This will be the 5th post in my series on Cognitive Distortions. To read more about cognitive distortions and what they are, check out my first post in the series: Coping with Cognitive Distortions.
This post is about Control Fallacies, which are basically a distorted way of looking at how much control you have in a particular situation. The reason that this cognitive distortion is unhealthy is because when we misjudge how much control we have in a situation, we can either blame ourselves excessively for something that has happened, or we can misplace our power by thinking that we have no control over a situation, when you might actually have more power than you think.
Control Fallacies work in two ways: you either think that events in your life are totally beyond your control, or you feel that you are responsible for everything, even things you could not control. Both aspects of this distortion can lead to feelings of guilt, shame, and distress. These feelings can cause you to think negative thoughts about yourself, leading to more distress and negative thought patterns.
“I can’t control ANY of this! I feel so stuck!”
The trouble with the first kind, thinking that things are totally beyond your control, can start to happen when you feel helpless and stuck. Perhaps you feel that you are stuck in a job that you hate, but you feel that you have no choice but to remain there. Or maybe you feel repeatedly taken advantage of by others who have used you, and you feel that this is just something that will continue to happen because you are a nice person.
The fallacy in this kind of thinking is that you are actually able of making changes in these kinds of situations, but you have convinced yourself that everything is out of your control, so why bother changing? This is problematic because by not changing and taking control of the areas of your life where you can, you may just be extending your own misery and missing out on the confidence you will gain from taking power back when you can.
Sure, there are going to be times that you really need to stick with your current job, because you haven’t been able to find a better option and you need the money or the benefits. That’s understandable. Sometimes, though, a person may just not have really put in the work to make a change, and then they tell themselves that they have no options. This is a way of avoiding doing the work by claiming that you cannot change anything. I’m not saying this is always the case, because there will be times when you truly don’t have any control. This may be the case if you have a contract for a certain amount of time, such as for those in military service, or those who do not have many job opportunities in the area they live in. For others, though, they may be avoiding making the changes they need to make because it feels too overwhelming, or they are not sure where to start.
Similarly, if you have noticed that certain things continue to happen to you, such as feeling like people are using you or taking advantage of your kindness, you may also have some control in the situation that you can exercise. This might be a matter of learning to set better boundaries with others, which can be difficult but necessary. Setting boundaries can be hard to do if you are not used to being assertive or telling people NO when necessary. However, when you trick yourself into thinking that you can’t change things because you have no control over other people’s behavior, you may be engaging in a control fallacy.
“This is all my fault! I should have done something more!”
The flip side of this problem is when you feel that you are responsible for things that are actually outside of your control, and thus you feel that you have constantly made mistakes or are always letting other people down. For example, you may feel guilty for not noticing a mistake that a colleague made, and then feel accountable when that mistake turns into a bigger problem. Or, you may feel responsible for your partner’s behavior, because you tell yourself that you weren’t supportive enough or didn’t make sure they took their medicine.
When you notice that you are taking responsibility for things that you actually had no control over, this is a sign that you are not assigning blame in the appropriate ways, or you are not giving others the responsibility that they should have. This can lead you to feel guilty about things you didn’t control, or that you couldn’t have avoided. These feelings of guilt can lead to inappropriate feelings or shame or a sense of overcompensation you try to apologize for things that were not your fault. For more on that, see this post on over-apologizing.
In this case, you need to learn to stop taking responsibility for problems that you didn’t create, and recognize that you are not responsible for everyone else’s behavior. It doesn’t mean that you relinquish all sense of responsibility for things in your life, just that you try to look at a situation and figure out if there was something you could’ve done, whereby you learn something that you can use to make better decisions in the future, or you let go of any sense of shame or guilt involved in situations that you couldn’t control. This might mean that you have to practice not apologizing for things that were not your fault, or it may mean that you have to give yourself permission to let go of the guilt and shame about events that you have associated as being your fault when they really were not.
How can I change these patterns?
When you start to recognize these control fallacy patterns in your thought process, you can work to change them so that you feel more in control of your mentality and more confident about your decisions. If you notice that your thoughts feel self-defeating, if you notice that you constantly think about all the barriers you have instead of all the opportunities you can look for, remind yourself that you have to make small changes before you make big changes. Look for the opportunities to make small changes first, such as setting better boundaries with the people in your life, or making a plan to change your career path. Recognize that while you may not be able to control all of your circumstances, you can still control your personal decisions and where you direct your mental energy.
If you have the opposite problem with this control fallacy and you find yourself blaming yourself for things inappropriately, practice asking yourself some questions to get a better understanding of if there was really anything you could have done differently. Ask yourself: “How could I have known what the outcome would be? Is there really anything I could have done differently? Is this a problem that is out of my personal control? Is there someone else in this situation that needs to take responsibility for their own behavior or choices?” Recognizing your own power in these situations and figuring out what you can do differently in the future will benefit you if you learn to stop this pattern of cognitive distortion and look at the situation more objectively.
For more on cognitive distortions, check out these other posts:
Cognitive Distortions 2.0: Disqualifying the Positive
Cognitive Distortions 3.0: Personalization
Cognitive Distortions 4.0: Emotional Reasoning
As part of my ongoing series about cognitive distortions, I’m going address Emotional Reasoning in this post. Emotional reasoning refers to the mistaken belief that everything you feel must be true. In this way, we can sometimes trick ourselves into believing that our feelings are facts. To the contrary, sometimes our emotions cloud our judgement, and we don’t always read the situation correctly when we allow our emotions to affect our interpretation of the situation we are in. Sometimes we need to step back from our emotional response to a situation and try to see if our emotions are taking us to a conclusion that may not be really true.
Here are some examples of emotional reasoning and thoughts that may occur when you might need to think twice about whether or not what you feel is really true:
- “ I feel rejected and hurt, and therefore you have rejected me”
- In this case, someone may or may not have rejected you. A person may have been trying to set boundaries with you by telling you not to call repeatedly when they are unavailable. Your feelings of rejection may be due to insecurities you have, but you also need to respect the boundaries other people set in their own lives and relationships. Or perhaps you were passed over for a job offer, and you were one qualified candidate in a competitive position, but fell short of the final cut. This doesn’t mean the company didn’t think you would have done a good job or that your skill set wasn’t valuable.
- “I feel like a bad friend, therefore I must be a bad friend.”
- Sometimes you may judge yourself too harshly for making a mistake. Being human, you’re bound to do things you regret from time to time, but this doesn’t make you a terrible person. When you do make mistakes, try to own up to them and repair the damage when you can, but don’t believe that you are defined by every mistake you’ve ever made.
- “I feel lonely, therefore no one cares about me”
- It’s hard to face problems on your own when you don’t have much support from others. However, sometimes we can get to feeling overwhelmed with the prospect of reaching out to others when we feel vulnerable and need support. Oftentimes, it’s easier to sit with our feelings by ourselves than acknowledge that we need help. However it’s important to reach out to your support system when you can. Sometimes, your friends and family may not know that you are struggling, but would want to be there for you if they could. It’s important when you feel this way to step back from your emotions and try to account for the support that you DO have, even if it’s not in the most likely places.
- “I’m angry with you, therefore you must have done something wrong.”
- Anger is difficult to step back from, but it’s very important that you understand where your anger is coming from and how much control you have over it. Sometimes we get angry with others for things that cause us distress, but often times anger is really a reflection of how we’re feelings about ourselves. For example, you may feel angry at your partner for not doing something you expected from them, but you never actually verbalized what you needed. You feel angry that your partner didn’t anticipate your needs, but you may not recognize that it was your responsibility to communicate your needs to your partner.
- “I feel worthless, therefore I am worthless.”
- Self-esteem can be a struggle if you have been suffering from a mental illness or have experienced trauma in your life. It can be hard to separate your feelings of low self-worth from your outlook on life, but this is where it’s important to take stock in what your values are. Sometimes we give other people more courtesy than we give ourselves. Whenever you find yourself struggling with negative thoughts about yourself, ask yourself who gave you those messages about yourself and if you would say those things to someone that you cared about. If you wouldn’t tell someone you care about that they are worthless, than you shouldn’t say those things to yourself. Feeling down or struggling with the situation you are in at this moment doesn’t mean that you have to listen to thoughts that make you feel worse about yourself.
Sometimes we get so caught up in our emotions that we choose to ignore evidence that goes against how we feel. So maybe your friend sent you an invitation to an event on Facebook, but because she didn’t reach out personally to make sure you were coming you still choose to believe she doesn’t really care if you come hang out or not. Or perhaps you become overwhelmed with a presentation you have to give at work, and take this to mean that you must be in over your head and you’re not cut out for the job, despite the fact that your supervisor picked you for the project.
If you think you might be engaging in emotional reasoning and you want to make sure you are not letting your emotions cloud your judgment of the situation, ask yourself a few questions:
- Am I overlooking my strengths?
- Am I discounting evidence that would lead me to reach a different conclusion?
- Am I basing my conclusions on my emotions or facts?
- What would you say to a friend that was in your situation?
- Am I struggling to give myself the same advice that I would give to my friend?
These questions will help you evaluate your situation with more clarity and determine if emotional reasoning is getting in the way of your progress. Emotions are important, and we shouldn’t just ignore them. But keep in mind that relying on our emotions to guide us doesn’t always give us the full picture of what’s happening and what all of our options are. Don’t forget that you are in charge of your mentality, even when it gets overwhelming.
For more on Cognitive Distortions, check out the other posts in this series:
Cognitive Distortions 3.0: Personalization
Cognitive Distortions 2.0: Disqualifying the Positive
Coping with Cognitive Distortions: Catastrophizing
This is the 3rd post in my series about Cognitive Distortions, and I am going to cover Personalization. This is a distortion that can include believing that you are responsible for things outside of your control, or it could also mean interpreting things in a way that always reflects back on you. As with all cognitive distortions, this may be something that we have all done once in a while, but if you find that you get in the habit of taking things personally when you don’t really need to, you may want to reflect on how you’re thinking about events that happen around you.
On the first part, believing that you are responsible for things that are actually out of your control, you might feel a sense of guilt or shame about things that are not your fault or that you couldn’t have controlled. For example, if your partner is struggling with a health condition, but isn’t following their treatment recommendations, and you then feel responsible for not doing enough to help when their health declines. Supporting your partner doesn’t mean that you have to take responsibility for things that are out of your control. It’s always important to understand what you do have control over, because we all need to be able to take responsibility for our own actions and choices when we can. Yet we also need to understand when something is out of our control, and recognize our own limitations.
The second part of Personalization is when you turn things around to reflect on you when an event or situation may not be about you at all. Sometimes this comes from a sense of insecurity or anxiety. For example, if you walk into the break room at work, and everyone stops talking, and you mistakenly start to believe that everyone must be talking about you behind your back. In reality, that could have happened for any number of reasons. Maybe they were discussing something private, or maybe it was just one of those weird moments when the room goes quiet. Regardless, if you don’t know for certain what’s going on, you don’t have to waste your energy worrying about it. Sometimes we think situaitons are about us when they really are not. One thing to consider is that most of the time, other people are worried about themselves and thinking about themselves. This just means that most of the time they’re not thinking or worrying about you. Of course there are people who spend their time focused on other people, and in general you don’t want to spend too much time involved with people who gossip or are just snarky in general. Even when someone is treating you poorly, their behavior is about them, not you. It’s easier to handle difficult people when you realize that the way they treat others is actually a reflection of how they feel about themselves. Most of the time, you won’t be able to do anything to change those kinds of people, so you just need to focus on being the kind of person you want be.
If you find that you are often personalizing situations at times when you don’t need to, reflect on why you think this has become a pattern. You may need to ask yourself why you feel responsible for things that you cannot control, or if you are holding yourself to a high standard that no one could realistically meet. Sometimes you may need to ask yourself “is this really about me?” to get a better understanding of a situation and understand how much control you really have. Try to practice asking yourself some of these questions when you are thinking about a situation and believe that it is about you or something you did. If you think that insecurity or anxiety is playing a role in how you are interpreting a situation, you can practice reminding yourself that you are working on not personalizing situations. This is one of those times when I will often recommend developing a personal mantra. A mantra can be any simple phrase that you use to center your thoughts and help clear your mind of negativity. It could be as simple as something like “Peace,” or it could be something more specific. For more on developing a personal mantra, see this post:
The Power of a Personal Mantra
Changing patterns of thinking can be challenging, but the good news is that with practice it becomes easier. Once you are used to reflecting on your thoughts and taking more control over your own mindset, you will be building your emotional intelligence and you will feel more in control over your mentality and your moods.
For more about cognitive distortions, see my other posts in this series:
Coping with Cognitive Distortions: Catastrophizing
Cognitive Distortions 2.0: Disqualifying the Positive
This is the second post in the series I am doing about Cognitive Distortions. For more about what cognitive distortions are and how they negatively impact out life and world-view, see my first post on Coping with Cognitive Distortions: Catastrophizing.
This week I’m going to talk about another distortion called “Disqualifying the Positive”. Disqualifying the positive means we are recognizing only negative aspects of a situation while ignoring the positive. Perhaps you receive a compliment or a positive statement on an evaluation you receive at work or a paper you have turned in, but you only focus on the single negative feedback you also received on your work. When you are in the habit of disqualifying the positive, it makes it hard to recognize the good things you have done, leaving you feeling inadequate, or sometimes even worthless or incompetent. Therapists sometimes refer to this as having a case of the “Yes, but…”s.
Have you ever had a friend that was feeling down, but when you tried to cheer them up, they just refuted everything positive you had to say? Perhaps you tried to compliment someone on a new opportunity they received at work, and the response was “Yes, but they only gave it to me because they already promoted Becky and she’s not around to do it anymore”. When we constantly disqualify the positive things we have going for us in life, or only look to the negative aspects of the situation, we are really not looking at the given situation with the true lenses of reality. Not only is it inaccurate, you’re missing out on the joy you could be experiencing by allowing yourself to recognize the positive things you have going for you.
In life there are few things that are all good or all bad. Even if you’re going to take a vacation in Hawaii, there’s no way you’re getting around that long plane ride. However, if you focus only on how long and cramped and boring the plane ride will be and how much you’re not looking forward to it, you’ll arrive at your vacation grumpy and tired. Some people have a special knack for disqualifying the positive wherever they go, and in general these people aren’t the most pleasant to be around. Other people always have to spend time pointing out to them the positive aspects of the given situation until they begrudgingly accept that there may be a positive to be found somewhere in there.
The antidote to this cognitive distortion is gratitude. Looking for places to find gratitude wherever you go can be a habit that you cultivate. When we look for the positive in any situation we face, we become happier overall, and we become more resilient to negative situations or feedback when it does happen. Some people can accomplish this with starting a gratitude practice, or you can journal about things you are grateful for. They can be very simple things. Even when negative experiences happen, there is usually a lesson that can be taken from the experience, or a kernel of gratitude that can be found if you look for it. If you lose a loved one, perhaps you choose to include a reflection of the positive memories you had with that person as you journey through your grief process, or perhaps you choose to honor their memory by giving back to a charity your loved one cared about. It doesn’t make the loss go away, but it can help with the grieving process and take something negative and insert a little positivity into the situation. There is a great list of simple things to be grateful for over at Radical Transformation Project here:
50 Things to be Grateful for Right Now
For some people, particularly if you have struggled with depression or low self-esteem in your life, looking for the positive doesn’t come naturally. That’s okay because it is a habit that can be changed if you want to start thinking in a more positive and realistic way about your life and your accomplishments. You do not have to automatically disqualify everything positive that happens to you just because there are also negative things that happen. When we ruminate on the negative and give that negativity more energy than we give positivity, the negativity starts to rule our lives. Sometimes, that negative voice that sneaks up on you when something good happens may really be the voice of someone who abused or neglected you, someone who convinced you that you were not worthy of enjoying your life, or that you didn’t deserve good things and didn’t deserve to be recognized when you did something well. Many of us have to learn to combat those negative voices in our heads by consciously choosing to listen to the positive. Think about it like having that little devil on one shoulder and that little angel on then other shoulder. The little angel is trying to say something positive to you, and that little devil just whispers in your other ear “Yes, but…”
Make a decision that you are going to start recognizing the good aspects of the situations you find yourself in, and stop disqualifying the positive. As with any problem, the first step is recognizing that the problem exists and making a commitment to want to change it. When you start to hear “Yes, but…” creeping into your vocabulary, that’s when you know it’s time to brush the little devil off your shoulder and listen to what your little angel has to say to you. It’s okay to be proud of yourself, it’s okay to be imperfect, and it’s okay to take the good along with the bad in any given situation. This doesn’t mean that we put on rose colored glasses and ignore negative situations that need to be attended to or dealt with. It just means that we don’t disqualify the positive at the same time, thereby robbing ourselves of the ability to see both the good and the bad in a situation.
Battling cognitive distortions is not about disqualifying the negative or never making a plan to deal with a bad situation. It just means that we are looking at the full picture with attention to what the reality of the situation is, so that we don’t over-emphasize negativity when it’s not warranted.
This post is going to be the first in a series of posts that I will be doing about Cognitive Distortions. Cognitive distortions are basically little mind games we engage in, or tricks that we play on ourselves that distort how we think about the situations we are in or how we interpret events that happen to us. They can be self-limiting and cause us distress because we are using our emotions to create a narrative that may not be truly accurate. We all fall victim to these cognitive distortions from time to time, but as individuals we may engage in one or more cognitive distortions regularly, so it can be helpful to recognize when we have an ingrained pattern of thinking that is distorted and needs to be changed in order to increase our mental wellness and have a healthy mentality. Today I’m going to talk about a very common cognitive distortion that I have found many of my clients identify with when we talk about these mental tricks we play on ourselves: Catastrophizing.
Catastrophizing basically happens when we take a situation and either make it have more significance than it really deserves (turn it into a catastrophe when it doesn’t have to be) or we predict that a catastrophe is going to occur before we really know the outcome of a situation. Basically this means that you are always expecting the worst case scenarios, and you may take ordinary problems and interpret them in ways that become overwhelming and seem insurmountable.
We often cannot see the positive in a given situation when we are in the midst of a crisis. Yet given time, many situations that we stress and worry about will resolve themselves with time, or you can solve the problem with a little effort. To give you an example, I will discuss a common situation that I ran into with clients: those who were being separated from the military. Being separated from the military can be extremely stressful because it entails a huge shift in your lifestyle. You go from having the military basically be in charge of all major decisions in your life (where you live, for how long, what job you have, where you get benefits for your family from) to being out on your own and in need of a job that provides some of the stability and security that the military provided while you were active duty. In the best of circumstances you have a chance to plan ahead and move forward with those plans when your separation date approaches. However, not everyone gets a lot of advance notice. Sometimes people get separated because of an injury or disability, sometimes people don’t get higher tenure and have to separate, some people don’t make the fitness requirements and have to separate, or they get into trouble because of behavioral problems and face involuntary separation. Regardless of the reason they have to separate they are losing their job. Anyone can understand how stressful and difficult it must feel to know that you are about to lose your job, income, and benefits.
However, just as with everything else in life, we can choose how to interpret and cope with this information. You can argue that being involuntarily separated from the military is, indeed, a catastrophe. That is how many of my clients interpreted their situation when they realized that separation was a possibility. However, once we dug a little deeper into their options, the situation was not always so catastrophic. In fact, we often discovered that separating from the military could end up being a positive change that propelled their lives forward in ways that helped them pursue their higher goals. They realized that they would finally have time to go back to school to pursue other career goals, or they realized that they would no longer have to deal with stress of deployments, the separation from their family, or the grueling schedules they had been keeping. Once we were able to process through their options and find the best path for them to move forward, separation didn’t have to be such a catastrophe. Certainly the adjustment would still be stressful, but it didn’t mean that their lives or their careers were over with. Re-framing the situation to look for opportunities instead of looking only at the catastrophic event of involuntary separation helped them to put their energy into making plans for their future instead of ruminating on the looming changes in a negative way and thinking about all the things they would not have access to anymore. The situation hadn’t changed at all, but the way we were looking at it had.
This is a powerful shift that anyone can do. If you find that you often interpret events that happen as a total catastrophe that you have no control over and can only result in terrible things, or presume that the worst possible outcome will indeed occur, think about how much distress this way of thinking is causing you. Look for your choices. We always have choices, even when we feel that we don’t. The reason this is true is because even in the worst situations, where there appear to be no choices, we always have a choice about our mentality. Sometimes our mind is the only thing we CAN control, and so that’s why it’s so important to make sure your mentality is healthy. Few people get through life without some major hurdles, so we all will come face to face with difficult circumstances or unexpected setbacks. However, choosing to look at a situation and decide that it is a catastrophe will only increase your suffering, and doesn’t help you resolve the issue. Recognizing this pattern and learning to look for your choices will help you to stop turning ordinary problems into overwhelming disasters. Cognitive distortions don’t do us any favors. They may be common, but they don’t have to rule over our emotions if we don’t let them. Ask yourself what difference this situation might make to you in a year, or 5 years. Chances are, many situations are going to be resolved and you will have moved past them by that time, or you may have to make some adjustments in your life. Of course there may be times when an actual catastrophe happens, but that just means you need to reserve your energy and focus to deal with the major problems that you WILL have to deal with, and stop letting ordinary situations (like your boss criticizing your work performance) have undue influence over your mood and happiness.