Issue #11: How Our Brain Plays Tricks On Us
Learn about cognitive distortions, making the most out of every day and how to slow down
Dear mental health advocate,
This week has been a busy one. Glad the weekend arrived to unwind a bit. Hope you can do the same! A new edition of The Present Psychologist Paper in your inbox to raise some more awareness on psychology topics.
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And now, back to the content. We all have a brain, a magical and complex organ. But sometimes, well, it plays tricks on us. Our thought patterns and beliefs are not always fact-based. We sometimes assume wrong things, skip a few steps and mess up our thinking. These are called cognitive distortions. And guess what, we all do this…
Then, I have a few recommendations about psychology articles written by some great writers. Learn about how we can slow our brain down in a fast-paced world, how to make the most out of every day and why we don’t always see things in the world the same way like other people do. Keep on reading to find out more!
Cognitive Distortions: How Our Brain Plays Tricks On Us
The funny thing about our brain is that it can compute, reason, think about abstract concepts and logically deduce what happens around us. But, sometimes we overestimate how levelheaded and realistic we are. Even though our brain can do amazing things, we are not really the rational human being we often claim to be. And I do not mean this in a negative way. I mean, I love the fact we are emotional creatures too, that we are able to fall madly in love, cry uncontrollably, laugh about random things and can still hope for better things in life when all seems to be lost. That’s the beauty for me. We are not cold robots endlessly calculating movements and making optimal decisions every second of every day.
So, although we generally like to believe we think logically, in many situations we do not. While we apply common sense to what happens around us, most people also let their brain trick them to perceive reality in a wrong way. This can occur in a subtle way. At my previous job, I remember having to report to my manager. I tried to summarize properly what took place that day with a client and apparently drew a few conclusions I should not have. My manager responded with ‘Well, you know what they say. Assumptions are the mother of all screw ups!’. The weird thing was that I did not even realize I was making any assumptions. That is how my brain tricked me. I assumed something and considered it the truth, which is why I did not question it.
This was an example of what we consider a ‘cognitive distortion’ in psychology. Before I actually explain more what these brain tricks are, it is good to mention that we all deal with these distortions from time to time. Some more than others, but we all have them. We sometimes see things more negatively than we have to, make wrong assumptions or think irrationally. Most people do not realize they have unhelpful thinking patterns. What I want to achieve is that everyone who reads this becomes a bit more aware of these processes in our brain, so you can help identify them and reframe them. It is useful to understand cognitive distortions as they can stand in the way of your happiness and relationships. So, let’s dive in!
What is a cognitive distortion?
Our brains are responsible for our thought processes and play an important part in how we behave. As the world around us is very complex and a lot of stimuli are thrown our way, the brain needs to operate with high-speed level to make split-second decisions. If we would carefully weigh every single type of input we receive, we would never be able to function. There are too many choices that need to be made on the spot. If someone approaches us, we quickly depend on a first impression to figure out if they mean well or not. This quick decision-making process is very useful - most of the time. It has resulted in humans being a successful species. But there’s a catch.
As explained, we are not fully rational. Instead, our emotions, traumas, problems and personality also influence our thoughts. We make mistakes in our thought processes. We think things that are not necessarily based on facts and reality, we exaggerate situations, behavior and people’s intentions. It is perfectly human. To sum it up in a definition written by the American Psychological Association, cognitive distortion is:
Faulty or inaccurate thinking, perception, or belief. Cognitive distortion is a normal psychological process that can occur in all people to a greater or lesser extent.
These distortions can affect a person’s behavior and emotions. A famous psychiatrist named Aaron Beck saw how people with depression suffered from extreme negative beliefs about themselves and the world around them. Based on his research he developed Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), a form of talking therapy which proved to be effective to deal with depression and other mental health struggles. CBT is focused on changing perspectives which are basically cognitive distortions. Other researchers further build on this research and tried to define several of them.
Examples of cognitive distortions
Any type of thought pattern that is not based on facts essentially can be seen as a cognitive distortion. Psychologists have defined several different types of cognitive distortions based on unhelpful beliefs influencing our thoughts, emotions and actions. I will discuss the twelve common ones and provide examples how these could look in real life situations. As a side note, do not get discouraged or think there is something wrong with you if all twelve have applied to you. That’s pretty normal. Most of us can tick all twelve boxes.
Mind reading. When you assume you know what others are thinking. While it is possible to have empathy and be aware of the signs someone is showing to you, it is not always possible to know exactly what they mean or what their intentions are.
Example: You see people at a party whisper, huddled together. You think they are talking about you and judging you for the outfit you are wearing.
Negative focus/filtering: When you ignore the positive aspects that are present and only focus on or see the negative aspects. It is good to be aware of risks, but not balancing negative perspectives with positive ones impact your mental health.
Example: You had a long day at work. You made a few good sales, but your manager also made a negative comment. Despite your accomplishments, you only focus on the criticism.
Catastrophizing: When you expect the worst-case scenario to happen to you. Basically, you think about what could happen (what if?), but instead you jump to the most negative conclusion.
Example: You are studying for your exams and you are sure you will fail and never become the doctor you always wanted to be.
Labeling: When you label yourself or someone as a result of a single event, characteristic or action. You base your whole perception on that particular thing. These labels are often quite negative and/or extreme.
Example: You make a mistake at work that impacts others. You tell yourself ‘I am such a loser’.
Should-thinking: When you set certain rules how things should happen or how people should be and act. This is based on expectations and often means there are no exceptions to the rule. If the rule is broken, you feel frustrated.
Example: You think emotions make people weak. So when you feel sad or cry you hate yourself as you shouldn’t - according to your rule.
Overgeneralizing: When a single negative event occurs and you believe this is a steady, consistent pattern. As a result you think certain things always or never happen. This can apply to situations in the world or specifically in your life.
Example: You go on holiday and the weather is bad. You say: ‘Damn, this always happens to me! I am so unlucky every single time.’
Emotional reasoning: When you believe that how you feel is a reflection of reality or evidence which proves something. Also, this can mean you use your feelings to assume a future event.
Example: You start your working day with feeling a lump in your throat. You believe this means today will be an awful day and something disturbing will happen.
Fortune telling: When you think a future event is already set in stone and the outcome is a sure fact. In this case, you do not take the realistic odds into account.
Example: You thinking to yourself ‘No matter how hard I try, I will fail anyway’.
Personalization: When you feel personally responsible or guilty for things that happen outside your control. Or, you blame someone else for something outside of their control.
Example: Survivor’s guilt is an example of this, feeling guilty you survived an accident even though you could not help it.
Owning the truth: When you think and believe you are always right and your opinion by default is the truth. Your thoughts are facts and you will do your best to prove it to others.
Example: You claim to your partner they are cheating and your distrust or hunch is presented as a fact. You tell them: ‘I know it is true.’
Just-world thinking: When you believe the world and everything that happens is balanced fairly and people get what they deserve. Action leads to reaction, right? This means that if something bad happens to someone, they must have done something wrong.
Example: Victim blaming is an example of this. If a girl gets harassed or abused sometimes people say: ‘Well she must have provoked it herself by wearing a short skirt!’
Control fallacy: When you assume you can control everything that happens in your life OR the other way around, that you cannot control anything and everything is already written in the stars. It can also apply to other people’s lives, that you feel responsible for controlling how they are or feel.
Example: Your mother suffers from depression and you feel responsible for her feeling happy or good, so you try to cheer her up all the time.
Why do they exist and how to deal with them?
As I mentioned before, cognitive distortions are very human. Sometimes they can even be useful or helpful to a certain extent. Think about a negative focus. Yes, it could make you feel bad about everything that is happening, but at the same time it helps you to anticipate everything that can go wrong and do something about it. This is exactly why some evolutionary psychologists hypothesize we have them. In our hunter-gatherer past we often faced threatening situations and instead had to focus on thinking adaptively instead of logically. Why? Because in those cases we were better off safe than sorry. Others say we deal with cognitive distortions as a result of all the trauma and negative events we went through as a person.
This could explain well why cognitive distortions and negative beliefs are strongly associated with our mental health. If you deal with depression or anxiety for example, it is likely many of these thought patterns and pessimistic perspectives occur. It is a way to deal with what you are going through. Unfortunately, these brain tricks can strengthen negative beliefs or worsen your mental health struggles. That is exactly why Aaron Beck created Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, as it is a great tool to help people deal with cognitive distortions. If you struggle with them, I hope this article has shed some light on these patterns. Considering CBT is something I can recommend to everyone as it is highly effective!
📚 Some Good Reads
Welcome to my new feature! Here I will share some great reads by other psychologists, therapists and journalists. Free to access and of course related to our mental health.
Do you also live for the weekend and counting down the days? Many feel stuck in their jobs and try to survive the work week only to put pressure on the weekend, because that is when the fun is supposed to happen. Susan Krauss Whitbourne gives some great tips how to enjoy the other days too. Read ‘3 Ways to Make the Most of Every Day’ in Psychology Today here.
Why do people sometimes view the world, politics and facts differently? UCLA psychology professor Matthew Lieberman tries to explain how many individuals see their understanding of the world as objective truth, while instead it is more of an opinion. How does that work? Read the article ‘Why People Don’t View the World the Same Way Others Do?’ in Science Daily here.
Our brains are overwhelmed in the current fast-paced world, with too much input. Voices are getting louder that we should focus more on unwinding and slowing down a bit. Teodora Stoica has written a great piece on how are brains are impacted by this cognitive overload. Read ‘Slow Down, It’s What Your Brain Has Been Begging For’ in Aeon’s Psyche here.
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My name is Alf Lokkertsen and I am a psychologist and writer, creating mental health content for you. My passion is to raise awareness about topics related to psychology, as it has helped me greatly in my personal life. I strongly believe that many problems could be avoided or dealt with better if everyone had some in-depth psychology knowledge.
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