Why you shouldn't buy everything that your mind tries to sell you
May 5, 2016
“I am so upset,” my client Myra exclaimed the other day. “I have been doing this whole dating app thing for almost 5 months now. Finally, I met a guy I actually liked, Paul. I mean, he has just about everything I am looking for! But now it’s been four days since our last date, and I haven’t heard from him. What did I do wrong? How can this be possible? He must not like me. Why do none of the guys I like, like me back? I am never going to find my one!"
Those of you on the dating scene can probably relate to this all-too-common thought train. Even if you are not currently dating, where in your life do you feel like your mind runs away with you? Do you feel this way about your ability to lose weight? To find a career you love?
Here is a wacky thing about us humans. We take a simple event, like a potential mate not calling us for four days, and spin it around and around in our minds until it becomes a calamity. We assign meaning to something that, by itself, may not mean anything. The only thing we know for sure is that Myra’s date didn’t call. The rest is pure imagination. And we suffer. Tremendously.
There is a term for this type of imagination, called Cognitive Distortion, proposed by psychiatrist Dr. Aaron Beck and popularized by Dr. David Burns in 1980. This concept is an oldie but goodie, and understanding how you cognitively distort is key to breaking free of some of your most toxic mental traps.
By seeing these thoughts as distortions and not reality, it gives you a chance to free yourself from them. It’s like how, as a kid, you realized that there really wasn’t a monster in the corner, but rather a shadow thrown by a doll on a pile of books. And then you could rest peacefully.
Think about an unhappy moment in your life this past week. Got it? Ok, now take a look at some of the most common distortions I see in my clients, and pick out which one you chose in that moment:
You selectively only see the negative details of a situation, and ignore the positive ones. For example, Myra chose to focus on this one man not calling her, as opposed to noticing all of the men who were paying attention to her. This “glass half empty” distortion will leave you forever dissatisfied with your life, as you will always be able to find negative elements of any situation.
You exaggerate the impact of one incident on yourself and your future. For example, Myra catastrophised that because Paul didn’t call her in four days, she would end up alone. It is highly unlikely that this one experience with Paul could have such a sweeping impact.
3. Jumping to conclusions about others.
You assume that you know why someone did what they did. In this instance, Myra assumed that Paul didn’t call her because he didn’t like her. While that is certainly one possible explanation, there are others: that he was slammed with work, or that he felt like he always initiated contact and wondered if she would. It usually pays to ask.
Ever heard the saying “the world does not revolve around you?” And yet we often think it does. Myra assumed that Paul didn’t call her back because of something she did. When, in reality, it might not have had anything to do with her: he may have gotten back together with his ex, or been busy taking care of his mother. While, yes, people do care about you, they are usually far more absorbed with their own lives.
5. Global Labeling.
We humans are programmed to put labels on things so we can navigate the world around us. This fruit is a strawberry. Earthquakes are dangerous. Sometimes, labeling can hinder you instead of help you. For example, labels like “I am not good at networking” or “my brother is terrible at communicating” put both you and your brother in a box and make it more unlikely that you will get what you want. Is networking important to your career success (answer: Yes)? Then why would you want to label yourself as bad at it?
6. The Fallacy of Fairness.
How often do you say something like “It’s just not fair. I work harder than Joe and yet he’s being promoted over me!” You feel wronged and angry. And yet, there really is no law about the world that is should be fair, especially by your admittedly self-centered definition of fairness. When you let go of that need for fairness, it gives you a chance to decide how to react to what is, instead of feeling wronged by what isn’t.
Which one of these cognitive distortions are you suffering from right now? Think about something that really burned your cookies in the last week. There was an event… and then there was your reaction to the event. Which reaction did you dial up? Write me a note and share.