Is 'Cognitive Photoshop' Making You Anxious?
Negative feelings are such party poopers.
Anger, anxiety, depression, and the lot are not polite or politically correct to talk about in many social settings. They feel uncomfortable, and it's easy to judge ourselves as being "weak" for having them, even if we don't subscribe to Pollyanna-esque naiveté.
So we learn to manage our negative feelings. One common way we do this is by performing what I call "cognitive Photoshop"—rationalizing our feelings away and becoming needlessly stern with ourselves for having human emotions. Essentially, we use our intellect to explain and then functionally bypass our experiences.
Do any of these behaviors sound familiar?
- "Contrast" setting: We say things like, "It's no big deal. It's not as bad as starving children or so-and-so's situation." Pain becomes a competition, as though we're not allowed to feel it because someone else has it worse.
- "Brightness" setting: We use platitudes like "Think positive!" and "Be proactive!" While it's important to be optimistic and solution-focused, we cannot bypass the reality of our experiences. And sometimes, our experiences are negative—even dark.
- "Highlights" setting: Gratitude builds mental and emotional fitness, but when we're extending ourselves trying to conjure up 10 things to jot down a day, it can sometimes become a dogged mechanical exercise that actually makes us unable to feel grateful.
- "Empathy" filter: We say things like "Hurt people hurt people" to justify why we should let others get away with recurring toxic behavior, but we forget to be empathetic to ourselves—even if we’re feeling hurt or being taken advantage of. Because we care more about others' feelings than our own, empathy becomes our kryptonite, and this leads to empathy burnout.
- "Everyone deals, so why can't you?" filter: We don't talk about our difficult times, so we feel alone and imagine everyone else dealt better. We judge ourselves for being weak and emotional.
- "Shit happens" filter: We tell ourselves things like deaths, losses, and dilemmas are part of life, and so we expect ourselves to suck it up and soldier on without giving ourselves permission to grieve or process them.
- "Quick fix" filter: We expect that popping a pill, taking a bath, or going to yoga will miraculously solve the problem, except that we're merely going through the motions.
- "Time travel" filter: When haunted by the past, we scold ourselves about how it's been "so long ago" and expect ourselves to "just snap out of it."
Cognitive Photoshop is especially easy if you tend to be more cerebral. Your brain automatically leans toward being rational and trying to assign a "logical" explanation and/or solution to everything. Think of this orientation toward logic as a well-built muscle: The more it's worked out, the bigger it gets, and the more automatic the process becomes. Rationality can make life seem more controllable, when everything seems to be assigned a meaning, as compared to understanding our emotions, which are complicated, animal-like, and messy.
Except that this doesn't solve the problem. Why?
Because anxiety isn't meant to be ignored. We evolved anxiety to signal when to withdraw, so we can protect ourselves and survive. When ignored, anxiety becomes the child you're ignoring. It will scream louder and tug at you.
Anxiety makes itself heard via that urgent preoccupation bubbling up inside us, causing us to get lost in the tornado of thoughts in our head. Our bodies react—migraines, tight chest, tense muscles. We start to notice them or even look for these physiological reactions—in psychology speak, we call it "hypervigilance"—and get even more anxious. We catastrophize, believing something very bad is inevitable. To manage, we perform even more cognitive Photoshop.
Eventually there comes a point where logic fails to hold the fort, and this erupts as anxiety attacks, panic attacks, or the times you "let it out"—doing the things you regret like drinking excessively, having a meltdown, or saying things you don't mean.
When that happens, you affirm to yourself that your feelings are dangerous. The vicious cycle of cognitive Photoshop and anxiety perpetuates.
Cognitive Photoshop, essentially, is managing a train wreck.
Stop managing. Start mastering.
Managing anxiety costs you more time and more anxiety. Consider how we start feeling despondent and inauthentic about the chasm between our Photoshopped pictures on social media and real life. There's messy reality on one hand and perfectly curated photos on the other, which portray a totally different image. Eventually, we become acutely aware of how both don't match up, and yet we feel pressured to keep up the charade. As the mental health struggles mount, it feels like we're managing a train wreck.
Instead of managing, I advocate mastering our minds, starting with internalizing these five important lessons:
1. Your "negative" feelings aren't negative.
Most people fear that the intensity of their negative feelings will overwhelm them, and therefore they perform cognitive Photoshop. Know that your nervous system can regulate itself and that your negative feelings are really signals that guide you toward what to do next. Your body is wiser than you believe, and if you partner with it, you'll master yourself.
2. It's not about becoming obsessed with feelings, either.
Many left-brained people's biggest reservation about mastering anxiety is that they'll become overly emotional and too "soft." That's just not true. Being mindful and in touch with your emotions can actually help you make more rational decisions—that is, decisions that are actually healthy for you in the long run. It's about training your feelings and brain to work with each other, instead of against each other.
3. Figure out why you're so hard on yourself.
The playground bullies we once knew have become our inner mobsters. People who use cognitive Photoshop are often extremely self-critical. Be aware of that voice that's saying mean or judgmental things in your head, and figure out whose voice that really is.
4. Know how you escape.
People who rely heavily on rationalizations to deal with anxiety will also tend to seek out ways to throw those niceties out the window as often as possible. We oscillate between living in our heads and running away from our heads via various forms of self-medication. Worse is how we justify it by saying we're having fun or rewarding ourselves. Before you do anything, always ask yourself, "Am I doing this to be good to myself or to medicate?"
5. Ground yourself.
When anxious, we react instinctively and make poor decisions; moreover, there is a difference between worrying and solving. To move from the former to the latter, we must ground ourselves by returning to our bodies. We pause and understand what our emotions are telling us, rather than escaping them. Instead of reacting, we now have time to respond. This way, we can then use our brains together with our hearts to plan and solve problems, which results in wiser decisions.
We don't try to cognitive Photoshop away physical illnesses, so we need to extend that same respect to our mental health.
Your brain may be the best Photoshopper in the world, trumping the geniuses behind the Victoria's Secret and Vogue photo shoots. But acknowledging our emotions and being mindful of our feelings—instead of being dismissive of them—is one of the most important steps toward healing. When we harness our emotions as vital sources of information to guide us, our brains can then use that information to start working for us, rather than against us. When the brain and the heart are working in tandem, it opens up a pathway to heal from past pains, free ourselves from anxiety's constant grasp, and walk toward living more fulfilling lives.
Perpetua Neo, DClinPsy, is a psychologist and executive coach currently living in Singapore. She received her doctorate in clinical psychology from University College London and her master's in philosophy from University of Cambridge. Her first book This Is What Matters was published by Simon & Schuster in May 2022, which guides you to transform crisis to strength, or design an #EverydayAmazing life.
She has been featured in Elle, Forbes, and Business Insider and has previously worked with Olympians, business professionals, and individuals seeking to master their psychological capital. She works globally in English and Mandarin-Chinese via Skype and Facetime, blending cutting-edge neuroscience, psychology, and ancient wisdom.