Pursue What Matters
Episode 143: Outsmart Cognitive Distortions
Please excuse any typos, transcripts are generated by an automated service
Dr. Melissa Smith 0:00
Are you getting outsmarted by cognitive distortions? Do you make up disastrous stories about yourself, others and the future? Well, if you do, you’re not alone. Many of us do we get tripped up by cognitive distortions every day. Join me today, though, and I’ll help you outsmart some of the most common cognitive distortions.
Dr. Melissa Smith 0:22
Hi, I’m Dr. Melissa Smith. Welcome to the Pursue What Matters podcast where we focus on what it takes to thrive in love and work. So tell me this. Do you like stories? I like stories. I love stories, reading is my favorite thing to do. Now, another question, are you a storyteller? So I love reading. But sometimes I get caught up in storytelling in my head, and it never ends well, so reading a great story is awesome. But when we start telling stories in our head, it is usually disastrous. So Dr. Brene, Brown has taught us the concept of the story, I tell myself, to help us identify those thoughts and emotions that can lead us to unhelpful actions. And the truth of it is most of our stories are full of these cognitive distortions. And today, I’m going to help define what a cognitive distortion is, and give you some of the most common examples. And you’ll probably start recognizing them in lots of different places, whether with yourself or with others. So that you can begin writing a better story for yourself, we don’t want you to be outsmarted by these cognitive distortions, we want you to outsmart your cognitive distortions. So, of course, every week with a podcast, my goal is to help you pursue what matters. By strengthening your confidence to lead. I tried to do that with clarity with a focus on purpose, leading with curiosity, which is a focus on self awareness and self leadership, and then also leading and building a community. So really thinking about the leadership specific skills. And so today, primarily, we’re really going to help you lead with curiosity, we’re going to help you get curious about your thoughts curious about what’s going on between your ears, and how that impacts emotions and actions, right, which Whew, that can really lead to a domino of a domino effect of behavior, we really don’t want happening. And so when we can quiet ourselves and get curious and really understand what’s happening internally, it really can help us to be more effective. So we’re going to start by helping you understand what cognitive distortions are. So what are they these come to us from cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT, you’re probably you’ve probably at least heard of that. It is the most widely researched therapeutic intervention for both depression and anxiety. So it is definitely an evidence based treatment intervention for folks with all sorts of mental health challenges. And, you know, when we think about mental health, we often want to think about that on a continuum, recognizing that we all get tripped up from time to time. So what is a cognitive distortion? So the American Psychological Association defines these as faulty or inaccurate thinking, perception or belief. And so the defining characteristic, often of a cognitive distortion is negativity. So our cognitive distortions are usually always negative, right? And they’re always inaccurate, and they’re inaccurate thoughts, perceptions or beliefs. Okay, so that’s the American Psychological Association, they’re going to really break down thoughts a little more specifically, you can think about these as faulty or inaccurate thoughts. And they’re often
Dr. Melissa Smith 4:15
laden with negativity. Okay. So that’s the first thing we want to pay attention to is what are they in the first place? And then the second point is that we are all vulnerable to cognitive distortions, right? So we think about mental health along a continuum. So our brains, right, our brains are like Teflon to positive stimuli, and like Velcro to negative stimuli, right. And that has served an evolutionary function, right, we needed to be able to see and be well attuned to negative stimuli, because being attuned to that help, helped us to stay alive. And so in some research, right the rate of attention to negative stimuli, versus positive stimuli is four to one. Okay? So if you see if you see four things right and one of them is negative, you are going to remember the negative thing, you’re going to forget about the three positive stimuli items that you saw. And some research even shows that that’s it, that’s as high as a one to nine ratio. So what does that mean? We’re all vulnerable to coming up with faulty and inaccurate thoughts that are laden with negativity, right? Remember, that’s one of the definitions of cognitive distortions. And so, you know, when might we be more vulnerable to cognitive distortion, so we’re more vulnerable to cognitive distortions when we’re over committed and under protected. So I did a podcast on that topic not too long ago. So you might want to go back and take a listen to that podcast. Sometimes we develop cognitive distortions as a function of our environment, right? So if you’re around, folks with a lot of negativity, you might fall into some of these cognitive distortions, you might fall into some of these traps. And so it can be a function of our environment, growing up right at school, in the family. But it’s, I think, as we think about where you’re at, now, it’s helpful to consider a protective factors and vulnerability factors model. So this is just a simple way of thinking about what are the protective factors that you have in place that help you to be resilient in life, these protective factors will make you less vulnerable to engaging in cognitive distortion. So some examples include some good coping skills, a solid foundation of self care, strong social support, right? All of these things are protective factors that make you less vulnerable to engaging in cognitive distortions. And then right on the other end of that spectrum, we have vulnerability factors. These are, you know, factors that will make you more vulnerable to engaging in cognitive distortions. So if you are in a situation where you’re experiencing high stressors, high stress, maybe you’re isolated, you’ve got some health concerns, maybe you’ve got financial strain, right, we certainly can see socio economic status differences can be a big issue here. But when we have some of these vulnerability factors in place, we’re just more likely to cognitive distortions, it’s certainly not a given, but we, you know, we want to pay attention to how are we doing in terms of our foundation? Do we? Are we cultivating some protective factors for ourselves? Are we doing what we can to mitigate or reduce our vulnerability factors. And, of course, we don’t have control over all of these factors. But the ones that we can affect some change in we want to pay attention to that, you know, so. So we can think about cognitive, cognitive distortions coming up, you know, here or there when we’re under a great deal of stress, or they can also become a way of life, that can lead to anxiety, depression, and addictive processes. So if we don’t keep a close eye on our cognitive distortions, they certainly can become much more problematic over time. So that’s the second point, we’re all vulnerable to cognitive distortions, we want to be aware of them. And then the third point is to be aware of your storytelling, right?
Dr. Melissa Smith 8:48
So I already mentioned storytelling, from Dr. Brene, Brown. And it’s important to remember that in the face of uncertainty and challenge, we make up story. So as brown puts it, in the absence of data, we make up stories. So that is how our brain works. Our brain operates in the form of narrative, we want data points, we want a story with a beginning, a middle and an end, we want resolution. And so when we don’t have certainty, when we don’t have those data points when we don’t have nice resolution. What do we do? Our brains start making up stories. And here’s the thing you need to understand about stories and here’s the thing we all tell ourselves stories. So the first point is that our stories bring certainty, but not necessarily accuracy. Okay. So our stories give us a path forward, even if that path is leading to Doom, even if that path is disastrous. What what in essence happens is when we have that story, We can tell ourselves, I know what I need to do here. But what we may need to do right based on our story might not be based in reality. It’s just based on our storytelling. So that story also brings certainty because it helps us to have a plan to develop a plan. So we can say I have a plan. Although this is the problem, you may not be solving the correct problem. Because right, your story is based on inaccurate data, or your stories based on a lack of data. And so our brain wants certainty, even if that certainty is negative. Okay, the second thing you need to understand about stories is that stories bring a sense of control, but they undermine trust. So when we have our story, we can say I have seen the enemy, and it is you. Right, so who’s the protagonist in the story, who’s the antagonist in the story, sometimes our stories lead us to the conclusion of I have seen the enemy, and it is me. So we, our stories lead us to blaming and shaming ourselves, because someone’s got to be the bad guy, someone’s got to take the fall. When we think about the stories, bringing a sense of control, that control becomes a false substitute for trust. So again, it brings us this sense of certainty in the moment of uncertainty. But it’s, it’s not actually built on a solid foundation. But again, we can say I know what I need to do, I know what I need to say, I know how to perform, in order to be safe with you, I know how to perform in order to dominate you, I know how to perform in order to crush you, right? It whoever that bad guy or bad gal is.
Dr. Melissa Smith 11:57
So when we rely on control in our stories, we end up managing our relationships, rather than connecting in our relationships. And that’s a big problem. People don’t like to feel manage, it’s not a good feeling. And so what we need to recognize is that trust and vulnerability always go hand in hand, and therefore can never be entirely certain. Right? So there’s always going to be this element of uncertainty and vulnerability when it comes to trust. And we’ve got to resist that poll to control because we know it’s just a false substitute for trust. It’s not built on solid ground. So that’s the second story. They they bring us a sense of control, but they undermine trust. And then the third thing that our stories do, our stories bring a sense of security, but ultimately, they undermine confidence. Okay, so once we’ve constructed our story, we can say this is what I have to do to be safe in a dangerous world, right, we can scan the horizon, we double check, we make no mistakes, we watch our back. And this becomes a recipe for perfectionism and approval seeking. And in the process, right, we’re always looking over our back, it’s coming from fear, we actually are failing to strive for excellence, and we’re failing to pursue what matters to us, which makes it almost impossible to gain confidence, right? Our confidence is undermined at every turn. Because we’re focused on security and safety. We’re not focused on growth and skill building, right? So when we’re in this survival mode, we don’t really have the luxury of relaxing into learning, and developing confidence and competence that comes as a result of being a learner and not having everything figured out. So the the point there is, right, this third point is we need to be aware of our storytelling. And we need to recognize that stories do three things for us. They bring certainty, but not necessarily accuracy. They bring a sense of control, but undermine trust, and they bring a sense of security, but they undermine confidence. So we want to be aware of our storytelling. We don’t want to be good storyteller tellers. When it comes to our own brain. It’s great for fiction, it’s great for other applications, but when it comes to
Dr. Melissa Smith 14:35
operating in life, we want to stay out of storytelling. Okay, and now let’s move to the fourth point. And this is I want to give you a tool to help you so that you don’t get outsmarted by your cognitive distortions, and this is known as the ABC model. And this comes to us again from CBT from cognitive behavioral therapy and we want To help you tackle your cognitive distortions directly using this ABC model, so when we think about experiences in life, we have a, you can think about a as adversity or activating event. So what is the challenge you run up against? Right? So think about that as adversity or activating event, something happens, okay. And then we have b, b is your beliefs about the event, your beliefs about a, your beliefs about what just happened, your beliefs about the adversity or the activating event? So your belief involves both obvious and underlying thoughts about situations yourself, and others. So this is where we really want to get curious and understand, okay, what are the beliefs right at the surface? And what are the beliefs down underneath the surface of, of that experience? So A is adversity or activating event B is belief about the event. And C is consequences, which includes your behavioral or emotional response, okay? So you come up against an adversity, you identify some beliefs about that, think about beliefs as your storytelling, you tell yourself a story about what’s just happened. And then you get into consequences. So you have a behavioral, or an emotional response, based on your beliefs, to that activating event. So the ABC model really helps you identify these inaccurate beliefs, and how they influence your thoughts, emotions, and actions. And what I know is often I’m reacting to the story in my head, right? I’m reacting to my belief, rather than what’s actually happening in front of me, I’m responding to the narrative in my head, not the reality on the ground. And that can lead us to a lot of trouble because we pull other people into our stories, and they don’t, they don’t know the story. They don’t know the narrative. And they can get trapped. It’s very confusing. And it’s not helpful. Okay. So if we don’t keep a check on these beliefs, we can end up feeling all sorts of things, right? anxious, stressed, angry or depressed about ourselves or the world around us. And this experience, right when we don’t keep a check on these beliefs, turns into these faulty beliefs or cognitive distortions. Okay, so that ABC model really helps you to break it down, so that you can keep an eye on what’s happening in a situation so you don’t get derailed or outsmarted by these distortions. Okay, so now, the last thing we’re going to do is I am going to share with you the most common cognitive distortions so that you don’t get tripped up by them. And don’t forget the ADC model, which can really help you follow the trail to better understand how you might get tripped up so that you don’t have you don’t keep tripping over that same. That same rock. Okay, so these cognitive distortions, again, come to us from cognitive behavioral therapy. And so I want you to just listen to these and see what might sound familiar. So the first one is catastrophic thinking. So you expect the worst outcome in any situation, you might find yourself thinking, what if what if this happens? What if that happens? You know, growing up, my mother was a worrier. She still is a worrier. But if we were five minutes late, from home, she had she just assumed we were turned upside down in a ditch somewhere dead. I mean, that was her very first thought. And absolutely was catastrophic thinking and it wasn’t helpful, right? Because, you know, first of all, it made us anxious, it also led us to, you know, not not actually taking her concern seriously, because like, she’s just blowing it out of proportion. Right. And there are lots of good mothers that do that. I
Dr. Melissa Smith 19:22
have certainly done that myself. And my mom’s gotten a lot better about it, we get we tease her now about it and so that that settle down that we get into thinking spirals and I I talk about also as catastrophizing, right, that’s another term for this. You just, you know, if if you know your boss gives you a side eye, you assume you’re going to be fired. So you go to worst case scenario, almost immediately. Okay, now, let’s go to the second one, which is discounting the positive. So when something goes right, maybe you get a promotion. You acknowledge it, but you don’t take credit. Maybe you chalk it up to, you know, someone, someone else messed up, or it was just dumb luck. Or if you receive positive comments on evaluation, you might focus on that single piece of negative feedback, right? So this when we discount the positive, this is a classic example, that Teflon versus velcro brain, right we dismiss the positive, and we hone in on the negative. Okay, the third one is emotional reasoning. So maybe you rely on gut feelings, over objective evidence to judge yourself and the world. So an example of this is I, I am such a bad mother. I feel like I’m a bad mother, therefore, I must be a bad mother. So we let our emotions really take the reins on our thinking, and our emotions, right? There are times that we might feel like, we’re, you know, we’re not doing the best we can. But if we’re not careful, right, we let that become our filter through which we see the world and it’s always full of judgment. So then the fourth one is labeling or mis labeling. So you often define yourself and others with negative labels, this can be so disastrous, especially at work, right? So You’re so lazy, I can never rely on you, you’re stupid. We often when assigning labels will, will focus in on one past behavior or event, we fail to appreciate context, we fail to appreciate change. We don’t focus on the behavioral experience in the moment, we go right to global judgments and labels on others really unhelpful. And then fifth, is mental filtering. So you view yourself your life and your future through a negative lens. So you ignore anything positive. And of course, filtering can lead to a lot of hopelessness and helplessness, because eventually you just say, what’s the point? And so you can think about mental filtering. One way you might think about this is pessimists, right? Like always seeing the glass half empty. And that becomes the lens through which you see the world. And then we have six, six is jumping to conclusions. So you base your decisions, not on what someone says or does, but on what you believe they’re thinking. So maybe you believe you can read minds or anticipate reactions, maybe you spend a lot of time reading between the lines, you don’t necessarily check out those assumptions, you just act on them, you jump to conclusions. Another form of this is fortune telling. This is related to jumping to conclusions, you insist that you can predict the future, regardless of what you do. So, you know, maybe it’s this will never work out that what’s the point it’s is totally going to be a failure. And so, you know, if that’s your belief, what is your work output going to look like? You know, you you actually it becomes a self fulfilling prophecy if you’re not careful. Number seven is over generalization. So when we over generalize, we apply our experience from one event to another. Now, generalization can be helpful, but the key here is over generalization. So we might have had a bad experience in a relationship, and then we conclude that all relationships are bad, or no one can be trusted. And so we want to be really careful about that. Because what does it do? It throws up our walls, and it keeps us closed off from new experiences and learning. Okay, and then eight is personalization.
Dr. Melissa Smith 23:58
So, this might happen if you feel very sensitive. If you have people saying you are you need to stop taking things so personally, right? See, so with personalization, you blame yourself for things outside of your control. You falsely believe that everything that someone says or does is a direct reaction to you, right? So it’s like, Ah, they’re giving me the side eye. What does that mean? It’s all about us. It’s all about how we’re not good enough. It’s all about how we’re hated. We personalize everything. So personalization can convince you that you’re being targeted or excluded. It can also really cause you to compare yourself to others, it’s not helpful. And then nine is polarized or black and white thinking I prefer all or nothing thinking that’s a very common term as well. But this is thinking in extremes. So people and situations are either great or terrible. You know, It’s all success versus all failure. There’s no room for nuance, there’s no room for a balanced perspective. And so that is all or nothing thinking or polarized thinking, and boy, I run into that one a lot. So you can start patting yourself on that, with when you hear always, or never coming out of your mouth a lot that life typically doesn’t work that way. So we want to catch ourselves on that cognitive distortion. And then 10 is should statements. So we have maybe a list of rules for how people should and shouldn’t behave. So this is where you think about, you know, the, the authoritative the authoritarian person in your life, right, whether that was from childhood, whether that was a teacher, whoever that might be. But it’s, it’s that voice in the head of they shouldn’t do that you shouldn’t do that. That’s not how you should behave. So we constantly blame ourselves, or others for what should have been said or done. But wasn’t right. And this is so stressful, because it sends the message that there was a right way to do things, which isn’t always the case, and in any case, isn’t helpful after the fact. So you know, that this comes from, I believe, it’s Albert Ellis, who was one of the fathers of cognitive behavioral therapy. And what he says is you need to stop shooting on yourself, right? Let’s get rid of shoulds in our language, because it’s not helpful. It absolutely points us into a cognitive distortion. So there you go. There are the top 10 most common cognitive distortions. And so I hope that you will use the ABC model, right? So activating event, or adversity, our beliefs about that event, and see the consequences of the consequences of our emotional or behavioral response in those situations to really help you get curious about the cognitive distortions that might be showing up for you and challenge yourself and take responsibility and say, No, I’m not going to use should anymore, I’m going to catch myself on that. Once you really start noticing, paying attention to these cognitive distortions, you will notice them everywhere you go. And it can be really helpful because it gets you back into reality and out of the storytelling. So head on over to my website to check out the show notes with the resources for this episode. You can do that at www.drmelissasmith.com/143-outsmartdistortions/. One more time that’s www.drmelissasmith.com/143-outsmartdistortions/ . I’m also social. I’m on Instagram @dr.melissasmith, I’d love to connect with you there. I always have great content related to the podcast on there. And you can do a little bit of a deeper dive into some of the concepts. So I’d love to hear from you there. I’d love it. If you gave us a review. It helps helps me to get good feedback so that I can bring content that is valuable for you. And it helps others find the podcast as well. So I’m Dr. Melissa Smith. Remember love and work, work and love. That’s all there is. Until next time, take good care.
Transcribed by https://otter.ai