Anxious Thoughts #1: What Are Cognitive Distortions?

Today’s post was inspired by Caz’s informative series on the topic (cognitive distortions, not jaws of death). Check out her post on 10 thinking errors of depression that could be ruining your life. She has follow-up posts on the same topic as well!

Welcome to your brain gone wonky

Photo by Gratisography from Pexels

When I was doing my cognitive-behavioural therapy program for social anxiety, we learned about cognitive distortions, or, as one psychotherapist I used to see called them, “wonky thinking.”

One way of understanding cognitive distortions is to imagine looking at the world through a negative filter, where you see a warped version of reality that you interpret as true. It’s a biased thinking pattern that affects how you interpret yourself, other people, and the world around you.

Everyone has moments of wonky thinking. What is life if not a collection of subjective experiences that get all twirled together in our minds for better or worse, like salty, delicious mind pretzels? (…I’m hungry.)

But people with social anxiety disorder (SAD) can be practically drowning in distortions (me) and this affects their (our) well-being and mental health. And in the case of SAD, these distortions usually focus on our performance or what people think of us.

It’s like seeing yourself and the world through rose-tinted glasses, except less rose-tinted and more… judgy finger-pointing.

Good times.

Knowledge is power and so are giggles

Photo by Francesco De tommaso from Pexels

The point of learning about cognitive distortions is to begin recognizing them so that you can eventually challenge them.

There are plenty of Very Authoritative Articles providing clinical descriptions of cognitive distortions, and they are of course extremely valuable. But given that Very Authoritative Articles are generally not my jam (I prefer honey anyway) (with butter) (it’s heresy to have honey without butter), I decided to explain the distortions from the perspective of a person who often experiences them.

It is light-hearted (ish) because that’s how I like to approach things, but I don’t mean for it to sound like I’m taking serious matters lightly. I just need a little levity in my life when dealing with heavy topics like this.

The other note I’d like to make is that I wrote this list back when I was in therapy. I’ve come a long way since then in mastering my wonky thoughts.

Here is the list!

Cognitive distortions common to social anxiety

Photo by Pixabay from Pexels
  • Probability overestimation: A bad thing is likely to happen (except it’s not actually that likely).
  • Catastrophizing: If a bad thing happens, it will be catastrophic. One bad thing will unleash a domino effect where each domino is laced with horror and despair until every one of us is devoured by the bloodthirsty jaws of inescapable death (credit for that exquisite turn of phrase goes to Moana’s grandma in this opening scene.)
  • Mind reading: I know what you’re thinking about me, and it’s bad.
  • Fortune telling: I have an invisible crystal ball that is telling me that this is going to end badly. (There’s some overlap with many of these.)
  • Personalization: Whatever it is, whenever it happened, if it was bad, it was my fault.
  • Minimizing the positives: This is the “yeah, but” distortion. If you call me brave, I will say (in my mind), “Yeah, but you only think that because [you don’t know me that well/I’m medicated/you’re trying to make me feel better].”
  • Discounting coping skills: If something bad or hard happens (and it will), I won’t be able to handle it.
  • Should statements: One of our group therapists called this “shoulding all over yourself.” I should be better at this. I shouldn’t need so much help or time. I should never be a bother to anyone. [I am the queen of shoulding all over myself. I’m SO full of should, you don’t even know.] Applies to “must” and “must not” statements too.
  • All-or-nothing/black-and-white thinking: Letting the perfect be the enemy of the good. If I don’t hit a personal best on deadlifts today, everyone will think I slacked on training and it will just prove to them that I am lazy and undisciplined. 
  • Selective attention and memory: Noticing and remembering the negative more than the positive. That one temper tantrum this morning means that my kids are miserable with me as a mother and I am not doing a good enough job. (Never mind that our kids are happy, healthy, and loved.)

Such progress I’ve made, though

Photo by Singkham from Pexels

I used to think I really could read minds, and it never occurred to me that my interpretations might actually be wrong. That sounds arrogant until you consider that all my interpretations about myself were negative.

I also used to think that my social anxiety “quirks” made me unlovable and “bad.” But when I saw the others in my CBT group express those same thoughts and behaviours, it did not seem bad or ugly. It made me feel great empathy for them.

Over time, I’ve learned to extend that same empathy toward myself. And laugh a little at myself, too, but not meanly.

For the longest time, I had this weird feeling of not really “living” my life. I called it living a meta-life. I judged myself and imagined others judging me rather than actually being able to engage in the moment.

This sensation has become less intense over time, and I do think a lot of that is thanks to learning not to trust every knee-jerk thought and reaction I have.

Can I be a little sappy for a sec?

Photo by Frans Van Heerden from Pexels

I found this scrawled in my therapy notes, and thought I would share it because it reminds me of how much I was learning, even in those early stages of treatment:

“Black-and-white thinking is setting yourself up for failure. Learn to tolerate uncertainty and imperfection, and you’ll unlock a whole world of colour.”

Happy Friday you guys.

I really need a snack now.

23 thoughts on “Anxious Thoughts #1: What Are Cognitive Distortions?

  1. There’s a lot to chew on in this post. First off, let me say that I love your selections of photos. They are unique, expressive and always appropriate. The fit so well with your content.

    I really like the “shoulding” concept, as well as living a “meta-life”.I can’t think of a better turn of phrase to describe what you are trying to get across. That just makes it so clear.

    Glad to hear that you are continuing to make progress. This particular “condition” (is that an appropriate thing to call it?) seems to be one of the most challenging and I can see how it could be one of the most debilitating.

    Thanks again for continuing to share.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for noticing the photos 😊 I spend just short of an excessive amount of time selecting the ones I think fit best.

      Interesting question about the word condition. I always say disorder but in clinical terms I’m not sure what the difference between the two would be.

      I do try not to say “MY social anxiety” (although it slips out here and there when I’m not paying attention). I like to think that there’s ME and then there’s the social anxiety getting all up in my face but not actually being a part of the ME me.

      Like

  2. We got called called out for shoulding in therapy yesterday.

    This may be the most relatable, tangible topic for PTSD, too, as we experience it. Traumatic events happened, so then our judgment of likely/possible/probable is skewed. More bad things reinforce the distorted lens, and boom! We are living in hypervigilance (fight, flight, etc.) and OCD full-time.

    Maybe we’ll study these so that we can recognize and name them. How do you personally challenge them? Can this be done in real time? Or is it post-hoc like an autopsy (see, you use jelly and butter and honey as analogies and we visit the morgue. Happy Friday!) πŸ§Ÿβ€β™‚οΈ

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for this comment! Hypervigilance is definitely an accurate description. Also, great question about HOW to actually challenge them. I kind of forgot to talk about that part. Maybe that’ll be my next post!

      But as a quick answer, yes, you can “unlearn” wonky thinking and make new “thoughts paths” in your brain. Retraining your brain, basically. πŸ™‚

      Also interesting about PTSD. I don’t have a lot of knowledge on the experience of PTSD but it sounds like distorted thinking definitely enters into it.

      And your morgue metaphors are ALWAYS welcome in this crazy space. 😁

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I love the goldfish graphic! Mind-reading tends to be where my own particular crazy really goes to town. I can see it later once I’ve taken the crazy goggles off, but at the time I am firmly convinced that my crazy is in fact reality.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Hi Sadie. I actually feel the term ‘mind reading’ used in CBT might be inaccurate in some contexts and be quite dismissive of the patient. I feel that many of us engage in assessing other people’s thoughts through deduction from verbal and physical cues. I suppose, the more vulnerable we feel, the more we do it. Of course, this leads to worry and, often, inaccurate conclusions. However, there is a reason why it is happening. I wonder what you think?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It does make me think of the post you shared on vulnerability and safety. I think we “mind read” to protect ourselves from conflict or rejection, or just to feel some control over a social situation.

      We learned also that people who experience social anxiety are more likely to interpret a neutral facial expression as negative.

      So we’re primed to feel threatened, I guess.

      And I don’t have any solid sources for this because it wasn’t part of the program, but I’ve been thinking a lot about terms like high sensitivity and empathy. Maybe highly sensitive (and highly intuitive) people are more likely to develop social anxiety if they’re in an unsupportive environment.

      All that to say that I see where you’re coming from about the term mind reading. It might not take the whole experience into account.

      What do you think?

      Like

      1. The concept of so-called resting bitch face is an example of a neutral expression being interpreted othwerwise. I think socially anxious or vulnerable people might perceive threat where others perceive something else. But many are engaged in this social interpretation – and getting it wrong!

        (That term is, of course, deeply sexist in usually being applied to women but I just used it as a fairly common example).

        Liked by 1 person

        1. I completely had not made a connection with the term resting bitch face, but you’re right! I wonder if that’s an example of the broader population also mind reading to a certain extent. Or if it just demonstrates how common social anxiety symptoms are.

          (I wonder if there is a “male” equivalent to the term?)

          Like

  5. Thank you so much for sharing this! I went through a number of emotions reading it. Firstly it reminded me of the cognitive distortion list and I’m grateful this post has brought them to the forefront of my mind again. Secondly I identified with so much of it and it’s always comforting to know that other people do understand what social-anxiety is and what it feels like.

    Not being able to live you’re life to it’s fullest is something that many will feel but won’t be able to put into words.

    Great read, thank you πŸ™‚

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for your feedback and encouragement 😊 I feel the same way about knowing there are other people who understand social anxiety, and also more generally who understand the whole idea of a mental health journey, regardless of the particular disorder.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. P.S. I enjoyed your first blog post. WordPress is not letting me comment but I wanted to let you know! Looking forward to hearing more about your journey. You wrote “if I didnt almost reach breaking point I may never have reached out for help” and I feel that.

      Like

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