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Our Brains and Funhouse Mirrors: all about cognitive distortions!

Do you remember those funhouse mirrors at the fair? The ones that make your reflection all bent and twisted in silly ways? Cognitive distortions are like that for your brain! Funky and negative ways of thinking that cause our reflections of ourselves to be a little wonky, but overall untrue. Let’s explore that!

What are they and why do we do this?

Our brains process a LOT of information. To try to help lift the burden, it creates mental filters or biases as shortcuts. Sometimes, these can be helpful, but other times, they fuel anxiety or increase negative perceptions of ourselves. That’s when you know you’ve run into a cognitive distortion. 

A lot of our cognitive biases can be found in overthinking, or ruminative thinking. This is where we spiral into replaying thoughts over and over again. Sometimes it can be helpful in trying to prepare for an upcoming situation and figuring out the best way to tackle it. Other times, when coupled with cognitive distortions, we may experience a deeper spiral into negative thoughts, enhancing feelings of anxiety, increasing unproductiveness, and altogether leaving a serious feeling of helplessness in its wake. 

Common Cognitive distortions

  • Black and white/all or nothing thinking: I always ruin these events.

  • Jumping to conclusions/mind reading: the professor looked at me weird, that means I definitely failed the exam. 

  •  Personalization: My team’s loss is all my fault.

  • Should-ing/must-ing: I should be losing weight instead of going out.

  • Mental filters/focusing on the negative: I am terrible at eating healthy, I shouldn’t even try. 

  • Overgeneralization: No one will ever like me, I will never find a partner 

  • Magnification/minimization (catastrophizing): I made a mistake at work and now I will get fired and never get another job

  • Fortune-telling(favoring negative outcomes): I studied a lot but will fail the exam 

  • Comparison (favoring negative perceptions of oneself): My friends are all happier than me

  • Labeling: I’m just not a lovable person 

  • Disqualifying the positive: I did well, but it probably was just luck.  

Another ingredient that emphasizes these distortions is unchecked emotional reasoning. This empowers a combination of a lot of cognitive distortions, and in short, is where we engage in strong emotions that cloud judgements and can disregard factual evidence. For example, My partner is cheating on me (even though there is no evidence, this distortion is supported by the emotion of jealousy and insecurity), or nobody likes me (even though you have friends, this distortion is supported by feelings of loneliness).

Oh man, I think like this sometimes, I want to fix it!

You’re in luck, the first step of progress is being aware! Understanding how you frame thoughts and feelings towards yourself. If we put in the work to frame things in a more healthy or positive light, we can lessen our anxiety and decrease faulty emotional reasoning. After all, many of these distortions are not based in truth, we need to be resilient in fighting any notions that make it seem like they are! It takes a lot of self reflection, hard conversations with yourself, and a lot of unlearning. It’s not an easy task, but it’s not impossible either! I like to say that baby steps forward are still steps in the right direction. Be proud of yourself and be gentle along the journey!

The difference it makes

Of course progress isn’t linear, we will all have our pitfalls and triumphs when it comes to things like this, but practice makes perfect, and taking that extra time to analyze your thoughts will allow you to free yourself from negative cognitive distortions and pave the way for meaningful relationships, relaxation, and a happier outlook on life! It can also help you be more productive, find new passions, and increase pride in your own identity. It’s not easy, and it’s okay if you need help along the way! Reaching out to mental health professionals to find healthy, tailored coping mechanisms is a great strategy, as well as finding resources on the internet that teach mindfulness practices and mediation techniques! 


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