“I'm so upset,” my client Myra exclaimed the other day. “I've been doing this whole dating app thing for almost five months now. Finally, I met a guy I actually liked: Paul. I mean, he has just about everything I'm looking for! But now it’s been four days since our last date, and I haven’t heard from him. What did I do wrong? How is this possible? He must not like me. Why do none of the guys I like, like me back? I am never going to find my 'one'!"
Those of you on the dating scene can probably relate to this all-too-common thought train. Even if you're not currently dating, there are probably areas of your life where your anxieties run away with you. Is it your ability to get in shape? To find a career you love?
Here's the wacky thing about us humans: We take a simple event, like a potential mate not calling us for four days, and spin it around and around in our minds until it becomes a calamity. We assign meaning to something that, by itself, may not mean anything. The only thing we know for sure is that Myra’s date didn’t call. The rest is pure imagination. And we suffer. Tremendously.
There is a term for this type of imagination proposed by psychiatrist Dr. Aaron Beck and popularized by Dr. David Burns in 1980. The term is cognitive distortion. Understanding how you cognitively distort is key to breaking free of some of your most toxic mental traps.
By seeing these thoughts as distortions rather than reality, you can actually free yourself from them. It’s like how, as a kid, you realized that there really wasn’t a monster in the corner. It was just a shadow thrown by a doll on a pile of books. Once you realized what was causing the specter, you could rest peacefully.
Think about an unhappy moment in your life this past week. Got it? Now take a look at some of the most common distortions I see in my clients, and see if you can identify the one that affected you in the rough moment you had this past week.
You selectively see only the negative details of a situation while ignoring the positive ones. For example, Myra chose to focus on this one man not calling her as opposed to noticing all of the men who were paying attention to her. This “glass half-empty” distortion will leave you forever dissatisfied with your life, as you will be able to find negative elements in any situation.
You exaggerate the impact of one incident on yourself and your future. For example, Myra catastrophized that because Paul didn’t call her for four days, she would end up alone. It is highly unlikely that this one experience with Paul could have such a sweeping impact.
3. Jumping to conclusions about others
You assume that you know why someone did what they did. In this instance, Myra assumed that Paul didn’t call her because he didn’t like her. While that is certainly one possible explanation, there are others: that he was slammed with work or that he felt like he always initiated contact and wondered if she would. It usually pays to ask.
Ever heard the saying “The world does not revolve around you?” It sounds obvious, but we act like we don't believe it sometimes. Myra assumed that Paul didn’t call her back because of something she had done. When, in reality, it might not have had anything to do with her: He may have gotten back together with his ex or been busy taking care of his mother. While, yes, people do care about you, they are usually far more absorbed in their own lives.
5. Global labeling
Humans are programmed to put labels on things so we can navigate the world around us. This fruit is a strawberry. Earthquakes are dangerous. Sometimes, labeling can hinder you instead of helping you. For example, labels like “I am not good at networking” or “my brother is terrible at communicating” put both you and your brother in a box and make it less likely that you will get what you want. Is networking important to your career success? (Answer: Yes!) Then why would you want to label yourself as bad at it?
6. The fallacy of fairness
How often do you say things like, “It’s just not fair. I work harder than Joe, and yet he’s being promoted over me!” You feel wronged and angry. Yet there really is no law that suggests the world should be fair—especially by your admittedly self-centered definition of fairness. When you let go of that need for fairness, it gives you a chance to decide how to react to what is, instead of feeling wronged by what isn’t.
Which one of these cognitive distortions are you suffering from right now? Think about something that really burned your cookies in the last week. There was an event, and there was your reaction to the event. Which reaction did you dial up? Share with us!