In the work that I have performed as a relationship coach, mediator, and Licensed Mental Health Counselor over the years, I have noticed how often mistakes in thinking — otherwise known as cognitive distortions — can lead to problems in communication and overall relational well-being.We can often and easily succumb to mistakes in thinking or unexamined misperceptions. It is one thing to do this when we are alone reading a book. It is another when a misperception involves the person to whom we’ve pledged our loyalty and life.
In my philosophical research for my MA in Philosophy, I became very familiar with the Logical Fallacies, or mistakes in reasoning. “Cognitive distortion” is the current phrase of choice within relationship work and the counseling field, especially within the domain of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, from which the following examples are pulled.
Types of Cognitive Distortions
Take a look at these types of cognitive distortions and see if any of them sound or feel familiar to you:
1. Mind Reading or Jumping to Conclusions
This cognitive distortion happens when we assume what another person is thinking without actually knowing, or without investigating whether the assumption we’ve made is actually true. For example, “No one listens to me,” or “He just doesn’t care about me.” This is probably the most common mistake committed in relationships that leads to negative consequences.
2. Denial or Blaming
This involves not giving enough weight to my role in a situation or relational struggle. When denial or blaming happens, I assume that the other person is the cause of my negative actions. It is easy to fall into the trap of automatically assuming that my actions are just a reaction to what the other person started. I’ve often heard people say in session, “Well, sure, I did that. But I wouldn’t have done it if she didn’t say what she did first!”
This mistake can also happen when we blame not getting what we want on the other person not making enough effort, without considering how our own lack of effort contributed. I once heard it said, “Even if the other person is 95% responsible for what happened and I am only 5% responsible, I am still 100% responsible for my 5%.” We are called to own our responsibility and contribution, even if the other person does not.
3. Over-Generalizing or LabelingThis mistake is a variation of Jumping to Conclusions. It happens when we take a single event or smaller group of similar events, and attempt to claim that something always or never happens as a result. For example, “I didn’t get the job I wanted. I will never find the job I long for!”
Over-generalizing often happens when we are feeling negative emotions, such as feeling hurt, anxious, or depressed. It is easy for negative feelings to drive unchecked and over-generalized thought patterns if we let them.
Another form of this cognitive distortion happens when we label a group of people based on a single event or small group of similar occurrences. For example, “My last boyfriend cheated on me. All men are jerks,” or “I felt really judged at my last church. Christians are so judgmental!” (Assuming ALL hold a quality because I have experienced that SOME do).
4. Selective Attention or Mental Filter
It is difficult to avoid this cognitive distortion because it happens so often and so quickly. In part, it is difficult to avoid because we use selective attention all the time to maneuver a very busy, often overstimulating and distracting world. No problem there.
The problem arises when we only focus on negatives while ignoring the positives, or vice versa! For example, only giving attention to the negative behaviors of my spouse will likely lead her to feel like I do not appreciate anything good she does.
And worse, the more negative we notice, the more negative we tend to notice. A negative mental filter begets more of the same, and vice versa.
In other words, this distortion, like many others, can become habitual. The more I practice it, the more it happens without me even thinking about it.
5. Catastrophizing or Can’t-Stand-Its
Catastrophizing happens when we make something worse than it actually is. This can often be an extreme form of the previous cognitive distortion. We focus so much on the negative sometimes that it’s all we can see. And that can feel awful.
Many times, this distortion, like many on the list, hides some underlying strategy. What could possibly be the reason for catastrophizing? Maybe to make it so bad that it’s worth avoiding. Perhaps the underlying motive of avoiding confrontation serves as the reason why we sometimes selectively focus only on the negative traits of our partners?
6. Perfectionism, Black or White, or All-or-Nothing ThinkingAgain, this can seem similar to some of the other types of cognitive distortions that we have already covered. My clients and I have both found it helpful to simply pay attention to the language we are hearing in our minds and the things we say out loud, in order to determine whether this or another cognitive distortion may be operating.
For example, I hear myself thinking, “She never appreciates the things I do around here.” Or, “He is so selfish. He will never change.” There is an element of predicting the future that plays into this type of thinking. We assume that things will never get better, or that a person will never change.
Strong emotions often show up around mistakes in reasoning. It can be hard to tell where the thoughts begin and the strong emotion ends, or vice versa. Notice what happens to my strong feeling of anger when I call one of these kinds of thoughts into question.
For example, “He never pays attention to me.” It is probably closer to the truth to say, “He sometimes pays attention to me, but he’s not doing it now.” Try to experience the difference in feeling between these two statements. Typically, the more absolute the thought, the more extreme the feeling.
One of the discoveries of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is that when you call into question or modify an extreme thought, the corresponding extreme emotion diminishes. We can actually feel better by changing or even simply examining the things we are saying or thinking about the person with whom we are having so many problems.
The Importance of Curiosity
In my research into these types of cognitive distortions, most fallacies or mistakes in thinking are some form of jumping to conclusion, as are many of the items on this list. With all forms of jumping to conclusions, which is another way of saying drawing a conclusion too quickly, without enough evidence, or strictly on the basis of emotion, the antidote is to work towards doing the opposite of what brought the distortion into place.
One of the most helpful words I have found in this practice of undoing cognitive distortions is the word curiosity. You may be curious as to why! Curiosity is one of the qualities closely associated with childhood in a positive light. It is an attitude of “Let’s see what’s happening in there!” It can even be associated with play and feelings of lightness.
Curiosity is tied to exploration, the willingness to unpack something even though it may be difficult or painful. I often say you cannot have a hasty generalization or jump to conclusions if curiosity is alive and well. It can be very hard to do, but it is so effective. The next time your partner says something that hurts you, say to yourself, “I wonder why she just said that.” Try to truly be curious about where those upsetting words may be coming from.
Become an explorer. Dig for the underlying cause.
Think about a time you got upset and said something irrational. Think about a time when someone didn’t get caught up on your imperfect words but saw your heart, stayed in the dialogue with you, or simply just listened. We are experiencing the healing impact that curiosity and empathy can bring to a situation that could easily spin out of control with unchecked assumptions.
If you or someone you know is caught in one ore more of these types of cognitive distortions such a a perpetual cycle of jumping to conclusions, blaming, arguing, and checking out, I or one of the other counselors at Seattle Christian Counseling would be honored to sit with you and help you work through what might be happening.
Walking alongside fellow emotional explorers is one of the things I love most about life. Please reach out if I can be of any service to you.
“Diamond Distortion”, Courtesy of Kaleb Niimz, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Eye”, Courtesy of Kalea Jerielle, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Clean Lenses”, Courtesy of Nathan Dumlao, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Friendly Face”, Courtesy of David Rangel, Unsplash.com, CC0 License