Monday, September 7, 2015

Cognitive Distortions 101

In their outstanding and shocking piece in The Atlantic entitled "The Coddling of the American Mind," Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt draw information from two books:
1) David D. Burns, Feeling Good
2) Robert L. Leahy, Stephen J.F. Holland and Lata K. McGinn, Treatment Plans and Interventions for Depression and Anxiety Disorders
From the latter work, they detail what they call Common Cognitive Distortions,  those habit of thought, perception and attitude that impose a degree of self-sabotage on each of us. This is part of their initiative to spread what they recommend as a partial remediation for the politically correct epidemic on American university and college campuses to 'protect' students from words, ideas, or even facts or theories that would cause them emotional anguish. Lukianoff and Haidt advocate for Cognitive Behavioural Therapy exposure for college freshmen, as part of the remedy for the tragic malaise that threatens to distort the perception of reality that graduate will face when they enter the workplace.
Here is a brief list of those Cognitive Distortions: (Dear Reader, you can easily find your own patterns from among the list....and if and when you do, you can name the distortion you are employing and begin the process of reducing its impact on your life, and on those in your circle.)
1. Mind Reading: You assume that you know what people think, without having evidence of their thoughts. "He thinks I am a loser."
2. Fortune-telling: You predict the future negatively: things will get worse or there is danger ahead.
"I'll fail that exam;" or "I won't get that job."
3. Catastrophizing: You believe that what has happened or will happen will be so awful that you won't be able to stand it. "It would be terrible if I failed."
4. Labelling: You assign global negative traits to yourself and to others. "I'm undesireable" or "he's a rotten person."
5. Discounting positives: You claim that the positive things you or others do are trivial. "Those successes were easy so they don't matter."
6. Negative Filtering: You focus almost exclusively on the negative and seldom notice the positives. "Look at all the people who don't like me."
7. Overgeneralizing: You perceive a pattern of negatives on the basis of a single incident. "This generally happens to me. I seem to fail a lot of things.
8. Dichotomous thinking: You view events or people in all-or-nothing terms. "I get rejected by everyone;" or "It was a complete waste of time."
9. Blaming: You focus on the other person as the source of your negative feelings and refuse to take responsibility for changing yourself. "My parents caused all my problems."
10. What if? You keep asking a series of questions about "what if" something happens, and you fail to be satisfied with any of the answers. "Yeah, but what if I get anxious? or What if I can't catch my breath?"
11. Emotional reasoning: You let your feelings guide your interpretation of reality. "I feel depressed; therefore my marriage is not working out."
12. Inability to disconfirm: You reject any evidence or arguments that might contradict your negative thoughts. For example, when you have the thought, I'm unloveable, you reject as irrelevant any evidence that people like you. Consequently your thought cannot be refuted. "That's not the real issue. There are deeper problems. There are other factors."
Some of these "distortions" were once considered "projections" or "rationalizations" or "assumptions" (making an "ass" out of you and me)....so they are really a more detailed, and sophisticated version of these other categories. Imagine, for a moment, a novelist or poet or playwright having to scrub all conversations leaving them clean of cognitive distortions: there would be very little emotional conflict and the audience would, at least for the first century of such presentations, think they were attending a conditioning laboratory designed to remove all distortions.
Yet, when we reflectively examine the conversations of our recent past, we can all recall comments that fall into one or more of the above distortions, without our even being aware of the fact. Of course, taking responsibility for our lives, including for the perceptions, attitudes, and concept of reality we embrace is solely on our shoulders, and not on the shoulders of any other person. Being persons in many interactive situations, and being hard wired as social beings, we are deeply embedded in many of these distortions both directly and indirectly (through others). Imagine two things:
first, the role the churches play in the development of these distortions in our lives and
second, the difference a conscious awareness and acceptance of responsibility for naming and changing the language on both sides of all contract negotiations from distortion to clear reality, including those at the diplomatic table, would make.
First, the religious influence on our distortions:
"If you are not saved, you will go to Hell!" Here we see fortune telling, catastrophizing, negative filtering, dichotomous thinking, blaming, what if?, emotional reasoning (manipulation by fear)....
and there is not a person in the western world who has not heard such statements from "responsible" clerics, without facing any challenge from the parishioner.
"If you do not obey God's word, you will be sentenced to a life in Hell (or Purgatory)"...similarly, fear is deployed as manipulator to induce some form of spiritual transformation.
"If you are not saved when Jesus returns, you will suffer eternal damnation." Talk about catastrophizing through fear and anxiety for the purpose of serving the goals of the institutional church, to grow the numbers and the dollars in the coffers.
The net effect of such distortions, dangerously, is to infantilize the other, to render the other so fearful and so incapacitated that a personal reflective decision about one's spiritual life becomes nearly impossible. Further, these distortions contribute to the generation of a culture in which evidential truths are subordinated to various forms of emotional manipulation.
In political vernacular, blaming the other, labelling, fortune-telling, mind-reading, discounting positives, overgeneralizing, dichotomous thinking, what if? and inability to disconfirm... all find their place both in headline copy and in many of the fine print stories that dominate political campaigns, political debates, political essays and even political theory.
Critical thought, the sine qua non of a democracy, cannot and will not even reach the 50% level of discourse so long as the distortions continue with full impunity and immunity. What could happen instead, is for reporters to ask, following an obvious distortion not only of the facts and figures but of the emotional manipulations, "Sir/Madam, would you agree that your last statement is a cognitive distortion?"
Imagine Donald Trump huffing and puffing that such a question is so nasty that the hypothetical reporter is immediately ushered from the room. Think for a moment, too, if all homilies in all parishes were accompanied by similar questions from the people in the pews, when the clergy veered into cognitive distortions in order to demonstrate his/her theological superiority.
And then, to bring the issue closer to home, imagine how a married couple could and would help and enrich their intimate conversations after having agreed to mention gently the observation of a cognitive distortion when it shows its face in those conversations.
We are all going to need to claim responsibility for our cognitive distortions if we are to come to a place where human relations are emptied of racial bias, emotional bullying, power-tripping, and it is clear that a campaign exposing microaggressions and trigger warnings will only suck all the oxygen out of the room, including the lecture rooms on all American campuses, and other campuses whose leaders are so frightened by the possibility of offending their thin-skinned, fragile students.
Also, to focus on the fine print of each and every conversation will also deflect and even dispose of thoughts of a much bigger picture that includes a premise of a bountiful potential to all human lives, in spite of the bumps and  bruises that are an inevitable component to all human exchanges.
We all have to ward against being sucked into a black hole of the addiction of judging all others, rather than in a gentle reflective, critical self-examination, putting the emphasis where it belongs: in our own self-directed life.

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