One of the best takeaways of therapy is learning about the way your brain works. I find the way the brain collects, categorizes, and connects information to be quite fascinating- especially if you consider how our brains have evolved over time.
When people come to therapy, sometimes their brains are making connections in ways that are causing distress. More often than not, chances are, your brain is being quite clever. Sometimes, however, that cleverness causes us to believe things that aren’t true. This may end up reinforcing negative thinking patterns that reinforce our depression, anxiety, or trauma responses. This thinking is sometimes referred to as “cognitive distortions”, or, colloquially, “thinking hiccups”.
In this series, we will explore some of the more common “hiccups” seen in therapy. Learning to identify those thinking patterns is the first step to changing them.
Black and White Thinking- This type of thinking hiccup involves struggling to see gray areas. It is success or failure. Good or bad. Right or wrong. Part of how this becomes problematic is when the narrative becomes “I’m a failure”. “I’m bad.” “I’m wrong.” These phrases can slowly add up and chip away at your self-esteem.
Filtering- Imagine coffee running through a filter. The filter holds the grounds and the grit, while the good stuff goes into the pot and fuels your day. This cognitive distortion is basically the opposite: You filter out “the good stuff” and only notice the negative. Perhaps you nailed your partner presentation today, but forgot to ask for questions at the end, so you believe it’s a disaster. Your wedding was beautiful, but the roses were cream instead of soft pink, so it was ruined. This cognitive distortion doesn’t allow you to remember that you correctly pronounced the new investor’s name or that the baker perfectly replicated your grandmother’s recipe for your wedding cake.
Catastrophizing- This is the cognitive distortion of anxiety. “What if _(fill in the blank)_?” Sometimes this cognitive distortion starts because something awful truly did happen in your life and you’re worried it will happen again. But often it’s blowing things out of proportion. You forgot to ask for questions, so your boss is going to give the promotion to Steve. Or maybe he’ll just fire you. Your marriage will be doomed to divorce because the flowers were supposed to match the ones that your husband gave you when he proposed. Catastrophizing can sound silly, but for some, this is how their brain works daily and it can be incredibly scary.
Feelings as Facts- Sometimes our beliefs are so strong we take them at face value. These feelings are often impacting our self-esteem. Phrases like “I feel fat”, “I feel stupid”, “I feel unloveable”. Feelings are brief, as we discuss in therapy. When this “thinking hiccup” is occuring, those brief moments become absolute- we hold on to them and they become facts- regardless of any evidence to the contrary.
It’s All About Me- No one is capable of knowing another person’s motives, lacking the ability to read thoughts. A good indicator that this “thinking hiccup” is taking place is if you hear the word “me” in your narrative. He cut ME off. She frowned when I was talking, she must not like ME. My husband seems quiet tonight, why is he mad at ME? This cognitive distortion may cause strong feelings or lead you to jump to conclusions. I always encourage a bit of role play and silliness with this cognitive distortion- what other reason could the person have cut you off? My go-to is they are racing to the hospital because their wife is in labor. The woman is frowning because she realized that her pants are unzipped and she has to wait until you turn around so she can discreetly fix it. So on and so forth.
So there you have it, a brief intro to a handful of thinking hiccups. There are a good handful more, check back for thinking hiccups, part two!