How Errors in Thinking Destroy Relationships

Improvement begins with first becoming aware of cognitive distortion.

Negative self-talk, or what Beck called cognitive distortions, is one of the best examples of self-sabotage that can lead to social isolation and depression.  As a psychologist specializing in the treatment of eating disorders, I see a lot of this sort of cognitive distortion.  I have had adult patients weighing under 100 pounds insist that they were “too fat” and could therefore not even consider going to their best friend’s wedding (despite being in the wedding.) When our self-worth is tied up in how much we weigh, how smart we are, how rich we are, or how glamorous our job is, it makes it hard to keep it real in a relationship. Being more mindful of these errors in thinking, which is the focus of dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT) frees us up to be ourselves in relationships.

catastrophizing cognitive distortion

Read more in the Errors of Thinking Series
Part 1 of Series: “Errors in Thinking That Prevent Good Problem Solving
Part 3 of Series: “Errors in Thinking That Contribute to Anxiety

Those who catastrophize give more weight to a perceived failure, weakness or threat, but less weight to a perceived success, strength or opportunity.  It is usually different from the weight assigned by others, such that the person is often accused of “making a mountain out of a molehill.”

 When people engage in catastrophizing as a part of the way they see the world, they expect disaster to strike at the drop of a hat. This is also referred to as “magnifying or minimization.” The problem is that they begin to live their lives as if disaster is about to strike. So, if the person working to a deadline, realizes that he is not going to be done on time, he may magnify the problem and the potential negative outcomes and minimize the value he adds. 

At this point, he may engage in all or nothing thinking and become defensive with his boss, believing that his boss is going to fire him anyway, so it doesn’t really matter. This behavior can become a self-fulfilling prophecy, especially if the boss interprets the behavior to be hostile for no apparent reason.
Another way that catastrophizing ends up as a self-fulling prophecy is that you give up without trying:
I don’t have what it takes to be a good father/boyfriend/wife/student, so I am not even going to try.”
“I have tried to eat clean food before and have always gone back to the polluted version, so what’s the use in trying again?”

We all catastrophize from time to time: Thanksgiving is “ruined” because someone brought the wrong cranberry sauce or the turkey took a bit longer than expected or the band for the wedding showed up late. But if we let it ruin the event for us, we have lost sight of what the event was all about, i.e. family, celebration, being a part of a group. 

Some of this is normal.  The problem is if it is happening all the time and/or if we base our behaviors on the assumptions that we are making and the assumptions are wrong. A good clue that your catastrophizing is wearing thin for family and friends is if you find yourself in a bad mood a lot and you notice that people aren’t rushing to share the experience with you. 

So how do you get off the hamster wheel of anxiety when you sense disaster looming?

 Ask yourself the following questions:

•          Is it really as bad as I am making it seem?
•          Has it been this bad before and NOT ended in disaster?
•          Am I blowing this out of proportion? (This is key.)

Labeling and mislabeling cognitive distortion

Labeling is an error of thinking characterized by generalizing one or two negative qualities and applying them to every situation without any consideration for context.  In Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) terms, labeling is an example of the sort of judging that actually raises cortisol levels, making us feel anxious and helpless. (Raising cortisol levels is also fattening. Yup, I said fattening.)

When something bad happens once, a person who has this error of thinking will ignore all previous/other successes and label themselves or others with this nature of failure for all time.  They are using linear thinking, i.e. A causes B.  I overate and gained two pounds, which means that I have no willpower or self-discipline and I will always be fat and ugly. Or I have only lost unwanted weight in the past by restricting and then purging what I eat, so that is the only way I will be able to lose weight going forward. Global labeling has no complexity, no nuance.  There is no room for the exception to the rule, or the impact of circumstances. 

When projected outward towards others, global labeling can really represent some of the worst kind of thinking, like stereotyping and prejudice.  Expect snap judgments and relationship problems when someone is thinking this way.  If you are labeling yourself, you are damaging your self-esteem and you owe it to yourself to shake this error of thinking.

So how do you do that?

•          Take a DBT training program which will help you to suspend judgement in general.
•          Ask yourself, am I giving an accurate account of what happened? Am I providing context? Or am I just negatively labeling myself/others?
•          When considering your thoughts about others, ask yourself, am I considering this person as an individual? Or am I lumping him/her into a group based on only one or two characteristics/experiences I’ve had with them or other people like them?

I think this is particularly important today with politics being so polarizing in the U.S. I see families who cannot make it through a meal without someone leaving in a huff of anger.

Emotional_Reasoning cognitive distortion

This distortion of emotional reasoning can be summed up by the statement, “If I feel this way, it must be true.” For example, if you fear flying in a plane, then planes must be dangerous. 

Whatever a person is feeling is believed to be true automatically and unconditionally. They are usually very well-defended in their beliefs, such that trying to shake the belief, is virtually impossible.  This is because emotions are extremely strong in some people and can overrule any rational thoughts and reasoning. If a person feels stupid and boring, then they are stupid and boring. If an adult Anorexic feels fat, even when s/he weighs less than an 8-year-old child, s/he is fat.

One of the offshoots in U.S. society of the predominance of this type of thinking is the new colloquialism of people stating a thought as a feeling. “I feel like the sign should be on the outside of the building where more people could see it.”

This is not a feeling.  It is a thought, a belief, or an opinion.  It is NOT a feeling.  (Admittedly, this drives me nuts, especially when I start doing it myself.) But because we have all come to place such high value on feelings being a form of truth, instead of an actual feeling, we are reinforcing this logical fallacy by stating all thoughts as feelings. 

I think the other reason we do this in the U.S. is that we are actually afraid to state an opinion, but we are ok stating a feeling.  Who can argue with a feeling?  The problem is we are stating an opinion as a feeling. It’s nuts.  I notice this much more with women than with men. I believe that it is a way that women have found to express their thoughts but without offending anyone.  Like, anyone.

Another version of this is putting “just” in front of every thought as in “I just think it would be better……” or combining the “just” with the “feeling/thought” as in “I just feel that we can make our point better if we……”.  Seriously?

Understanding the difference between thoughts and feelings is essential to having healthy relationships.  This can be confusing at times, for anyone! If you could use some help making sure you are living your fullest life, consider the many benefits of finding a therapist or reach out to Norton Wellness Institute at 513-205-6543 today!

Read more in the Errors of Thinking Series
Part 1 of Series: “Errors in Thinking That Prevent Good Problem Solving
Part 3 of Series: “Errors in Thinking That Contribute to Anxiety

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Materials contained on this site are made available solely for educational purposes and as part of an effort to raise general awareness of the psychological treatments available to individuals with health issues. These materials are not intended to be, and are not a substitute for, direct professional medical or psychological care based on your individual condition and circumstances.  Dr. J. Renae Norton does not diagnose or treat medical conditions. While this site may contain descriptions of pharmacological, psychiatric and psychological treatments, such descriptions and any related materials should not be used to diagnose or treat a mental health problem without consulting a qualified mental health care provider.  You are advised to consult your medical health provider about your personal questions or concerns.