Everyone distorts reality. We lie to ourselves to make ourselves feel better—or worse. But when we don’t face reality, we make ourselves vulnerable to all kinds of negative emotions like arrogance, disappointment, and depression. It’s important to recognize these lies we all tell ourselves because they give us a one-sided perspective about our experiences and make it harder to interact with other people.
The good news is that these lies are essentially bad habits of thought. By learning to recognize these ten cognitive distortions and put better habits in their place, we can make ourselves better—and happier—people.
10 Cognitive Distortions
You divide everything into black and white categories with no gray area in the middle: always and never, everyone and no one, friends and strangers, good and bad…
You take one experience and see as evidence of a pattern.
You pay attention only to the negative parts of an experience and dismiss the positive.
You feel like you are responsible for everyone around you or that you have no control over your life.
You think you know what other people are thinking or feeling.
Magnification and Minimization
You blow things out of proportion or you minimize their importance.
You tell yourself, “I feel something, so it must be true.”
Fallacious “Should” Statements
You set rigid rules for yourself or others about what they “should,” “should not,” “must,” “ought,” or “have to” do about things that aren’t moral absolutes.
You use single experiences to put yourself, other people, or experiences into broad, judgemental categories.
You blame yourself for something that was partially or entirely out of your control or you refuse to take any responsibility for things that are all or partially your fault.
See the Truth Behind the Lie
Seeing through cognitive distortions is a three-step process. You can begin applying it to your life right away, but you’ll have to practice to make a difference in the way you think and feel.
1. Listen to What You’re Telling Yourself and How It Makes You Feel
- Identify the self-statements you are making. Perhaps you’ve made a joke about a friend, which you later regret. “I hurt her feelings. I feel so guilty. I shouldn’t have said that!”
- Identify how these self-statements make you feel. Look for appropriate, non-judgemental words that describe the emotions. In this case you might feel guilty, angry (at yourself), and disappointed.
- It is important to accept your emotions, not to push them away. Feelings are like the weather—you can’t change them, but you can use them as a source of information about what to do.
2. Search Out the Cognitive Distortions
- Think back to what you know about the kinds of lies we all tell ourselves. Which of your self-statements may be based on a lie? “I hurt her feelings” is a mind-reading statement—you actually have no idea what she’s feeling unless she told you. “I feel so guilty” is emotional reasoning, assuming you are guilty because you feel that way. “I shouldn’t have said that!” is a should statement that you’re using to pass judgement on yourself.
3. Find an Alternative Thought
- Counteract the lies with true, factual statements. Maybe “If I hurt her, she would have told me,” or “I’m the best friend I know how to be, but sometimes I make mistakes and that’s okay,” or even “It wasn’t the best thing to say, but I can make it right.”
- The important thing about alternative thoughts is that they must resonate. They can’t just be something you tell yourself, but something you truly believe is true.
- Alternative thoughts usually don’t eliminate your negative emotions, but they can reduce the emotions’ intensity and direct your thoughts into a more positive, productive direction.
When I first began learning about cognitive distortions, I struggled the most with my “should” statements—as overachievers often do. As my depression worsened, every decision I made became some kind of moral choice between right and wrong. Now, instead of “I should do the dishes,” I tell myself, “If I do the dishes, it will be easier to cook dinner.” I may or may not do the dishes, but I make a rational decision based on facts and consequences instead of feelings of shame and guilt.
Seeing through cognitive distortions takes practice, but being able to see the truth even when your emotions are running haywire will change your life for the better.
What lies do you tell yourself? How do you overcome them? Let us know in the comments.