Dysfunctional beliefs are similar to cognitive distortions, and most dysfunctional beliefs may be considered cognitive distortions.
However, not all cognitive distortions may be considered dysfunctional beliefs.
This is because cognitive distortions:
1) Are not necessarily negative, nor do they have to result in negative consequences. For example, an overly optimistic interpretation of a traumatic event may be a cognitive distortion, but it is not a bad thing, and can be a good thing.
2) Are usually context-dependent, meaning they make the most sense when they are applied directly to a specific situation. For example, in order to magnify one mistake as a total failure, that mistake needs to occur first. So the cognitive distortion (magnification) exists when the situation (having made a mistake) also exists.
Dysfunctional beliefs, on the other hand:
- 1) Are negative and harmful by definition (dysfunctional).
2) Are not as context-dependent as cognitive distortions; they can exist even when the situation does not exist. For example, one dysfunctional belief is that the emotion of anger is dangerous and should be avoided at all costs. You can hold this belief whether or not you are experiencing anger.
Dysfunctional beliefs are complex
dysfunctional – impaired or abnormal functioning; abnormal or unhealthy interpersonal behavior or interaction within a group
belief – conviction of the truth of some statement or the reality of some being or phenomenon especially when based on examination of evidence
If you try to combine the above Merriam-Webster online definitions of “dysfunctional” and “belief” — it gets pretty complicated. And that reflects the complexity of dysfunctional beliefs — they can be very complicated and hard to pin down.
(And the more hidden they are, the more danger they pose to your physical, emotional, and mental health.)
But even though a dysfunctional belief tends to be complex rather than simple, it doesn’t mean our definition has to be too long or complicated to understand.
Dysfunctional beliefs are simple
Here at Mindful Construct, a dysfunctional belief is defined as:
A belief that causes a person direct or indirect mental, emotional, or physical harm — of which the person did not beforehand consciously consent to.
So if you have a dysfunctional belief about something, then it causes you harm in some way — which you did not sign up for when you started believing in that something.
Now, the belief may or may not have been passed on (by a parent or authority figure) with the intent of causing you harm — but that doesn’t matter. What matters is that it does cause you harm, simply because you adopted the harmful belief.
Dysfunctional belief systems
Societies permeate with dysfunctional beliefs. You have but to turn on the TV to see dysfunctional beliefs about money, success, health, self-worth, and relationships.
When there are networks, groups, and organizations who manufacture and spread dysfunctional beliefs (think mass media, advertising, propaganda, pop culture, etc.) — it is easy for others to not only adopt individual dysfunctional beliefs, but entire dysfunctional belief systems.
Dysfunctional belief system: codependent thinking
Codependent thinking, or believing that others hold the keys to our happiness, is characteristic of U.S. culture.
It’s rampant in Disney princess movies, it’s drilled into the lyrics of pop songs, it’s why singles are usually pitied for being alone, and probably why most marriages fail. It also accounts for why so many Americans are prone to compulsive behaviors, and hooked on antidepressants or other “cure all” pills.
Codependent thinking convinces you of the need to secure freedom, happiness, and personal worth through outside means — when really, it’s an inside job.
Because freedom, happiness, and personal worth are core values, applying to virtually every aspect of your life, you have so many opportunities to slip into codependent thinking. It then is not just one codependent belief you have, but many — a dysfunctional belief system.
This system is powerful because each codependent belief can reinforce the others, making it harder for you to change your thinking and replace dysfunctional beliefs with functional ones.
Dysfunctional beliefs and you
If you’ve made it this far, it’s probably because you see the value in uncovering the dysfunctional beliefs that can often hijack your behaviors, your relationships, and your life.
If you’ve made it this far, it’s probably because you are already well invested in changing yourself — not because you aren’t good enough as you are now, but because you know that you have dysfunctional beliefs that are blocking your from identifying and achieving your true goals in life.
Well, congratulations, much of the hard work is already done! You have begun to understand how a dysfunctional belief works and what it is.
Now it’s time to put that knowledge to practice, with a little more reading, and perhaps a lot of emoting — yes, you will need to work with your emotions to rewire your dysfunctional beliefs. You didn’t think you could do it all in your head, did you?
What you can do to get functional now
Here are some ways you can start the process of identifying, processing, and rewiring your dysfunctional beliefs right now:
- Read more about codependent thinking, and see if you can identify ways in which it may be affecting your life in harmful ways.
- Read through the list of ten common cognitive distortions, and try to remember the last cognitive distortion you had. This will help you start becoming more introspective, so that you are better able to glimpse into the workings of your subconscious mind.
- See why emotions are meant to be expressed, not suppressed, and recognize why you need to stay connected to them in order to rewire your dysfunctional beliefs.
- Read more about dysfunctional beliefs, and how they are directly linked to your negative emotions.
- Take advantage of opportunities for solitude to get in touch with your feelings (especially the negative ones), through journaling or other activities.
- Get in touch with a good friend, or someone you can trust. Reach out for support. You’d be surprised how helpful it is just to have someone care enough about you to listen.
- Take a critical look at any spiritual belief system, such as the Law of Attraction, and see if you can recognize pitfalls, which eventually lead to self-harm. When we take faiths for granted as being “good” and “righteous,” then we can develop blind spots for what is actually dysfunctional within the faith.
- Read about the catch-all functional belief: response ability, which is what Mindful Construct is all about.
- Take a deep breath, and remember: Self-growth and self-healing are ongoing processes that take time. So you don’t have to make any sudden changes overnight. Or put unnecessary pressure on yourself — which would be dysfunctional anyway!
As always, feel free to share your comments, questions, or experiences below — I’d love to hear from you!