If you’ve ever tried to make a lifestyle change then you know the biggest obstacle is getting out of your own head.
This is easier said than done, but if you understand the 10 cognitive irrational distortions then you have the upper hand at beating your irrational self and crushing whatever goals you’ve set.
Any one of these distortions may cause anxiety, depression, or anger – all emotions that can significantly lower your chances of adopting sustainable lifestyle change.
Let’s explore these 10 cognitive irrational distortions and what you can do to overcome each one.
1. All-Or-Nothing Thinking
All-Or-Nothing Thinking refers to looking at things in absolute, black-and-white terms.
Example: Thomas thinks that losing weight is a given a score of “success” or “failure”.
How To Overcome: Understand that this isn’t high school and pass or fail are not the only 2 options. There is always a gray area. If you did not meet a certain goal at a certain time that doesn’t mean you’ve “failed”.
If you wanted to lose 10 lbs in 2 months but only lost 7 lbs understand that isn’t a failure because you just lost 7 lbs!
7 lbs is better than 0 lbs right? The key is to focus on what you have accomplished thus far & maintain that momentum instead of dwelling on some arbitrary “succeed” or “fail” that you’ve laid out ahead of time.
Overgeneralization is when you view a negative event as a never-ending pattern of defeat.
Example: Sam ran a marathon he trained 4 months for and finished 2nd to last in the race. His goal was to finish within the top 5. After Sam crosses the finish line he says to himself, “What’s the point, I’ll never be able to finish in the top 5. I’m done with running marathons forever.”
How To Overcome: When things don’t go our way or something bad happens our reactions are typically not in line with reality. Rather, they are a reflection of our expectations. If something negative happens in your life then congratulations, you’re human. Negative things happen to everybody but you know what else happens to humans? Good things!
Rather than focusing on the negative event, think about what you have accomplished or how things could’ve been worse. Just because something negative occurs doesn’t imply more negative outcomes in the future.
In Sam’s case, he did not finish last and (most importantly) he completed a freakin’ marathon!
Maybe he set his expectations too high for his very first marathon. I’m sure if Sam continues to train he’ll do much better on his 2nd, 3rd, and 4th marathons.
3. The Mental Filter
The Mental Filter is used when people dwell on the negatives and ignore the positives.
Example: Jackie is competing in her 10th bodybuilding competition against 12 other participants. She’s worked hard in the last year to prepare for the show and feels very confident that she’ll place in the top 1 or 2. She typically takes home 1st or 2nd place.
After a great show, the judges place Jackie 4th overall. Jackie is pissed and confused as to why she fell below top 3.
How To Overcome: Jackie’s expectations have made her believe that she should’ve won her show. Was that a valid expectation to have? Maybe. But Jackie cannot anticipate the competition, how she’ll feel that day, what the judges value in a competitor, etc.
Maybe this was the one competition where all of the best competitors showed up and Jackie was not as prepared as she thought. Maybe these people have been competing for a lot longer than Jackie. Just because she didn’t finish 1st doesn’t mean this was a wasted effort.
Thinking of these situations as a learning experience and being grateful for placing 4th overall is the way to go. That is a positive that can’t be ignored. If anything, use the negatives as fuel for the future. #mambamentality
4. Discounting The Positives
Discounting The Positives means insisting that accomplishments or positive qualities “don’t count”.
Example: Jack is trying to put on 5 lbs of muscle mass and has noticed a difference in his strength but little in his size. He comes into the gym and his trainer notices that Jack is lookin’ jacked and all his lifts are improving. Jack doesn’t see what his trainer is seeing and feels like his gains don’t count since he doesn’t notice a change in the mirror.
How To Overcome: Jack feels like since he has not yet seen a big change in the mirror that all his hard work has been for nothing.
Let’s examine the evidence; Jack’s trainer obviously sees a physical change in his body composition and since he records all of Jack’s exercises there’s proof that Jack is progressing on all of his lifts.
Jack may not yet see his muscles getting bigger but he is progressing in that direction nonetheless. Just because Jack doesn’t see the results but others do doesn’t mean they aren’t there.
Shift your focus to the macro and see the big picture. Sure Jack may not have huge guns yet but all signs point towards some nice gains to come. Writing down your progress so you can have some evidence can be a great way to appreciate the positive qualities.
5. Jumping To Conclusions
Jumping To Conclusions is when you arbitrarily predict that things will turn out bad.
Example: Alex wants to try yoga for the first time but is scared because he is not flexible and is afraid he’ll look stupid in the class. His fear is that he’ll never have success with yoga and the yogis will look down on him.
How To Overcome: When jumping to conclusions like Alex it’s important to remember that thinking of these outcomes is not inherently bad. It’s dwelling on them that is problematic.
Alex can think these thoughts but even if he isn’t good at yoga, who cares?
Ask yourself, if what I’m imagining happens, what’s the worst that can happen? Will I get shamed and be forced to leave the class? Probably not.
Most of the time the worst thing that can happen isn’t really that bad or it doesn’t happen at all.
Consider the negative outcome but don’t dwell. Consider what you can do if that negative outcome arises so you’re prepared but also think of the positives that can arise from taking action.
We tend to suffer more in imagination than in reality.
Magnification/Minimization is when things are blown out of proportion or you shrink their importance inappropriately.
Example: Jessie loves going to the gym but because of her busy schedule she can only go between the hours of 6-8 PM (high traffic hours). She can’t stand the crowds and has to adjust her workout frequently because people are always on machines she likes.
Jessie eventually decides it isn’t worth the hassle and decides to stop exercising because of the people in the gym. She rationalizes by saying “exercise isn’t really helping me out anyways.”
How To Overcome: When we blow things out of proportion or downplay the importance of something in our lives it’s often from stress in the moment. Sure working out in a crowded gym is not the most fun but it gives you opportunity to meet new people and, my personal favorite, people watch!
When you catch yourself blowing things out of proportion or diminishing the importance of something, take a few moments to breathe and reassess your options when you’ve become level headed.
Making calls when you’re stressed is never a good idea.
7. Emotional Reasoning
Emotional Reasoning is when you reason based on how you feel.
Example: Clarence had a goal of running a mile in under 7 minutes by the end of the year. When December came around he was able to run his mile at 7 minutes and 4 seconds. Clarence finishes thinking, “I can’t stand to feel like a failure. I’m an idiot for thinking I could ever run a mile that fast”
How To Overcome: The Socratic Method is a good way to overrule any emotional reasoning. When using the Socratic Method, you ask questions that lead to inconsistencies in irrational thoughts.
Clarence should ask himself, “When I say I’m a failure, do I mean I fail at some things sometimes or do I fail at everything all the time?”
From here Clarence can see that he clearly doesn’t fail at everything all the time and it’s natural to “fail” at some things sometimes.
Note that fail is a strong word because he still ran a mile and has improved his time overall.
If Clarence says he fails at all things all the time then he knows that’s ridiculous and can point out that it’s not true for anyone since nobody fails at everything.
Utilize the Socratic Method to poke a hole in your own logic and you’ll see that you aren’t a failure or an idiot.
8. “Should” OR Catastrophe Statements
These are statements you use to criticize yourself or others like “should or “shouldn’t”. Words like “must”, “ought”, and “have-to” are other forms of this.
Example: Bryce has been practicing Muay Thai for 2 years and just found out his gym is closing due to financial troubles. This was the only place Bryce could let loose and release some stress from his job.
When Bryce finds out his instructors are closing up shop and moving away Bryce says, “You guys should find investors to stay open. This can’t happen to me, you gotta stay open for my sanity.”
How To Overcome: Almost nothing is ever as bad as it seems. Again it’s your reaction to the situation that matters, not necessarily the event itself.
If you find yourself saying irrational things like Bryce, remember that Fortune can take anything away from you at any time (sometimes without notice).
If something “catastrophic” happens, have a plan in place.
Gym goes out of business? Find a backup gym.
Your car broke down? Have a phone number with someone to help ready to go.
If you fail to prepare then you prepare to fail.
Labeling is when you identify with your own shortcomings.
Example: Zeke wanted that promotion in management but was turned down and his co-worker got the position. Zeke worked very hard to prove himself and says, “I’m a fool and a loser”.
How To Overcome: Again comes in…the Socratic Method!
It sucks when we work hard and don’t get the benefits we think we deserve. However, labeling yourself based on how you feel in the moment doesn’t help nor is it an accurate representation of who you are as a person.
Ask yourself are you really a fool and a loser or did you just lose out on this one opportunity? Hint: it’s the latter one.
And who knows, maybe there’s a promotion or opportunity somewhere else or down the line that is better than the one you wanted.
When one door closes, another one opens.
This occurs when you blame yourself for external factors that are out of your control.
Example: Chris wants to be on time for his personal training appointments each week but because of his work schedule he sometimes gets out late and has to reschedule his session.
He works extra hard on training days but sometimes his boss has so much work that Chris has to stay to help the team out so they don’t all get home late.
As a result, Chris feels like he’s failing his commitment to his health and his trainer.
How To Overcome: One of the tenets of Stoic philosophy is to focus on those things you can control & let go of the things you have no control over.
What Chris does have control over is his schedule with his trainer. Rather than blaming himself for missing his sessions, he can work with his trainer to train at a different time or day when he anticipates being less busy at work.
Try not to let the things out of your control control you. Roll with the tide, don’t get frustrated, and remain focused on what you can control.