14 Cognitive Distortions Side-Tracking Your Personal Development

At an early age, I was particularly in tune with how I felt about a given situation or person. I could “feel” things (or so I thought) that other people could not. My emotions would lead me in many directions at once – sometimes in a productive manner, but most of the time in a trivial direction.

BlogSelf Development14 Cognitive Distortions Side-Tracking Your Personal Development

At an early age, I was particularly in tune with how I felt about a given situation or person. I could “feel” things (or so I thought) that other people could not. My emotions would lead me in many directions at once – sometimes in a productive manner, but most of the time in a trivial direction. You could say that my Emotional IQ (EQ) was low in my adolescent, teens, and even twenties. I would like to think that my EQ is much higher as I approach 40 years old, but there are still times that I cringe at decisions I make. 

Most of my life, I was driven by emotion and often made impulsive decisions based on how I felt. I would job hop, relationship hop, and look externally for the answers to why I was feeling the way I did. All the while, I was hopped up on addictive substances like nicotine, alcohol, sugar, and exercise. Yes, I consider exercise an addictive substance – especially when you take it to the extreme the way I often did and sometimes do to this day (more on that later). 

My life decisions started to make sense though when I stumbled upon CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) and therapeutic journaling. I realized that I was not necessarily a heartless person (which I started to actually believe I was) – but that my mind became twisted along the way. I still cared deeply about other human beings, but I became cold and callous in my relationships. Friends would often hear me say, “Go Big or Go Home” – that was my mentality. I epitomized all-or-nothing thinking. 

Through CBT and everyday journaling, I was able to identify the flood of cognitive distortions plaguing me daily. My all-or-nothing thinking became a double-edged sword: I was able to accomplish feats that most people could not, but I was also very good at alienating people along the way.  For instance, at a very young age (14 years old), I literally transformed myself by dropping 45 pounds over a 3-month period with 2 hours of daily exercise and less than 1k calories per day. 

I was morbidly obese at a young age without any guidance or support to lose weight. I decided to either lose the weight or die trying – epitomizing the all-or-nothing approach. Moderation was not in my vocabulary. This type of thinking can be helpful in some respects, but we must be careful to keep that mentality in-check with other areas of our life. It is a dangerous mindset. I made the mistake of allowing this “Viking Attitude” (as I called it) towards life bleed over into other areas. It cost me dearly. 

You can't connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something - your gut, destiny, karma, whatever.

— Steve Jobs

Most people have trouble connecting the dots in life without deep introspection. Life is busy. We lose ourselves in the flood of text messages, Facebook posts, and crying kids (if you are a parent). Taking time out of your busy schedule to “go deep” with journaling can help you connect the dots and make corrections in your way of thinking. It helps you identify the “cognitive distortions” of your past, present, and future thinking. Here are 14 cognitive distortions that JournalOwl can automatically detect in your everyday writings. With AI (artificial intelligence) and ML (machine learning) algorithms built into the core of our platform, we help people “connect the dots” in their daily thinking patterns by suggesting potential distortions with an opportunity to challenge that way of thinking – all through journaling. 

  1. All-or-Nothing Thinking. “If I fail this exam, my life is ruined.” Can you imagine someone you love saying that to you? Then why do you say it to yourself? This type of thinking creates immense anxiety, which can ultimately lead to depression. The motivational videos we see on YouTube can sometimes promote this way of thinking to accomplish lofty goals. It can often propel people to another level – at a significant cost. We must be careful in properly weighing the tradeoffs associated with all-or-nothing thinking. I’m not saying that this type of mentality isn’t useful – but you need to know when to turn it on, or turn it off.

2. Overgeneralization. “Everyone dislikes me.” Overgeneralizing is also dangerous. People fall into this trap time and again. Take for instance the current President of the United States. Donald J. Trump is arguably one of the most hated Presidents in recent U.S. History, yet he was elected to the most high office in the U.S. and the leader of the Free World. Love him, or hate him, he is still the elected President of the United States. Even though large circles of people dislike Donald J. Trump, there are still major segments of the U.S. Population that voted for and support Trump. If Donald Trump focused on the side of the U.S. population that disliked him, his confidence would plummet, and he would have never followed through on his campaign activities to win the presidency over Hillary Clinton. Just because large groups of people dislike you (which is not necessarily a bad thing), there are always supporters and friendly faces in this world. It’s a big world with a lot of people – not everyone dislikes you!

3. Filtering Out Positives. “Nothing good happened to me today.” People often forget about the little things that happen during a given day. How about the person who held the door for you at the coffee shop, or that delicious sandwich you ate for lunch? Yes, your job might suck – but there is always something good to find, if you look for it. If you aren’t careful, you’ll plunge yourself into a pattern of “filtering out positives” in your day-to-day journey of life. It is important to see the world for what it is: both positive and negative. Do not focus entirely on the negative, but do not be naïve to the fact that we live in a dangerous world. You can find hope in the small things, while facing monumental and often emotionally draining tasks. It’s the “little things” that will get you through the toughest of times.

The only thing more contagious than a virus is hope.

— William McRaven, Retired Navy SEAL Commander

4. Jumping to Conclusions. “They didn’t call me back within a week after the interview, someone else was more qualified.” We have all been there. Your mind jumps to conclusions, often the worst-case scenarios. Maybe we were conditioned at a very young age to focus on the worst-case scenario for any given event. Perhaps your parents were negative people and this mindset stuck with you into adulthood. But focusing on the worst-case scenario, even if it does occur, doesn’t help you in the present moment! Prepare yourself fully for anything that life throws at you but suspend judgement or conclusion. If the worst-case scenario begins to unveil itself, face it head on with courage.

5. Mind Reading. “They think I’m an idiot.” And, yes, they very well could think you are an idiot – or maybe they are taken back with the uniqueness of your way of thinking. The fact of the matter is that human psychology is complex, and we do not know what other people are thinking. Sure, we could speculate what they are thinking based on body language, visual cues, facial expressions, and responses – but I have known a lot of people who mastered the “poker face” in any given situation. Let me ask you this question though – why do you care so much about what THEY are thinking? Flip the scenario and tell yourself that they should care more about what I am thinking in this situation. Don’t give anyone that sort of power over you.

6. Fortune-Telling. “I’ll land a job in 3 weeks.” There are two schools of thought when it comes to asserting a future event. Some people believe that you can speak things into existence, whereas others believe you are setting yourself up for disappointment by boxing yourself with a timeframe. If you fail at finding a new job within 3 weeks, the disappointment could lead to abandoning the job search. Whereas, if you stay open minded about the timeframe in which you will find a new job – you’re more likely to persevere over a longer period of time. Fortune-telling is a double-edged sword. In my opinion, it can work to your advantage with positive statements, such as: “I will be 190 pounds on my 40th birthday.” For some reason, when you voice a positive statement – your mind figures out a way to make it happen. On the other hands, fortune-telling is counterproductive for negative outcomes, such as: “I can’t run another mile.”  Giving voice to a negative outcome is something that you should never do. Even if you are thinking it, don’t say it out loud. Keep those thoughts to yourself!

7. Magnification of the Negative. “This job loss is like death.” Everyone knows people in life that amplify the negative. They have a good life: the bills are paid, they are married, they are healthy, and they have all the modern conveniences available to them – yet, they find a reason to magnify the negative. These types of people self-destruct in very difficult times. They spend most of their lives focused on the negative, even when things are largely positive. When “bad things” do happen in their life, which inevitably will, they are unable to cope effectively. In life, you should see things for what they are – not magnify, don’t deny it. Challenges face us every single day, but it is counterproductive to magnify the negative.

8. Minimization of the Positive. “Anyone could have sold into that account.” A co-worker of yours just single handedly brought in a new logo with a $350k year-over-year revenue bump to the business. It’s hard to deny this achievement. You do not particularly like this co-worker, so you minimize their contributions to make yourself feel better about the situation instead of celebrating their success. Or perhaps that co-worker just sold their side-hustle for 3 million dollars and decided to take some time off. Instead of celebrating their success, you grow inwardly resentful towards that person and tell others, “I never cared for them anyhow.” We see this all-of-the-time in life and its often driven by deep insecurities. This type of thinking keeps people in a perpetual state of negativity. Break this cycle and don’t allow yourself to minimize the positive in others achievements or minimize the positive in your own achievements.

9. Catastrophizing. “My breathing feels shallow. I think I am having a heart attack.” People with anxiety tend to catastrophize about everything. Simply put, its counterproductive. Could the worse happen? Yes, of course that shallow breathing you feel could be a heart attack, or it could also be seasonal allergies. Or, you’ll be taking a flight and hit a pocket of air on take off where the plane drops by 10 feet – your stomach feels like its in your mouth and you immediately think, “This is it, we’re going down.” By visualizing and challenging these events, you can change your way of thinking about anything. Like a car driving down the road, you are bound to roll over a few potholes or bumps. Its not different on a plane in the air – turbulence is part of the ride. By accepting this as fact, you can stop catastrophizing.

10. Emotional Reasoning. “I feel anxious and can’t think, I must be dumb.” Or maybe you had one too many cups of coffee this morning and your “fight or flight” system is in overdrive – so instead of feeling like your usual self, your body is revved up and ready to run. The problem with many people is that they “overthink” a given situation and emotionally reason their way out of a successful outcome. For example, many people always think they are “overtraining” if their legs are sore, or if they feel a little tired the day after a long run. Instead of accepting the physical or mental feelings for “what they are” – we begin over analyzing everything. It is important to analyze how you feel, but you must be careful not to “over analyze” your feelings.

11. Should / Must Statements. “I should have done this, or I should have done that.” The past is the past. Emotionally strong people accept that. We can analyze the past and try to learn from our mistakes, but we cannot change the past. Should and Must statements can keep you in a perpetual loop of rumination. Let it go! Move on and focus on the future.

12. Labeling. “He’s a genetic freak.” When we hear of somebody like David Goggins who ran over 200 miles in 38 hours or lost over 100 pounds in 3 months – we immediately label this individual. Why? It makes us feel better about ourselves. Labeling ourselves, or others, can have a detrimental impact on what we could possibly achieve in life. You can also label yourself by saying something like, “I’m mentally retarded and could never earn a master’s degree.” Labeling creates self-imposed limitations on your life. Avoid labeling yourself, or others, at all costs. Stay open minded to the possibilities of what can be achieved in life.

13. Self-blaming. “This is my fault.” Taking responsibility for a failed mission is important, but often – people with low self esteem will blame themselves for things out of their control. If something is clearly out of your control, let it go. Economic circumstances like COVID-19 has displaced millions of workers across the World. Businesses have tanked, jobs have evaporated, and life savings are being used up to keep families afloat. Instead of adding insult to injury by blaming yourself for “not preparing” enough for a global pandemic of this magnitude, let it go! Focus on what you can do daily to stay in the fight. Take it one day at a time. When life gets really difficult, train your mind to make your world smaller – focus on one thing at a time and don’t blame yourself.

14. Other-blaming. “This is their fault.” We really have no idea what others are facing in their lives to place blame on them for something that did not go right. We have no idea what sort of negative forces are plaguing them, what sort of health problems they are facing, or what sort of pressure they are receiving from others close to them. Blaming others is also unproductive. Having empathy for others and realizing that “we all have our reasons” can help you accept and move on from a difficult life event.

Identifying cognitive distortions is more than half the battle. As humans, we tend to naturally lean towards whatever is easiest. For instance, if we can easily find a scape goat (other-blaming) for a situation gone wrong – many people naturally lean that way. On the other hand, for the small percentage of people who take the time to analyze and challenge their thoughts, we learn to grow as individuals while increasing our emotional intelligence. 

At JournalOwl, we have created the world’s first AI-driven journaling platform to help identify cognitive distortions and help you challenge each thought. With ML (machine learning), our algorithms continually improve to recognize improvements in your thinking patterns. Our goal, from the very start, has been to help people across the world think differently and join together to help one another overcome life’s challenges.  


Saturday, May 23, 2020