ll introduce five cognitive distortions I’ve noticed in singles both online (e.g., the incel community, dating podcasts) and in the therapy room, including some examples. Then, I’ll give you some idea of what types of “alternative thoughts” you could use to challenge them and feel slightly better.
1. All-or-Nothing Thinking
All-or-nothing thinking (or black-and-white thinking) is when we view situations in extreme, “either-or” terms without considering the grey areas or middle ground. If you’re single, you might fall into this when thinking about your personal qualities and assessing your worth: “I’m not over 6 foot tall, so women will never find me attractive.”
Even though women do show a preference for height on dating websites, it’s clearly not the case that men shorter than 6 feet are never considered attractive. A more balanced, alternative thought might be to recognize that height isn’t the only factor that matters: “Height is just one factor in attraction. People are drawn to a range of qualities. Confidence and genuine connection matter more than height alone.”
The next distortion is catastrophizing or exaggerating the negative consequences of an event and imagining the worst possible outcomes: “If I ask someone out on a date, they are going to laugh in my face. I’ll never recover.”
Catastrophizing can be particularly tough because it causes us to opt out of situations that might cause change, thus enabling the status quo. This can be softened by recognizing that now isn’t forever and things can change. “Rejection is a possibility, but it won’t define me. Asking someone out is brave, and whatever happens, I’ll learn and grow.”
Overgeneralization is a doozy. It happens when we draw broad conclusions based on a single negative event and assume that it applies to everything in our lives. “I went on a bad date, so no one will ever be interested in me. I’m just not meant for relationships.”
Reminding ourselves that one is not an adequate sample size usually helps! “One bad date doesn’t dictate my potential for finding love. There are many people out there, and not every experience will be negative.”
Mindreading is something that happens both in relationships and outside of them. It happens when you believe you know what others are thinking, even though you don’t have concrete evidence of it: “Whenever someone smiles at me, they’re probably just being polite. They’re not actually interested in getting to know me.”
As I’ve written about before, this is particularly dangerous because it can leave people trapped in a cycle of rejection where they self-reject rather than allowing others to do the rejecting.
You can combat this by reminding yourself that you’re not psychic! “I can’t accurately guess what someone else is thinking. If someone shows interest, I should take it at face value and give them a chance.”
5. Emotional Reasoning
Finally, we’re all guilty of emotional reasoning at some time or another: Believing that our emotions accurately reflect reality, regardless of evidence to the contrary, can leave us feeling hopeless. “I feel so lonely, so one will ever truly want to be with me. My feelings must be the truth.”
Recognizing that emotions disrupt our ability to think rationally can often help us make a more accurate assessment. “Feeling lonely doesn’t necessarily mean no one will ever want to be with me. Emotions are temporary, and they don’t always reflect reality.”
Making It Personal
Most people will recognize these types of unhelpful thoughts in themselves. Here, I’ve provided examples of alternative thoughts, but the reality is that they may not fit your circumstances perfectly.
People view their singlehood status and its causes in different ways. A shy, older virgin who feels like they have “missed the boat” will have distortions that manifest differently to someone who has no problem finding casual sex but can never seem to get a long-term relationship off the ground.
Taking some time to develop some alternative thoughts and reminding yourself of them daily (or in the moment using your smartphone) can help ease negative emotions. It can take practice, commitment, and sometimes support from a therapist, but if doing nothing is doing nothing for you, it might be time to take out those tricky thoughts and examine them.
Beck, J. S. (2020). Cognitive behavior therapy: Basics and beyond. Guilford Publications.
Gilbert, P. (1998). The evolved basis and adaptive functions of cognitive distortions. British Journal of Medical Psychology, 71(4), 447-463.
Kurzban, R., & Weeden, J. (2005). HurryDate: Mate preferences in action. Evolution and Human Behavior, 26(3), 227-244.