Throughout your day, you probably tell yourself different stories about how and why your life pans out the way it does. Since you most likely cannot know for certain why things happen the way they do, the best you can do is guess. Making educated guesses to explain things is better than not trying to explain them at all.
When you can explain why things happen to you, it leads to a greater sense of control over your life. And regardless of whether that control does exist, the perception of control will put your mental-emotional health at greater ease. It will help you to relate to your life in more constructive and meaningful ways, because it is not seen as chaotic, but dynamic — and you have an influence in changing it for the better.
However, you can also tell yourself stories that are at your expense — meaning they harm you in some way. When you do so, you actually take away your sense of control, because you choose stories that do not encourage you to influence your life for the better. In other words, you impede your response ability to your life, which compromises your mental-emotional health.
You might tell yourself unhelpful stories, such as: “He’s not responding to my email because he doesn’t like me,” “Since I haven’t found a job in six months, I should give up on my career,” or, “The reason I experienced that traumatic event was because I deserved it.” These stories may appear to explain why things happen to you — but they have a very different purpose.
The function of these unhelpful stories is to indirectly put yourself at blame for the negative things that happen to you. They don’t serve your best interests in the long-term (even though in the short term it may be necessary for you to allow them to be), they damage your sense of self, and they break down your confidence.
These negative stories are cognitive distortions that distort your ability to lead a happy and healthy life.
In cognitive therapy, cognitive distortions are seen as inaccurate perceptions of reality. They are skewed ways of thinking about events, people, or situations that do not accurately represent or reflect those events, people, or situations.
David Burns, M.D., refers to ten cognitive distortions in his best-selling cognitive-therapy self-help book, Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy Revised and Updated. It’s a good list to start from, but is by no means exhaustive.
Cognitive distortions and you
Before you can change your cognitive distortions, you need to recognize them. Referring to the lists above is a great way for you to get started. Once you are familiar with the most common cognitive distortions, it will be easier for you to recognize them when you listen to the conversations going on in your head, or use journaling to record those conversations for later analysis.
Changing your cognitive distortions requires brutal honesty, focus, and introspection. It might help to talk to a friend, who may have a more objective perspective on the stories you tell to explain your life. You may consider talking to therapist, or even working with a hypnotherapist who specializes in changing unhelpful stories into helpful ones.
No matter who you turn to though, you are still the one telling the stories. You cannot assign someone else to tell your stories for you. Even if someone else helps you to change a particular story, their changes may not last when you are on your own again. So it’s better not to view cognitive distortions as things that can be fixed by someone else.
No quick-fixes for cognitive distortions
It’s better to view cognitive distortions as of your own creation. You may not have been the first person to tell yourself an unhelpful story, or even the person who wrote it (instead, it may have been a parent or an authority figure)… but once you become aware of the story — you are the only person who can continue telling it from that point on. So the responsibility lies in you.
There are no quick-fixes for cognitive distortions. Changing them is a painstaking process, that may require a lifetime of effort. But changing them is not as complicated as we might make it out to be.
Story time is your time
Look again at the boy reading a story at the beginning of the article. Do you see how happy he is? How innocent he is? How safe he feels? He must be reading a very nice story.
Now think of that little boy as you. Maybe that will get your attention.
When you pick a story to read to a young child — you pick the best story you can find. You pick one that is caring and uplifting — because you know that’s what the child needs to feel safe growing up in the world.
The secret is, it’s no different when you are telling yourself a story.
You need to pick the best stories you can find. You need to pick helpful, caring, uplifting, and constructive stories about your life — because you need them in order to be happy and healthy.
It’s as simple as that.
So, what will your next story be?