Cognitive Distortions4 min read

Several common patterns of negative thinking can lead us to doubt ourselves, have unreasonable fear, focus on the worst, and feel discouraged from taking action. These cognitive distortions undermine the key components of self-confidence. This is all made worse by comparing ourselves unrealistically to others, or by worrying what others might be thinking about us.

Simply becoming aware of these tendencies can help us realize that much of our self-criticism is ill-advised, much of our fear is just speculation, and much of our suffering is needless.

Let’s now review the main cognitive distortions.

Filtering

Filtering is when you ignore or discount the positive, focusing on the negative. It’s dwelling on the painful or undesirable aspects of a situation, not seeing how it could be a blessing.

Balance this tendency by practicing gratitude, shifting your perspective, celebrating your wins, and cultivating optimism.

Making Assumptions

The brain is uncomfortable with the unknown and prefers to exercise its creative power to fill in blanks in our knowledge. Unfortunately, its assumptions are not always correct.

One way the brain makes assumptions is overgeneralizing. Example: You fail three times at something and conclude that you will never succeed.

Another way is jumping to conclusions, feeling sure about your opinion without any real evidence. Example: You are convinced that people are thinking ill of you, when you can’t really know.

To counter this pattern, look at your thoughts with open-mindedness and humility. Hearing others’ perspectives might help balance your own. Above all, challenge yourself to get comfortable with uncertainty.

All-or-Nothing Thinking

Seeing a person, thing, or event in absolute terms—all good or all bad, all true or all false—is a tempting shortcut for the brain. It’s easier than making more subtle distinctions, accepting that life is complex. Examples: Either you are the best designer in the company, or you “suck”; either you get something 100% right, or you are a failure.

This pattern destroys your confidence because you are setting unrealistic standards, and then believing you don’t have the right to feel confident until you meet them.

If your core programming is to interpret mistakes as personal failures, then you will avoid trying new things and being bold because it feels risky. As a result, you never give yourself the chance to accomplish difficult things and develop the confidence that comes from doing so.

Counter this distortion by asking yourself specific questions that help you see the nuances of life and realize the possibilities between the extremes.

“Shoulding”

This pattern means you set inflexible standards you “should” meet, and if you don’t meet them, you feel guilt, shame, or a sense that you are not good enough.

“Shoulding” is not always bad—in fact, believing so would be an example of all-or-nothing thinking! Having an inner critic or high standards for yourself is not necessarily bad.

The key questions are:

  • Is this voice empowering you to be better, or is it simply beating you to the ground?
  • Is the intention of this voice to help you grow, or is it to confirm an identity of low self-worth?

If using “shoulds” and “musts” helps you stay positive, motivated, and focused, then by all means use them. Just make sure that the underlying standards are aligned with your values, not someone else’s.

To overcome the negative type of “shoulding”, realize that your standard is likely arbitrary. It’s a choice, and one that you can stop making if it’s not serving you. If needed, rephrase the thought in lighter terms.

Catastrophizing

Expecting the worst to happen, and believing that an occurrence is worse than it actually is, are two kinds of catastrophizing. Even a small negative thing looks like a big disaster. These patterns make you exaggerate your mistakes, project failure, and live life in the shadow of fear.

Counter this pattern by looking for exceptions and staying grounded in facts. Is the situation really a mountain, or is it a molehill?

Blaming

Blaming yourself or others is also a cognitive distortion, and an insidious one because it’s a story masquerading as fact—simple cause and effect. The challenge is that it keeps you in the problem. Blaming yourself for things you can’t control damages your self-confidence, and blaming others for how you feel makes you feel disempowered and not in control of your life.

To escape the blame trap, take full responsibility for your experience—your successes, your failures, your goals, your healing, and your growth. Focus on what you can control and accept what you cannot.

Exercise: Negative Self-Talk Inventory

What cognitive distortions does your brain love the most?

  • Step 1: Take inventory of all the limiting beliefs that are damaging your self-confidence. Note the ways you limit yourself or talk down to yourself.
  • Step 2: Next to each negative thought, write down which cognitive distortions may be at play. There could be more than one.
  • Step 3: Also next to each thought pattern, write down what you can tell yourself when you catch it in action. Write a short sentence that will shift you back to a more accurate, or at least more helpful, way of thinking.

For a deeper dive into these concepts, see Chapter 9 of Wise Confidence.

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