Do you perceive yourself accurately?
Correcting Cognitive Distortions
If you have ever sought out counseling, or been around people in the mental health field, you've likely heard of Cognitive Therapy. If not, no worries. It's not necessary to know about it to grasp the subject of this blog entry. In general, cognitive therapy focuses on people's thoughts, and how thoughts and thought processes influence their emotions and sense of what's real. Actually, the whole subject of thoughts is quite popular today and there is a lot of self-help literature out there that talks about how our thoughts interact with what happens to us, how we perceive things, and how we feel. It's a big subject, but for today, I want to talk about something called "cognitive distortion." It's a simple idea, and understanding it can help you correct thought patterns and tendencies that don't service you well.
Let's start with an example. Joni is a young woman who has been married for over 10 years and has two young children. She works full-time and her husband is a stay at home dad. He takes care of the kids, and does the cooking and some of the housework. Joni has a high-pressured job and she is responsible for bringing in all of the money to care for the family. She feels that her husband is easy going, extremely bright, motivated, socially accomplished, and great with the kids. He plays with them and they love to be around him. He is patient and happy "all of the time." Conversely, Joni sees herself as impatient, irritable, not nearly as great with the kids as he is, overwhelmed, easily distressed, and in general, not as emotionally together as her husband. She compares herself to him often, and just as often comes up lacking. As I have gotten to know Joni, it is clear that she is quite intelligent, very accomplished on the job, and is still the primary person in her toddler's life. She also does a great deal of housekeeping in addition to being a full-time mom while having a career. The financial responsibilities all fall on her, and she has no time to herself.
Joni's view in this situation is a perfect example of cognitive distortion. She has overvalued her husband's role and contributions while undervaluing hers. Her husband may be all that she perceives, but her perception of herself is clearly off. Her expectations of herself are also unrealistic, which leave her with feelings of inadequacy, a lack of self-worth, sadness and anxiety. The more she thinks about it, the worse she feels, and the more she has repetitive negative thoughts about herself.
Cognitive Distortion Defined
You already have a pretty good idea what cognitive distortion means, but to be exact it refers to thoughts and perceptions that are inaccurate, and that reinforce negative feelings, usually about ourselves.
Where do they come from?
Most often, cognitive distortions go hand in hand with patterns from our history. In Joni's case, she grew up with a very critical mother whom she could rarely please. Even when she was successful at something, her mother diminished or dismissed the achievement. Joni also was regularly challenged with expectations that far exceeded her developmental age and were impossible to reach, which served to reinforce her sense of failure.
As an adult, those reactions are still in place even though the circumstances are different. She in fact is very successful at work, is a good provider, a good mother, and is able to juggle many tasks at once. The fact that it is difficult for her or that she is impatient at times makes perfect sense. I would also believe she overvalues her husband's contributions and characteristics. He is quite wonderful with the children, but also has difficulty with organization, tracking the finances, keeping the house together, and in general focusing on one thing at a time. He is quite creative and imaginative while also being very distracted.
The bottom line is that both Joni and her husband have strengths that contribute to their household, their children and family, and living. Once Joni was able to put in perspective the facts of the situation, she could appreciate her contributions and unique assets as well as her husband's, and her anxiety and sadness lifted. She also was able to trace her patterns of cognitive distortion back to her history. Now when she begins to think in distorted patterns, she can catch herself and stand back and take a look at the reality of what she is thinking, which in turn changes her feelings.
So, the next time you find yourself listing your deficits, stop and take an objective look at the validity of what you are thinking. It's great to be able to look at things that need work or need to change, but it is equally important to make sure you aren't in the habit of bashing yourself in comparison to others, and distorting what is actually true.
If you'd like to know more about cognitive distortions, you might enjoy this list posted on the Psychology Today website. http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/in-practice/201301/50-common-cognitive-distortions