In psychology, there are thinking patterns that we call cognitive distortions. These are ways of thinking that aren’t quite processed correctly or are sometimes not based in reality, just in your fears or your perceptions. These fears can affect how you interpret the world around you. Right now, there is a lot of fear, and much of it valid having to do with the COVID virus. But even before COVID, these distortions were likely impacting you every day.
If you were raised in a dysfunctional family, it is likely you utilize some cognitive distortions. Dysfunctional families have ways of looking at things or interpreting their worlds that are handed down from generation to generation. Usually, the distortions are a coping or defense mechanism that helps the user feel somewhat in control emotionally. Sometimes you just develop them on your own in response to an unfortunate event or trauma. These distortions form a lens through which you now view the world.
Many who suffer from depression, anxiety, anger, or impulse problems are most likely engaging in some cognitive distortions. It doesn’t mean something is wrong with you or your brain, it means you have learned a way of processing information that doesn't necessarily serve you. It can be unlearned. In fact, once unlearned, it is hard to go back as you catch yourself doing it and it doesn’t feel good. These distortions typically make you unhappy and limit your existence and the life you choose to lead. You may not see opportunities where opportunities exist, you may not trust yourself and you may not dare to pursue your wildest dream.
The number one limiting cognitive distortion is called catastrophizing and goes hand in hand with another called predicting the future. They both cause stress which takes a toll on your health. This stress can be in the form of hyperarousal and hypervigilance, both of which are tiring and can cause fatigue, gastrointestinal problems, headaches, and sleeplessness.
Predicting the future is where you get out your crystal ball and predict an outcome, usually a negative one. You believe that whatever the event or idea or whatever it is will have a bad ending. The bad ending is the catastrophizing part. You will fill in all the gory details. You feel convinced that your prediction is already an established fact. You then behave or choose a path based on this conviction.
For example, you meet a nice person and they ask you for a date. You would like a date, in fact, you were on an app looking for a potential partner. Now your mental crystal ball comes out and says “Why go on a date? This person is probably disturbed and this will lead nowhere. They will end up stalking me and I will have to get a restraining order. I will have to move out of the area." The more you think about it, the more you become convinced that this will be the outcome and you end up turning down the date. You can see that by using this logic and allowing the cognitive distortion to dictate your decision you are never going to go on a date.
In contrast, effective thinking skills and problem-solving abilities would allow you, in this case, to accept the date, put some safeguards in place such as meeting in public in the daytime, and take other rational protective measures that allow you to feel safe without losing the opportunity to maybe meet a great partner. You could just as easily be thinking, “This could be Mr./Ms. Right and I can see us on a wild bohemian love vacation next year!"
Even if the date is not a success, it is unlikely to be a total catastrophe ending in a restraining order. The odds of that are quite slim. The odds of that person not being the right one are moderate, in which case you call it a day and don’t go out with that person again. Not a catastrophe, but you tried. You participated in life. There are no guarantees that things will end up as you would like but there is zero chance if you don’t try.
Not taking a job or following a career path that appeals to you offers the same limitations. Maybe your crystal ball tells you that a new, seemingly better offer isn't real, you will be laid off and you will then starve along with your family. When you put that crystal ball away, you can see there is a world in which you take the job, you love it, you get laid off, but you don’t starve as you have skills and can find another job. Not as you’d hoped but not a catastrophe. Nobody starves.
If you are thinking of starting your own business, you can put safeguards in effect for that planning as well. Your crystal ball paired with catastrophizing will predict failure, humiliation, and financial ruin. Proper planning, educating yourself in the type of business you are considering, having a fallback, and utilizing good problem-solving skills will be more useful and get you where you want to go. Your brain is capable of all of the above and just needs to be steered away from the crystal ball of terror.
When you are building your life and making big decisions that will take you in the direction of your dreams it is not advantageous to think catastrophically or predict the future. Behaving as though these predictions are true is the most life-limiting behavior you can engage in. You believe you are protecting yourself, but of course, that is a fallacy. You are not protecting yourself, you are limiting yourself.
If you think you are limiting yourself with your thinking, try this exercise in reality testing:
- What is my scary thought?
- Is it based on reality or am I predicting the future?
- If I am predicting the future, am I catastrophizing? Is there another potential outcome?
- Do I have any proof that my prediction will come true?
- Will altering this thought allow me to move forward in my life?
Allowing fear to get in your way will leave you with regrets when you are at the end of your life and looking back, wishing you had done whatever thing you didn’t do. With COVID upon us, I think it has made us all look at our lives and hope to eke out every last minute of enjoyment and fulfillment. Eliminating cognitive distortions that interfere with your happiness and life blueprint-building is a great holiday gift to give yourself this year.