“They said I’d be a failure
and collect dust on the shelf
I’ll show the world I’m something else
Twist their words and make somethin’ of myself.”
—Out of Reach by Charles Aubrey Rogers
Cognitive Distortions to Cognitive Restructuring
Many of us default to cognitive distortions. That means we look at things from a point of view that is more critical and often results in our saying things to ourselves like, “You are so stupid!” Or “I should be through all this by now. Why can’t I get back to normal?”
When you struggle with self-defeating remarks, it can lead to low self-esteem, suicidal thoughts, relationship issues, depression, addiction, and more. What’s worse, it can leave you stuck in a raw and uncomfortable place.
Cognitive reframing helps you recognize unhelpful thoughts and reconstruct them in a more balanced and accurate way. In other words, you learn to look at things in a way that is less self-defeating.
Benefits of cognitive reframing and restructuring
Getting rid of cognitive distortions has these benefits:
- Lowers your stress and lessens your suffering from anxiety
- Strengthens your communication skills
- Helps you build healthier relationships
- Helps you replace unhealthy coping strategies like substance misuse
- Helps you be more confident and restores self-esteem
It all starts with awareness
Cognitive reframing depends on your ability to notice the thoughts that spark negative feelings. Knowing that vulnerability exists can help you catch your negative thoughts and change them before they escalate, and you start to spiral.
Let’s say you are a teacher, and your students love you. You often feel good about your classroom abilities but when you visit your parents, your dad is always critical. He compares you to his friends whose sons are doctors and lawyers and he makes disparaging remarks about your profession. When you are in this environment, your self-esteem deflates like a busted balloon, and you lapse into self-criticism that lasts weeks.
Let’s say you are a student facing exam week. You start thinking, “I’m a terrible test taker and I’m totally going to fail this test, the whole semester and then I’ll never get a good job and everyone will think I’m a failure.” (This is actually called catastrophizing)
Let’s say you are grieving the loss of a child and you think you should be farther along. You feel others in your circle are implying that you should be “back to normal by now” which triggers feelings of shame and weakness that create a cycle of despair that makes everything worse.
Let’s say your co-workers stop talking when you walk into a room, and you usually jump to the conclusion that they were talking about you. For weeks you struggle with what they were saying about you and get totally tangled up in a scenario that likely had nothing to do with you.
First, notice when and where these thoughts occur
You may discover times, people, and places where you lapse into this thinking and are more vulnerable to this self-defeating attitude. This kind of thinking is what is holding you back from accomplishing what you want, or prevents you from healing from trauma.
Raise Your Awareness
Make notes on when, with whom, and where you lapse into this kind of thinking. That’s the first step to changing your thought processes. It also allows you to minimize your exposure to potentially toxic situations until you can figure out a strategy.
As you practice awareness, self-monitoring, and writing down your distorted thoughts, you will start to figure out ways to dismiss them as sabotaging your success.
‘Just the facts, Ma’am’
Once you’ve identified the times, people, places, and events that trigger feelings of inadequacy, you can start to rebuild them.
When I would wake up in the morning wondering why friends were not calling or inviting me to do anything, my brain made up a scenario that I was being avoided and no one would ever want to be with me again because I was broken. I became a victim in my own story—one that had not happened, and it worsened my grief. I definitely didn’t need that.
I looked at the facts.
- My friends were busy
- They were not calling
Then I asked myself some questions
- Was this sort of thinking helping me?
- What could I do about this?
When I thought about just the facts I wondered if they might not know what I wanted. Maybe my tragedy seemed so big they were afraid to walk into it and do or say the wrong thing. I wrote down and thought about other reasons I wasn’t hearing from them other than the “busy” aspect. So I took the initiative and invited them over for a party. They brought food and beverages; I supplied the location because it was all I could manage at the time. It gave me the chance to share what I needed to share and it was a signal that I still wanted to be invited and included.
Prior to inviting them over, I faced my fears:
- What is the worst that could happen if I asked them?
- What if no one wanted to come?
- How would I react and respond if no one could come?
The student who has a test might not be able to avoid taking a test. But she can stop herself and write down the facts.
- Tests trigger anxiety
- Tests make me freeze
- I put too much emphasis on tests and allow them to show measure my self-worth. My anxiety ends up sabotaging me.
Questions to ask yourself
- Does calling myself an “idiot” benefit me? What are the long-term effects and the cost to me emotionally?
- How are my distortions affecting my relationships, friends, and family?
Generating alternative scenarios allows you to explore the many reasons people do what they do. In fact, we all think it’s about us when it is almost always not about us at all. Understanding that can help you avoid inaccurate or unhelpful thought patterns.
Let’s say your anxiety prevented you from scoring well on a test. Maybe you usually say punishing remarks to yourself about how stupid you are. Instead, you ask yourself questions with the goal of halting the practice of self-punishment and name-calling.
- If you did not do well, what can you do differently next time? Write down your thoughts.
- Example: Start earlier? Get some support? Visit the teacher to get some pointers? Get a tutor? What about a study group? Is there a study partner who is a toxic downer who is making me more anxious?
- What are my fears as a result of not doing well? Are they realistic?
- Example: Write down your fears of failure. And right below that write a rebuttal to boost your confidence. You can even take a break and laugh at some of the catastrophizing you have created, much of which never happens
- What about exploring relaxation techniques or looking up strategies for calming test anxiety? Research what might work for you.
- Example: I need a routine before taking a test that I stick to. Eat well, get enough sleep (do not stay up all night), make sure to do some strenuous exercise to allow me to work through my nerves, and use positive self-talk. Do my best to be prepared.
- Is my tendency toward perfection sabotaging me? What can I do to relax this tendency?
- Example: I will not always score 100% and setting that expectation is simply exhausting. I have dozens of tests in my future, and one is not going to define my whole life even if it’s really important. There is almost always an opportunity to do something over, do it better, and gain something from the experience.
- What can I learn from the experience?
- Example: “I didn’t do well but I learned that this teacher tries to inspire our critical thinking skills and is less focused on the ‘right’ answer but more about how we think through the problem. This could actually be a fun challenge and an opportunity for me to stand out since I’m a bold thinker with some creative ideas.”
Back to walking into a room and your co-workers who were obviously really engaged immediately shut up
You jump to the conclusion they are talking about you. First, how often do others spend thinking about you versus themselves or their family? Not much. But to us, we are sure we are in their every thought because we are in our own thoughts.
What are some alternate scenarios that might have halted their conversation?
Maybe they were talking about a boss and didn’t want to get caught. They may be talking about something that the group of them are into, cars, basketball, menstruation, a very personal surgery that’s coming up, and kind of shut up because they realized it wasn’t a work topic and they needed to get back on task. Perhaps they are worried about a co-worker you don’t know well or maybe something happened to one of them and they wanted to bounce some ideas with a couple of people in private and forgot they were not in private.
By doing this exercise, you may realize that the situation had nothing to do with you, or that you misinterpreted what was going on.
Now the cognitive reframing part
You look for the positive within adversity. That takes a bit of work. But you learn that errors are learning opportunities.
- “I never wanted my brother to die by overdose but I have found in this grieving process that I am stronger than I thought.”
- “I know my friend thinks I’m stuck in my grief because I talk about my child. I will tell her I hope she never ever has to fully understand this pain but that I will stop talking about my deceased child when she stops talking about her living ones. I won’t let others shame me into erasing my child from the conversation.”
- “I didn’t do well this semester but I’m the type that has to get the lay of the land and once I do that I really soar. My learning style has always been more thoughtful at the start and that has a lot of advantages.”
- “I don’t think they were talking about me. I feel sure they were talking about what kind of plastic surgery they would all get if they won the lottery.”
- “My dad has never appreciated what I do. That might change and it might not. But I’m only glad I went my own way because if I chose the path he wanted me to take, I’d be miserable. In the meantime, I’m going to stand up for myself and tell him that his comments are put-downs meant to shame me out of teaching. If he continues, I’ll make plans to meet mom outside his presence.”
Just because you have a mental illness, you grew up with a lot of trauma, it is not impossible for you to learn to love yourself and stop negative self-talk. So many things are easier once you make that effort. What strategies here might help you?