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Why aren't things going how I want them to? Hint: It's your cognitive distortions.


Do you hate failing? Are you overwhelmed with life? Do things just never work out for you?

Sometimes life is hard, but sometimes we make our lives harder than they have to be. We do this by holding onto our cognitive distortions.

What are cognitive distortions?

The term "cognitive distortion" is a fancy term for messages we tell ourselves that aren't true. Maybe you mess up and tell yourself you're worthless. Or maybe you have three awful things happen in one week and you tell yourself that you're doomed to a life of misery.

But once you figure out what cognitive distortions you have, you can start to see these harmful messages as inaccurate. And it's absolutely liberating when you discover what your cognitive distortions are because you find out that you're the one in control of your happiness, and you can start fighting your inner critic.

What are my cognitive distortions?

Here's a list of some cognitive distortions. Once you go through them, you can figure out which ones your want to work on. After you've identified your cognitive distortions, scroll down to the next section to see how you can overcome your distortions.

  • "Should" statements: If you think the words “should, “must,” or “ought,” you’re probably about to stumble upon the "should" statement cognitive distortion. When you use these words, you’re using guilt and shame to get yourself to do something. And applying the words to others will just make them feel inadequate. Using these three words, you sometimes set impossible standards for yourself and others. This is a cognitive distortion because there is no one perfect way to do something, and when you put expectations on yourself and others, you're going to be disappointed when things don't turn out how they're supposed to. 
  • Polarized thinking: This means there you accept only two extreme options. You’re either perfect or you’re a failure. You're good or you're bad. Life is only black and white, and you ignore the gray. But what’s wrong with polarized thinking is that life is a lot of the gray, and you will see the gray as being bad as well, when the gray is actually just the neutral. A lot of the time you're not going to be perfect or be a failure; you're going to be in the middle.
  • Heaven's reward fallacy: When you think that you deserve for things to go right just because you’re doing your best, you are giving into the heaven's reward fallacy cognitive distortion.  When you start thinking that life isn’t fair, you decide that somehow it’s God's fault. This is a cognitive distortion because God never promised life would be easy, even for those who were obedient. Just look at Job’s life. 
  • Catastrophizing: You're catastrophizing when you take a bad situation and exaggerate to make it seem worse. You go into a downward spiral where everything seems like it will fall apart. This is a cognitive distortion because often the disaster you imagine will happen probably won't happen. Instead of picking yourself up by the bootstraps, you’ll end up wallowing in despair.
  • Overgeneralization: When one bad thing happens, you start thinking it will happen again and be just as bad. You may see one unpleasant event as an unending stream of negative events. But this thought pattern will keep you upset and unmotivated.
  • Fallacy of change: If you think that people will change to meet your needs, you're putting your happiness in their hands. If you're only happy when people do as you please, you will often find yourself unhappy.
  • Jumping to conclusions: Assuming what people mean without asking them means you'll end up making incorrect assumptions about their words and behavior. You'll often assume something that’s incorrect, which will eventually cause problems in the relationship and lead to unhappiness. 
  • Blaming: When you blame others for things that happen, you're holding them responsible for what you go through rather than accepting responsibility for things that happen. And sometimes, things just happen that don't have to do with choices you or others intentionally make. But it's also possible for you to blame yourself for everything, and that's not healthy either. It’s not possible for something to always be your fault, and it’s not possible that everything is always the fault of others. 
  • Negative filter: You're using a negative filter when you focus on the negatives and ignore the positive. But life has both positive and negative things that happen, so you're robbing yourself of happiness when you ignore the positive. 

How can I overcome my cognitive distortions?

If you've identified your own cognitive distortions, you've completed the first step! Great work! Now, you just have to start recognizing when you're believing your distortions. Try to catch yourself in the act. When you notice yourself believing your cognitive distortions, tell yourself why it's a cognitive distortion and try to move away from believing it.

For example, if you have a bad date and you start thinking that all of your dates are horrible, and you're never going to have a good date, so you probably won't ever find the love of your life, and you'll probably die alone, then you are catastrophizing. Stop yourself once you notice what you're doing and walk yourself through the thoughts. Just because you had a bad date does not automatically mean you will die alone.

By interrupting your negative thoughts, you can start to overcome your cognitive distortions. Be patient with yourself, and remember that noticing your cognitive distortions will take time, but any small progress is progress.

Try sharing your goals to overcome your cognitive distortions with those you spend time with. If you feel comfortable with it, ask your friends and family to mention when they notice you're going down the cognitive distortion road.

It will take persistent work, but as you overcome your cognitive distortions, you'll find life is much more fulfilling and enjoyable.


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