The human brain is an awesome machine. Using our evolved reason, we’ve managed many accomplishments such as inventing computers and probing into the amazing world of quantum physics.
And, yet, our brains still manage to keep many people unhappy, some of them perpetually.
Lots of people have developed unhelpful thinking patterns over many years. Remember, our brains process information. And, we don’t always do it in ways that are beneficial to our mental health. In fact, many people’s brains process life events in ways that make them very unhappy.
But, that distorted thinking is hard to change (and even to recognize) because it’s so embedded in their brain wiring. But, sometimes just knowing about those distortions can help us overcome them (or find ways to). So, below are five common cognitive distortions that can ruin your happiness. Keep in mind, many of these are similar and will overlap.
As the name sounds, catastrophizing involves always assuming the worst possible outcome when processing situations. My boss will surely fire me for this. My son will end up dead if I let him go to prom. If I move, there’s no way I’ll ever make new friends. Many people suffer from this common cognitive distortion and it makes them miserable.
In the vast, vast majority of situations, what we imagine could happen never occurs. A study showed that 85% of what we worry about never comes to pass! However, the stress of worrying about it can cause a host of health problems, both physical and mental.
Descartes said “I think, therefore I am.” Emotional reasoning’s mantra would be “I feel, therefore it must be true.” In other words, if we have a feeling about a particular event, it has to be a genuine fact. I feel like the teacher wants me to fail. I feel like that girl thinks I’m a loser so she would never go out with me. I feel unsafe in planes, so I won’t fly.
Emotional reasoning often turns into a self-fulfilling prophecy. For example, a person feels like he’s unlucky. He then becomes super anxious, so he gets in a lot of accidents. Anyone who engages in a lot of emotional reasoning will ultimately be crippled by it. The facts determined through rational thought should dictate our actions, not a purely emotional reaction. Our brains evolved reason; let’s use it.
The mind reading distortion involves making assumptions about another person’s motive. She didn’t smile at me, so she must be angry with me. My boss didn’t invite me on a business trip, so I must be getting fired. Essentially, mind reading means assuming the motives of another person. And, it typically involves assuming the worst motives about how they are going to do something negative to us!
Mind reading is probably one of the most common of all these distortions and everyone engages in it to some degree. A good way to combat it is to actually talk to the person in question! From the previous examples, perhaps the woman was mad because her coffee was burnt that morning. And, maybe the company didn’t have the money for another spot on the trip. Mind reading leads to a lot of unnecessary stress and worry.
Many times when dealing with our emotions, we delete important information necessary to be happy. “I’ve never been happy in my life” is a deletion from a depressed person. If truly pressed, the person would be able to admit hundreds, if not thousands of happy events. But, this common cognitive distortion deletes them from the person’s thought process. Deletions often occur when people get addicted to negative emotions (yes, this is possible). They consistently dwell on the negative to the point that their brain filters out the positives.
One way to combat deletions is to rationally remind yourself (or someone else) of what they’ve deleted. For example, if a mopey friend says, “I’ve never won anything in my life” you could say, “Well, I remember a few years back when you won fifty dollars in the office football pool.”
I once had a bad girlfriend. Therefore, all women are nasty harpies. This is an example of generalizing. It involves taking a specific event and generalizing it to encompass all situations. Generalization is a common cognitive distortion that leads to racism, sexism, and other types of biased thinking. It also keeps us from living life to the fullest.
We have to remember that one specific incident (or even several) doesn’t always make a pattern. Generalization makes us unhappy because it stops us from having honest judgments about people and situations. Hating an ethnic group or believing a particular gender is all bad (or any other example) can lead to paranoid thinking and hatred.
Knowledge is power. Now you know about these common cognitive distortions, avoid falling into their trap. They will decrease your level of happiness.