Thursday 5 December 2019

How irrational thought patterns skew our perceptions of ourselves and affect our relationships with others


Irrational thought patterns skew our perceptions of ourselves. Getty Images
Irrational thought patterns skew our perceptions of ourselves. Getty Images
Katie Byrne

Katie Byrne

Anyone who has practised Cognitive Behavioural Therapy will probably be familiar with what are known as 'cognitive distortions'.

These irrational thought patterns, first identified by Aaron T Beck, skew our perceptions of ourselves, and affect our relationships with others.

Beck and, in subsequent years, his student David D Burns, identified dozens of these distortions, many of which are vulnerability factors for depression. The good news is that they can be managed with the right coping tools. Here we look at a few common cognitive distortions, and the ways in which they can be overcome.

* Catastrophising - The taxi due to bring you to the airport is late. This clearly means you're going to miss your flight, miss your appointment and get fired. Your boyfriend doesn't text back. Obviously he's having second thoughts about your relationship. People who catastrophise blow situations out of proportion and imagine the worst case scenario. The best way to overcome this cognitive distortion is to write down the initial thoughts you have in these scenarios along with what actually transpires. With time, you'll be able to identify your most common negative thought loops, while your written records will indicate the most likely outcome.

* Black-and-white thinking - Black-and-white thinkers have difficulty seeing the grey area, perceiving things as polar opposites instead. It's 'always' or it's 'never', just as it's either 'the best night ever!' or 'the worst night of my life'. They also prefer to use potent, emotionally-loaded language - think 'devastated' instead of 'mildly disappointed' and 'exhausted' rather than 'a little tired'. If this cognitive distortion sounds familiar, start to think about the vocabulary you use to describe your emotions and ask yourself if it truly describes the way you are feeling. It's also worth pinning the saying 'It's not either/or, but both/and' to your wall.

* Cognitive labelling - This is when we judge another person - or ourselves - based on one aspect of behaviour. Your boss is impossible to please because she asked you to take another look at your proposal. Your husband is selfish because he didn't unstack the dishwasher. Unfortunately, these generalisations become further entrenched over time as we tend to filter out anything to the contrary. To overcome this cognitive distortion, try to get into the habit of identifying an aspect of the person's behaviour that contradicts your snap-judgement, and start to think of people as ever-evolving beings as opposed to personality profiles that you can easily label.

* Emotional reasoning - This is the tendency to let our emotional reactions dictate our interpretation of an event. For example, if a person feels vulnerable in a social context, they might assume that it's because the people around them are not welcoming. Likewise, if someone feels jealous in a relationship, they might conclude that it's because their partner cannot be trusted. There are various coping tools that a person can use to reduce the influence of emotional reasoning. Foremost, however, is the ability to identify your emotions and know your triggers. Do hangovers make you feel emotional dependent? Does tiredness make you paranoid? The HALT - Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired - acronym from AA is also helpful. If you feel any of these emotions, avoid making big decisions or coming to conclusions.

* Personalisation - This is when we blame ourselves for something that is beyond our responsibility.

It's the mother who wonders where she went wrong when her child is badly behaved or the football player who thinks the coach is specifically singling him out when he talks about the team's shortcomings. People who personalise also have a tendency to point the finger outwards and pin the blame on a scapegoat instead. In order to stop playing the blame game, the person needs to remember that multiple factors shape a single outcome.

* Fallacy of change - This is the cognitive distortion that affects most women about six months into a romantic relationship. Fallacy of change is the belief that our very happiness hinges on the people around us changing their ways. What's more, we believe that they will eventually change if we badger them enough. The authors of Thoughts & Feelings (McKay, Davis & Fanning) eloquently explain the futility of this way of thinking. "The truth is the only person you can really control or have much hope of changing is yourself... Your happiness actually depends on the thousands of large and small choices you make in your life."

* Always being right - The always being right thinking style makes it nearly impossible for certain people to admit that they are wrong. "Having to be 'right' often makes you hard of hearing," write the authors of Thoughts & Feelings. "You aren't interested in the possible veracity of a differing opinion, only in defending your own. Being right becomes more important than an honest and caring relationship." The solution? Learn to say, 'My mistake', and notice the almost instant relief.

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