At some point or another, virtually everyone has fallen victim to cognitive distortions – lines of thinking that are based on things that are simply not true. This doesn’t mean to the level of conspiracy theories, but even the tiniest things. In this episode, Psych Central founder, Dr. John Grohol, explains many types of these distortions, as well as how to address them in order to improve our lives.
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About Our Guest
John M. Grohol, Psy.D. is the founder & CEO of PsychCentral.com, a mental health and human behavior/technology expert, co-author of Self-Help That Works (Oxford University Press, 2013), the author of The Insider’s Guide to Mental Health Resources Online, and is a published researcher. He sits on the scientific board of the journal, Computers in Human Behavior and was previously on the editorial boards of CyberPsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking and the Journal of Medical Internet Research. He is a founding board member and current treasurer of the Society for Participatory Medicine, and sits on the board of the International Foundation for Research and Education on Depression. He currently oversees PsychCentral.com, the world’s leading mental health resource offering information and support groups to over seven million people each month.
COGNITIVE DISTORTION SHOW TRANSCRIPT (Computer-Generated)
Narrator 1: Welcome to the Psych Central show, where each episode presents an in-depth look at issues from the field of psychology and mental health – with host Gabe Howard and co-host Vincent M. Wales.
Gabe Howard: Hello everyone and welcome to this week’s episode of the Psych Central Show podcast. My name is Gabe Howard and with me as always is Vincent M. Wales. And before we get started we want to give a great big shout out to our sponsor, BetterHelp online therapy. Remember you can go to betterhelp.com/PsychCentral and get one week of free, convenient, affordable, private, online counseling anytime, anywhere. Remember, all you have to do is go to betterhelp.com/PsychCentral. Today, Vince and I will be welcoming back Psych Central founder, Dr. John Grohol. John, welcome back to the show.
Dr. John Grohol: Hey, great to be with you guys today.
Vincent M. Wales: Glad to have you again. And we’re here to discuss cognitive distortions with you. I mean if that’s OK with you.
Dr. John Grohol: Yeah. Hey that’s fine by me.
Vincent M. Wales: Awesome. Well can we start by telling our listeners just what a cognitive distortion is.
Dr. John Grohol: Sure. Cognitive distortion is a as a psychobabble term that psychologists and other professionals use to talk about the way that people use thinking in ways that is not very helpful. It’s sort of like a lie that we tell ourselves in our own thoughts.
Gabe Howard: And what’s the negative of this, aside from that you’re lying to yourself?
Vincent M. Wales: I was gonna say, that’s kind of obvious, Gabe.
Gabe Howard: Well, not necessarily, I mean you know what does that fake it till you make it. I mean this is something people say–.
Vincent M. Wales: That’s crap.
Gabe Howard: I’m just saying these these are well-respected terms that you know… “Believe in yourself!” “But I suck at baseball, Dad.” “Believe in yourself!” Wouldn’t that be a cognitive distortion? But it’s deeper than that.
Dr. John Grohol: Yeah. The problem with cognitive distortions is that they are based in untruths. They are lies. They are faulty ways that we tell ourselves something about the way we’re thinking that simply isn’t true. And unfortunately what this does to us is that it teaches us to believe those lies because we hear them so often in our own heads. So I mean if you tell yourself something often enough, you’re going to start believing it. And if that something is a lie, that’s going to be a problem.
Vincent M. Wales: I think I get it. And I think Gabe gets it too. And I’ll bet you that we could probably think of some off the top of our heads. Like I know a lot of people who think in black and white with virtually everything. It’s either this or that. There’s no shades of gray.
Dr. John Grohol: I’d say that’s probably one of the most common cognitive distortions out there is this what psychologists call polarized thinking, black or white thinking, that you’re either perfect or your a total failure. There is no middle ground. It’s black or it’s white. And a lot of times when you hear people talking, especially in certain areas of discourse today, politics for instance, there’s a lot of black and white thinking going on. And as we all know, nothing is usually so simple that it can be boiled down into yes or no. A lot of things are going on in your head and in your life are complex things nuanced things or subtle things and they deserve the subtlety and nuance that they need in order to better understand them, better understand your behavior and what to do about your behavior.
Gabe Howard: There’s a couple of things that I’m very guilty of and I do try to work on them. But me, personally, I see the worst in everything. I just… Everything’s a catastrophe. You know, one little thing is missing, the whole thing is ruined. And I also think that everything is about me, you know like like any little… you know. “Well, that didn’t go so well.” They’re talking about me. I know I’m at a conference with 20 thousand people and I don’t know these people but they’re definitely talking about my thing that I did three days ago. Are these also examples and probably pretty common ones. Are these examples of cognitive distortions?
Dr. John Grohol: Sure. I mean they could encompass a couple of the kind of distortions that could be overgeneralization, in which that we’re coming to a conclusion based upon a single incident or a single piece of evidence. So, if someone is talking about something and you just did that something and and you know that they they know that you did that something and that something was a mistake or a problem, you might be overgeneralizing the fact that they’re bringing this up and you think that they’re pointing to you. So when a person believes that something is directly singling them out, that’s a cognitive distortion that we call personalization. And it’s where you think that anytime someone is is speaking about something in general, like your boss talking about “Oh, you know, we need people to turn their expense reports in on time,” and you know you’re one of those people that doesn’t always target your expense reports in on time, you think they’re specifically talking to you. And they very well may be talking to you, but there may also be 10 other people on staff that also have this problem. So it’s not just about you.
Gabe Howard: And of course it could also be, you know, lighter than that. They could say, you know, we need people to really work hard to get this done. And you could believe that way your boss is saying is that Gabe is not working hard and that’s why we’re behind schedule.
Dr. John Grohol: Absolutely yes.
Gabe Howard: Excellent thank you… I knew we were behind schedule.
Vincent M. Wales: A lot of people too will focus on, for example, just the negative aspect of something and ignore all of the positive aspects of it.
Dr. John Grohol: Yes. And when someone looks at only the negative aspects and only pick out the things that they want to focus on, that’s a cognitive distortion that’s called filtering. They’re looking at things and magnifying only the things that their mind is focusing on. And a lot of times those things obviously are the negative things, and they will completely obliterate and blot out the fact that anything positive happened or occurred, and they will only focus on the negative and of course, that’s not being fair to yourself.
Vincent M. Wales: John, one of the things that we often hear, and maybe maybe in younger people than than older is “that’s not fair.” Right? And in my personal opinion, I think realizing… coming to the realization that the world is not fair is one of the hardest parts of growing up. But some people, it seems, still go through life using fairness as this measuring stick for things. You have any comments on that?
Dr. John Grohol: I think most of humanity is intrinsically drawn to the idea that we need to be or we should be fair to one another. It seems to be ingrained in our upbringing and in most people and even in most cultures, and so when it comes to the realization that the world isn’t exactly a fair place and that some people don’t actually play by the same rules as everyone else, it really is an eye opening experience and we lose a bit of our innocence that first time that we realize that. And it’s important to realize that if you want to get ahead in life and want to get ahead in your own life, because falling back on blaming others for or blaming life for not being fair isn’t going to get you very far, and ultimately isn’t going to get you the empathy or compassion that you’re you’re hoping for from other people because they’ve already realized that life isn’t fair and you’re the one who, apparently, has not yet. So it’s a difficult lesson to learn and we all have to learn it at one point or another and we do our best to try and understand how we can be a moral and ethical being in this world and try to act in a way that’s fair and take those times when life isn’t fair and try and take them in stride and act accordingly.
Gabe Howard: We’re going to step away for a moment to hear from our sponsor and we will be right back with Dr. John Grohol.
Narrator 2: This episode is sponsored by BetterHelp.com, secure, convenient and affordable online counselling. All counselors are licensed, accredited professionals. Anything you share is confidential. Schedule secure video or phone sessions, plus chat and text with your therapist whenever you feel it’s needed. A month of online therapy often costs less than a single traditional face-to-face session. Go to BetterHelp.com/PsychCentral and experience seven days of free therapy to see if online counselling is right for you. BetterHelp.com/PsychCentral.
Gabe Howard: We’ve been talking to Dr. John Grohol, the founder of Psych Central, about cognitive distortions and we are back. When I was really sick, before I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, I just believed that every single thing that happened to me was somebody else’s fault and I can’t imagine that thinking that everything that happens to me is somebody else’s fault is not an example of a cognitive distortion.
Dr. John Grohol: Blaming other people is a cognitive distortion and it’s it’s a result of our belief that other people can actually influence our feelings or make us feel a certain way. Of course they can influence our feelings and our emotions and they… other people have a lot of sway in our lives. But what most people don’t realize is that we actually give them that power to have that sway in our lives, and that’s something that is under our control. So when you blame someone else for the way you’re feeling, you’re you’re actually giving up some of the control in your life and being the ruler of your own destiny, because I think it’s important to realize that your life is yours to live and other people can’t make you feel a certain way or aren’t responsible for your having a physical illness for your having a mental illness. These are the fates that we are given. You have to understand that you can take control of your emotions and your life and ensure that you move forward, understanding that.
Gabe Howard: I imagine that thinking that it should be a certain way that I I should be well I shouldn’t have bipolar disorder. I should have been born rich, my biological father should have loved me… all thinking that the world should have been – I know we’ve already talked about fairness – but I I can’t imagine that just just thinking that things are supposed to be a certain way… is that a different cognitive distortion or is that just go back to the fairness conversation?
Dr. John Grohol: “Shoulds” are another cognitive distortion in the world that we need to be aware of and especially when we’re using them in our own lives because a “should” statement is a statement indicating that someone else is breaking one of your unwritten rules that you have running around in your head. And the problem is of course that most other people don’t know what your rules are. And there’s usually not a very clear or easy way to communicate what those rules are. And that’s where “shoulds” come from. So if you’re in a situation, you’re at a restaurant, you have just been served a meal, and the steak isn’t cooked to the temperature that you asked it for. And you know some people in that situation would be like, I’m not going to ask them to take it back and redo it. That would be mortifying. I would be embarrassed. Whereas another person might be like, of course you should.. That’s… you know, that’s why you’re out eating at a restaurant. So different people have a different perception of a situation. And if if I were to tell you, well you should, you know, make them take that steak back and cook it to your the right temperature, I’m communicating one of my rules to you and it has no relevance to another person. My rules are not your rules. So shoulds are just a good indicator that you’re climbing up a tree there that isn’t likely to end in any kind of positive interaction.
Vincent M. Wales: John, this has all been really fascinating and everything, and I’m sure there are still some common cognitive distortions we haven’t mentioned, but I think what I’d like to ask is, what do we do about them? How do we how do we stop distorting our cognition?
Dr. John Grohol: That’s a great question and I think something that’s often overlooked in these kinds of discussions. The first thing you need to do is to become aware of the distortions that are running through your head. And the challenge here is that these distortions are running through your head every single day, every single day, and probably dozens of times a day for most people and you don’t even know that they’re going on because you’ve never stopped for a minute to think critically about them. Once you identify them and keep track of them over a period of time, usually the therapists recommend a couple of weeks, actually, because you just don’t realize how many cognitive distortions you’re you’re actually employing every day. Then you can start answering those distortions and talking back to them, because the problem with these distortions is that, again, they’re not true. And the best way answer a not truthful argument is with the truth, with the facts. So you need to examine the evidence – does the evidence actually support the way you’re thinking? Because nine times out of 10, if it’s a cognitive distortion, the evidence isn’t going to support your way of thinking. And that’s going to be a clear indication to you that what you’re thinking about in that moment in time is a problem and is probably causing you some concerns.
Gabe Howard: And obviously some things are easier to resolve. An example – Vince and I work together and Vince knows that I think that everything that I touch sucks. It’s just kind of a thing that I have and and Vince suggested that I get a bulletin board and put you know like nice e-mails that I get, thank you cards, awards, things and just you know stick them up on the bulletin board so when I think that I suck, I can look at them. And as you said, I’m now fighting cognitive distortions with facts. Now, that one’s simple, but if it’s something that impacts like your political views or your cultural views or your religious views, I imagine that’s going to be significantly more challenging. You probably just can’t get a bulletin board for that one.
Dr. John Grohol: Yeah I mean we need to focus on the things that matter to you in your everyday life, I would argue, and primarily your relationships with other people, your relationships at work, things that are causing you anxiety or other kinds of problems, mentally or cognitively. I think those are the low-hanging fruit to focus on. I think you know your strategy for putting up some thoughts on a board, and some statements, is a perfectly sound and wonderful strategy. It’s something that anybody can try and do, which is to remind themselves of every time every time you’re feeling down on yourself to remind yourself of something positive that you’ve done, an accomplishment, an achievement that you’ve made, a raise or a promotion you got to work or you know finishing a semester at school. These are all achievements that people could and should be proud of, because they actually mean something and they should mean something to you. You know one of the things that we talk about in cognitive distortions as well, because black and white thinking is such a such an issue, is to really stop and recognize when you’re looking at an issue from a black and white perspective and start thinking about the different shades of gray in that perspective, the different other perspectives, rather than Democratic or Republican, whether I’m doing the chores or I’m not doing the chores. Put yourself in the other person’s shoes. If you said you’re going to take out the trash and you didn’t take out the trash, so then you think oh well I didn’t take out the trash. I’m a total loser. I can’t do anything right. That’s usually the sort of thought pattern that a person might have if they have low self-esteem and and they have that cognitive distortion of overgeneralization. And the answer to that is no, I forgot to take out the trash this one time. I’m usually pretty good at taking out the trash, but this week I got busy with something else and I meant to take it out and I forgot and I’m human and that’s OK. Like human beings forget stuff. So that would be an example of of reattributing the event in a way that actually gives proper weight to alternative explanation for you know for what happened, rather than saying oh you’re a loser because you take out the trash, you say, no I’m human, I make mistakes. I made a mistake in this case. I’ll try and do better in the future, and that doesn’t make me a loser.
Vincent M. Wales: And you’re right people do forget things, for example, Gabe has somehow consistently forgotten to buy that bulletin board.
Gabe Howard: I… That’s not true. I actually have the bulletin board, I just haven’t hung it or put anything on it. But I have acquired the bulletin board.
Vincent M. Wales: OK. Baby steps.
Dr. John Grohol: The first step.
Gabe Howard: Yeah. The challenge is really I don’t have any skills to hang things, so…
Vincent M. Wales: I see.
Gabe Howard: That, and I’m incredibly lazy.
Dr. John Grohol: I could see how hammering a nail might be cause of anxiety.
Gabe Howard: I mean you probably shouldn’t give me tools. You never know what’s going to happen. John, thank you for being here. Do you have any final thoughts or words or advice when it comes to cognitive distortions, because as you pointed out – at least I believe you point out at the beginning of the show – this is this is really something that impacts everyone.
Dr. John Grohol: Yeah. Cognitive distortions are at the core of what a lot of cognitive behavioral therapists and other kinds of therapists try and work with people in psychotherapy with. So you’re kind of getting a jump on therapy and your own self-care if you learn more about cognitive distortions and learn how to take control of them in your own life. You might even save yourself a therapy bill or two.
Vincent M. Wales: Thank you. It’s always always interesting having you on, John.
Dr. John Grohol: Always a pleasure. Thank you guys.
Vincent M. Wales: Well again, also thank you everyone for listening in and I hope you’ll join us again next week for the Psych Central show.
Narrator 1: Thank you for listening to the Psych Central Show. Please rate, review, and subscribe on iTunes or wherever you found this podcast. We encourage you to share our show on social media and with friends and family. Previous episodes can be found at PsychCentral.com/show. PsychCentral.com is the internet’s oldest and largest independent mental health website. Psych Central is overseen by Dr. John Grohol, a mental health expert and one of the pioneering leaders in online mental health. Our host, Gabe Howard, is an award-winning writer and speaker who travels nationally. You can find more information on Gabe at GabeHoward.com. Our co-host, Vincent M. Wales, is a trained suicide prevention crisis counselor and author of several award-winning speculative fiction novels. You can learn more about Vincent at VincentMWales.com. If you have feedback about the show, please email [email protected].
About The Psych Central Show Podcast Hosts
Gabe Howard is an award-winning writer and speaker who lives with bipolar and anxiety disorders. He is also one of the co-hosts of the popular show, A Bipolar, a Schizophrenic, and a Podcast. As a speaker, he travels nationally and is available to make your event stand out. To work with Gabe, please visit his website, gabehoward.com.
Vincent M. Wales is a former suicide prevention counselor who lives with persistent depressive disorder. He is also the author of several award-winning novels and creator of the costumed hero, Dynamistress. Visit his websites at www.vincentmwales.com and www.dynamistress.com.