Don’t Stuff Your Turkey With Cognitive Distortions

Thanksgiving—the good, bad, and distorted

Posted Nov 25, 2013

November 25, 2013

Thanksgiving is America’s favorite holiday. Despite what many people feel about the origins of the celebration, and what it ultimately glosses over in the genocide of Native Americans—it is good to have at least one day of the year devoted to the sublime practices of gratitude, bringing loved ones together, and sharing a meal.  Ironically, one of my patients says that Thanksgiving kicks off the six-week period “when everyone’s nice to each other.  Sometime after the New Year, we go back to being obnoxious.”  Whether the glass is half-full this season or half-empty is all a matter of perspective.  And of course, there are many people who are alone for the holidays.  I would speculate this number is growing yearly, given the weakening of family ties, urbanization, and so forth. Gathering the “holiday orphans”—the singles, the widowed or divorced, the isolated—together should be one part of everyone’s holiday tradition as well, not to mention doing this all year round, an act that would create a real life “social network.”

But we all know that the holidays are combustible.  Family gatherings can be a time for rekindling enmity, as well as amity. People we only see once in a blue moon remind us why we only see them once in a blue moon. Suddenly, as the big day approaches, all we can think about is the last slight, jab or insult meted out by Uncle Joe, Aunt Sally or your so-called friend Steve.

Here are some cognitive distortions that might arise this week:

  1. All-good and all-bad.  Sure Uncle Joe makes prejudiced or chauvinistic remarks. But he also makes a great cranberry sauce!  Seriously, there are very few people who we might classify as all bad.  Maybe you can take a moment to remember some good thing about your “difficult person.”
  2. All-or-nothing.  “If I don’t make a good impression on my fiancé’s family, I am worthless.”  There’s a lot of social anxiety built up around one event.  I’m guessing that unless you throw silverware or hit your host with a turkey leg, this is not a make-or-break event.  And people do recover from less-than-ideal first impressions.
  3. If I’m awkward, I’m unacceptable.  This is a variant of all-or-nothing thinking. Awkward is a normal state. Reframe it as a state with creative potential. Don’t think of yourself as a tightrope artist with no net. Imagine yourself on one side of the wire, and the other party on the other side—and you’re both mentally guiding the relationship across the wire.  In other words, adopt an observational, mindful stance towards your experience, and try not to take it all personally. 
  4. Fortune teller error.  “It’s going to be a mess.” You think you can anticipate that things will turn out badly, and you feel convinced that your prediction is an already-established fact.  This can be a self-fulfilling prophecy.
  5. Overgeneralization. “These people have never cared about me.” Seeing one negative event as a never-ending pattern of defeat. Related to the mental filter, picking out one negative detail and dwelling on it, until it colors all your thinking.
  6. Jumping to conclusions. “Dan’s new partner is probably an immature twit.” Make a negative interpretation without definitive facts.
  7. Mind reading. “Sally’s giving me the silent treatment because she hates me.” Arbitrarily conclude that someone is reacting negatively to you without bothering to check it out.  Maybe Aunt Sally is having a bad day totally unrelated to you.
  8. Magnification and minimization.  “I can’t get what Janet said out of my mind.”  Exaggerating the bad and minimizing the good.
  9. Labeling and mislabeling. “Joe didn’t even ask me how I was doing, he just told me to make the turkey! That means Joe is a selfish jerk.” It’s often helpful to create a mental label for a difficult person, as it helps to strategize. But when the label is emotionally charged, and when we use it as fuel for a fight, it can be harmful.
  10. Personalization.  “It’s all Joe’s fault.” You see yourself or someone else as the cause for something for which you or they were not personally or exclusively responsible.
  11. Emotional reasoning.  “I am resentful, therefore they are all against me.” Believing your negative emotions are a reality, and not simply an indication of your internal state.  Investigate your emotion with kindness.
  12. Disqualifying the positive. “One day of getting together isn’t going to solve anything.”  Another way we throw away details that don’t match our distorted way of perceiving the situation. One day might make things a bit better, too.

Keep in mind these three important antidotes to the cognitive distortions and anger that suddenly take up so much mental space and push you into fight-or-flight survival mode.

  1. Thanksgiving is time-limited.  It will be over soon enough. 
  2. If you play your cards right (see my articles on dealing with difficult people), you can predict and trouble-shoot the hot spots and end in a better place than you started out.
  3. Nurturing grudges, resentment and hostility only hurts you—it doesn’t hurt your “enemy.” Generating kindness for yourself and others, and remembering gratitude is an important feature of mental health.

 Happy Holidays!  And remember, there’s always football and your smartphone!

 (For bonus points, here's a guide to civility at Thanksgiving, prepared by the PBS Newshour regulars Mark Shields and David Brooks!)

© 2013 Ravi Chandra, M.D. All rights reserved.  

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