(and adopted by adults)
Table of Contents
What are cognitive distortions?
A cognitive distortion is an exaggerated or irrational thought pattern that leads to perceiving ourselves and/or the world inaccurately. They allow us to accept false claims as true, and help us jump from one conclusion to other, unrelated, conclusions.
When exhibited often enough, or strongly enough, they lead to anxiety, increased risk of depression, and strained relationships. They lead to us behaving in ways counter to who we are, in an effort to protect ourselves from something that we view as damaging or dangerous. Often the intent comes from a place that is in alignment with who we are.
Cognitive distortions twist reality so that we’re willing to say this wrong behaviour is better than that potential outcome. Therefore this ‘wrong’ is actually ‘right’ in this situation.
We hurt the ones we care about in an effort to protect them. We harm ourselves because we believe we have no choice.
Cognitive distortions are habitual thinking patterns that often emphasize the negative potential. There are 10, some people list 15, cognitive distortion patterns identified. The ones I’m focusing on today are the ones highlighted in the children’s book, “If You Give A Mouse A Cookie”.
If You Give A Mouse A Cookie, Is It Your Fault He Wants A Glass Of Milk?
For many years the bedtime scene looked the same. After chasing children, brushing teeth, one more snack, then brushing teeth again, then going to the bathroom (again), it was finally time for the bedtime story. By that point I was exhausted and falling asleep, luckily I had all the favourite stories memorized so I could read in the dark, while asleep.
Of course reading in my sleep meant I didn’t always catch the lesson in the story.
In case you’re like me and fall asleep while reading bedtime stories, I’m going to share a bit of insight from the children’s book, “If You Give A Mouse a Cookie” by Laura Numeroff. This cute story shows what life with a toddler is like, and also shows us 5 cognitive distortions in action.
- Over Generalization
- External Locus of Control
Both adults and small children recognize that this series of events isn’t likely, but these cognitive distortions often show up in subtler ways. They’re also interconnected. One leads to another, which leads to another. We quickly pile on enough distortions that it’s really difficult to figure out what the truth is.
As I talk about these cognitive distortions, I’ll also talk about how they impact our connections and what we can do to combat these thought processes.
Catastrophizing is taking one small piece of evidence then twisting, turning, and folding it until it becomes something completely different.
When you give it a cursory glance, it appears to be justified – yes, I like cookies with milk. Last time I gave someone a cookie, they also asked for milk. So it’s likely that this time, this person, will also ask for milk, then a straw, then a napkin, then to sweep, draw, etc.
Yes, drinking with a straw is fun, and so is blowing milk bubbles, so it seems logical that the person with the milk might ask for both a straw and a napkin. These are all things that happen regularly. So when our minds go through the possible series of events, we nod our heads and agree.
‘Yes, this seems reasonable.’
We take information that isn’t necessarily connected then put them together in order to tell ourselves a new story about what harm could possibly befall us.
In life this looks like blowing things all out of proportion or over reacting to a situation. At work, we make a mistake and are certain we’ll be fired.
The ‘Mommy Wars’ are based on catastrophizing thoughts (combined with a few other cognitive distortions). If you do this thing as a parent, then you’ll harm your child, if I’m around you while you do that thing, then it will harm my child.
I’ve seen relationships fall apart when children come along because one parent has a specific idea of what should or shouldn’t be done, and believes if parenting isn’t done that way, then it will harm the child.
We believe if we do or say certain things, then a huge, bad, thing will happen. That’s catastrophizing.
This often leads to feelings of anxiety. That anxiety often leads to fear, which in turn often leads to us directing anger toward others – we blame them for our feelings of anxiety.
Combating this can be as simple as looking at the evidence that it’s not true.
Has there ever been a time when someone didn’t want milk with their cookie? If so, then you have evidence to support a different view: If you give a mouse a cookie, then they might not ask for milk.
Over generalization is related to catastrophizing. We take a small amount of information, a single moment in time, then generalize that to cover so many more moments in time without adequate information.
Someone in the past wanted milk with their cookie, so a mouse will too. Someone in the past wanted a straw with their milk, so everyone else will too.
Might it be true that someone else will want milk and a straw? Yes, absolutely. But it is also likely that someone else will want neither the milk nor the straw. Others might want milk without a straw.
In life over generalizing might look like someone remembering what happened when they made a mistake at their previous job, and assuming the same thing will happen now with this job.
Parents do this often: “A child fell while doing that and broke their arm. If you do this, then you’ll break your arm.”
Overgeneralizing can lead to us diminishing the way we’re willing to show up. It also results in us preventing others from reaching their full potential. We ‘play it safe’. Over generalization leads to creating rules that are increasingly hard to meet.
"You can't go to the park by yourself, because it's unsafe". There is evidence to support this, if you over generalize. Which can lead to: "You can't play in the field across the street, because it's unsafe." Which can lead to: "You can't play in the front yard, because it's unsafe." Which can lead to no outdoor free play at all, or hyper vigilance of risk as this article suggests. All in an effort to keep them safe.
Over generalization leads to us avoiding opportunities and situations that can be a lot of fun, and also help us to grow and reach new heights. We want the best for our children, but over generalization that leads to limitations prevents our children from learning what they’re really capable of.
It can be helpful to look at the ways in which the in fear is incorrect. Find times when the feared outcome didn’t happen. Another way we can combat over generalization is to look for ways in which this situation lead to an even better possible outcome.
Locus Of Control
Locus of control refers to whether we believe we have control over the world, our life, or situation, or whether that control is out of our hands. An external locus of control means we believe things happen to us and we have no control over what happens or over the outcome.
The mouse wants to cut his hair so we have to agree. The mess and extra work are forced upon us and we have no control over what happened or how it’s dealt with.
There are different types of locus of control. Internal, external, and combined. A healthy locus of control means you know there are things in life you can or can’t control, and you know how to tell the difference.
You can’t control whether the mouse will ask for milk togo with his cookie, but you have the power to say, “No, I’m sorry, I can’t/won’t give you milk to go with that cookie.”
In life we say things like, ‘It just happened…There’s nothing I could do…” That might be true, it might not. We can ask ourselves, “In what way would the outcome be different if I behaved differently?”
Let’s say you’re running late after work, but have to stop at a bank. You go to a different branch than usual, and just as you get to the teller a bank robber comes in with a gun. They motion with the gun and scream at everyone to get down. You don’t move fast enough for their liking, the point the gun at you and scream at you to get down. As they scream at you, the gun goes off and a bullet grazes your arm.
What parts were in your control? What weren’t?
In life, we have a negative internal locus of control view when we focus on the things we could have done differently – if only I wasn’t running late, if only I didn’t go to that bank, if only I moved faster. In reality, it may be true that had you been there at a different time, been to a different bank, then you wouldn’t have been in that situation. But you had no way of knowing, you had no control over what actually happened. That unlucky series of events wasn’t within your control.
How fast you moved also had no bearing on whether the robber would’ve pulled the trigger.
What was in your control is anything you said or did, how calm you remained, whether you followed directions, or not. Focusing on couldas and shouldas that are out of our control lead to us feeling worse and worse, heightened stress and anxiety often follow. Focusing on what we did well that was in our control helps us feel better about the situation.
But that’s an extreme case, in life we have control over whether we agree to something or not, we can control our own thoughts, emotions, and actions, we cannot control someone else’s.
We cannot control whether our children throw their boots on the floor when they come in, we can control whether they have a place to put them, we can control whether they know where we want their boots, we can control how we respond when their boots aren’t where we want them. We cannot control whether our partner loads the dishwasher, we can control whether we tell them they did it wrong.
Asking ourselves what we had control over and what we didn’t can help us see where we let our thoughts become distorted. If you believe you had an external locus of control, ask yourself what you did have control over. If you believe you had an internal locus of control, ask yourself what wasn’t in your control.
If you believe the situation was out of your control, ask yourself, “what DID I have control over?” There is always something. What you think, feel, say – how you respond – is in your control. Did you make the situation better, or worse? What might you do differently next time?Tweet
Go deeper. What lead to this situation? How much actual control did you have over the events that lead to this situation?
Personalization is when we make everything revolve around ourselves. This shows up in different ways in life. It may show up as the belief that everything we see or notice is a personalized message to us from the universe. It can also show up as an exaggerated belief that our actions impact external events and people.
In this book the boy takes responsibility for everything that happens because he believes his single action of giving the mouse a cookie directly lead to everything that happened after.
In life this often shows up in relationships as one person believing their partner’s bad mood is all about them. You look angry, and I believe it’s directed at me. My husband and I do this aaallllll the time. Luckily we’ve learned to check in, “You look angry and the story I’m telling myself is that you’re angry at me because…”
At work we see things that happen as directly related to our actions, even if they aren’t. We send an email to the people in our division related to the project we’re working on. A week later we see the exact words we used show up in a coworker’s email that’s sent to your division and the higher-ups. Two days later the coworker who sent the second email gets promoted.
It’s easy for our brains to say that it’s because we sent that email or because we didn’t send it to the higher-ups. We make the situation about us. We also often change our behaviour to fit this new information.
Maybe we treat that coworker a little worse. We go out of our way to poke them, be snide, or sarcastic toward them (they think it’s because they got promoted and have no idea what you actually think happened).
We may begin to send our emails to the higher-ups also. But company policy is that you’re not supposed to. Your coworker had done so because they already had the promotion, and were invited to send the email. They shared your words with the higher-ups because they wanted to put a good word in for you, they wanted you to go into the other opening that was coming up.
The initial situation wasn’t about you, at least not the way you thought it was, but your new actions hurt your future prospects at this company.
I always tell people: If in doubt, reach out. Ask the other person about what happened. Share your perspective, not to accuse, but to clarify. You will always do better if you know where the other person stands. This level of connection will help you get to where you want to go.
If you don’t have the opportunity to talk to the other person, maybe because you’re driving and the other person is in a different vehicle, it can be useful to imagine a situation in which you’d understand the other person’s actions.
There are times when someone’s actions do directly lead to a negative outcome. Blame is taking the fact that something happened and saying the person is a Bad Person as a result. It also shows up when someone assigns responsibility for something that isn’t their fault. For instance blaming one person for someone else’s thoughts, words, emotions, or actions.
Blame isn’t directly shown in the story, but there is an implication that the boy would take blame if the mouse were upset. The boy gives the mouse everything they ask for. Why did he do that?
In life we often do this to prevent someone else from being upset. Give the mouse what he wants so that he stays happy. Give our toddlers what they want so they don’t cry.
I’ll say it over and over again, it’s okay if someone else is upset. It’s okay if you’re upset. It’s okay if someone cries.
You will be okay if you’re sad, angry, worried, or even afraid. You will be okay, and so will anyone else who has these, or any other, emotions.Tweet
It is not your responsibility to manage someone else’s expectations or emotions
No one else is responsible for yours.
Blame and assigning/taking responsibility for outcomes are closely related to all other types of cognitive distortions. It’s very easy for our brains to take our thoughts along a distorted path that directly leads to pointing fingers.
Catastrophizing and over generalization often lead to blame before anything even has a chance to happen. “Because you did that thing over there, all these other things will now happen and they will all be your fault!”
Locus of control leads to us blaming ourselves or others depending on whether we view a situation as in or out of our control. Personalization often starts with us taking responsibility, but often leads to blaming someone else.
Why Do We Do These Things?
Pre-wiring in our brains
Each of these cognitive distortions come from a good place. Our brains want to protect us, and those we care about, so our brains pay attention for possible dangers. Once upon a time it was important to over generalize, and even catastrophize, potential danger.
“That path over there leads to the cave the bear sleeps in. The last time someone went over there, they got too close to the cave, and the bear cubs, then the mama bear ate them. If you go down that path you will get eaten by the bear.”
“I see a cave over there, it looks an awful lot like the cave the mama bear slept in. If we go over there, we’ll be on a bears insides by dinner.”
A distorted locus of control sometimes comes from other people. Many parents blame their children when the parent is upset, “I’m angry and screaming because you did this thing.” In relationships we do this also.
At work someone may blame us for something that’s out of our control.
The more these types of things happen to us, the more likely we believe they are our fault, and that we do have control over these types of situations.
They may also happen inadvertently. Like Pavlov’s dogs, we can train ourselves to respond specific ways in certain situations. We can do this accidentally.
Toddlers do this often. They require a specific bedtime routine in order to go to bed, they must have a certain cup in order to drink, they must touch a specific spot when they get in the car and do everything in a specific sequence. This leads to a belief that doing this specific thing gives us control over a situation we have no control over.
As adults this looks like having a pre-work routine day after day. Things go great, but one day your pre-work routine gets messed up, and your day falls apart. If this happens once, we may be lucky and brush it aside- recognizing that whatever lead to messing up your routine also impacted other aspects of you and your day.
The more times you notice a change in your pre-work routine leading to upheaval in your day, the more likely you will believe you have control over things out of your control. You will also see anything that messes up your pre-work routine as a ‘sign’. What message is that sign sending you?
Seeing patterns that don’t really exist
Front-line workers do this when they talk about the full-moon. They notice all the times ‘crazy’ happens on a full moon. They then blame those situations on the full moon, and can even decrease their effort on the full moon because they believe they have no real control over the situation.
They fail to put as much weight on the information that says ‘crazy’ is just as common on any other day of the month. They also fail to notice the full moons that don’t bring any ‘crazy’ at all.
Noticing patterns is beneficial to us in many ways. Sometimes we notice patterns that don’t really exist.
I like to notice the number 626 (that’s Stitch, from Lilo & Stitch). I notice it often, I even pull it out of the middle of larger numbers. I view it as a both an uncommon number and therefore it matters when I notice it. I jump through a lot of hoops to make the data fit my perception. But is it really any less common than any other number? In order to find out I’d need to pay attention to all numbers I see and track them. I’d also need to track number combinations that show up in the middle of larger numbers.
A cognitive distortion like that is fun, silly, and doesn’t impact life. But I could take it farther and then say that seeing this number means something specific, and then make decisions based on whether or not I see that number.
You may have noticed a pattern with these cognitive distortions. They grow when we prove our thoughts correct. The more evidence we find to prove those thoughts correct, the bigger the thoughts grow.
They’re also interconnected. As one thought is proven correct, we quickly add on a new distortion. We prove that distortion correct, which leads to yet another distortion. Each distortion reinforces the beliefs that prevent us from living or enjoying life fully.
These distortions aren’t bad, the reasons our brains go there are based on pre-wiring that once kept us safe. Our intent behind proving the distortions correct is good. We want to keep people safe. We want to include people. We want to be good people. Those are all good intentions. Unfortunately, the outcome is not so good.
The outcome leads to disconnection. It also leads to diminishing what’s possible in life.
The main way to combat these distortions is to look for proof that those thoughts are incorrect.
Following the thoughts through to see where they lead and how they influence other thoughts helps untangle the knots that lead to increased anger and anxiety.
When we combat thought distortions, we open the door to possibilities. We make it more likely our possibilities will become realities.
Our coaching program, The Power of Connection, helps you identify the ways in which cognitive distortions may impact your relationships. We then give you tools and activities that can help you shift your thinking in a way that strengthens relationships and connections.
If this sounds like something that may interest you, please book an interview so we can get to know each other and determine if our program is, in fact, a good fit for you.