Avoid Cognitive Distortions (“Labeling” & “Personalization”)

What are cognitive distortions?  Cognitive distortions can be considered slips in our thinking that we all make at times. They are a derivative of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT).  The main premise behind them is that your thoughts have an enormous impact on your emotions and the way you are feeling.  So, if you are feeling terrible, there is a big chance that you are thinking in an unhelpful way.  These unhelpful thinking styles cause us to jump to incorrect conclusions, make false assumptions, and much more.

Ten main cognitive distortions cause us to feel bad about ourselves, others, and situations/circumstances.  So far, the cognitive distortions all or nothing,” “mental filtering,”disqualifying the positive,” “jumping to conclusions”, “emotional reasoning”, “overly rigid rule-keeping” , “catastrophizing”  and “overgeneralizing” have been addressedDuring this blog post, the cognitive distortions “labeling”  and “personalization” will be presented, along with a way to overcome and avoid using these unhealthy thinking styles.

Labeling occurs when we assign “labels” to ourselves, others, and situations during specific circumstances.  When we do this, we are defining what we are labeling by a particular circumstance and are not considering other positive characteristics and circumstances.  For example, you might label yourself as  “inadequate” because you were unable to do one thing successfully.  In this example, you define yourself based on one situation and fail to consider all of the other things you can do quite adequately. Or, consider you hear someone say something that you do not agree with and assign them the label of “stupid.”  In this example, although you might not agree with what the person has said, you fail to consider that they may have other thoughts or opinions that you could very well agree with.  (I agree that people can do some “stupid” things, but labeling them “stupid” based on a particular situation is not fair). 

There are several actions we can take to avoid this unhealthy thinking style.  First, we can accept that we, others, and situations are complex and continuously changing.  One action or circumstance does not typically define a person or a situation.  Second, we can consider the evidence that does not fit the labels we have assigned.  Maybe our assessment of the situation is correct in this instance, but is it correct in every instance?  Finally, we can celebrate the complexities and uniqueness of all individuals, including ourselves.  Everyone is unique, ever-changing, and multi-faceted.  Labeling ourselves, others, and situations based on a particular circumstance is an extreme version of overgeneralizing.  One bad act or circumstance does not necessarily equate to a bad person or situation. 

Personalization occurs when we take the blame for everything that goes wrong around us.  We do this whether we are responsible for the outcome or not.  Specifically, this type of unhealthy thinking style includes believing that we are responsible for things outside of our control.  Although taking responsibility for our lives and our circumstances is admirable, it becomes unhelpful if it ends in us feeling like a victim of circumstance.

Personalizing everything in this way often leads to feeling a sense of shame or guilt about things that we have no control over.  For example, consider that you have a friend in recovery that hasn’t been listening to suggestions or taking their sobriety seriously.  Eventually, they relapse, and you feel guilty for “not doing enough.”  In this example, it is important to realize that you are not responsible for the things you do not have control of.  Although it is important to support your friend, realizing that their decisions are out of your control. 

Personalization can also stem from a sense of insecurity or anxiety.  This type of personalization occurs when we constantly make things about us when they may not be.  For example, consider walking into a meeting where everyone is laughing.  You automatically think that they are laughing at you when, in reality, someone had just told a joke before you walked in. 

There are several questions we can ask ourselves to combat this type of unhealthy thinking style.  By doing this, we can reflect on why it is that we think this way.  Why do I feel responsible for things that I cannot control?  Is this really about me? Am I holding myself to standards that are impossible to meet?  We can also check the facts in these situations.  Do I have control of my friend’s behavior?  Is it a fact that everyone is laughing at me?  Are there other variables and possibilities for other people’s behavior?  Today you can avoid cognitive distortions (“labeling” & “personalization”)!

(Photo by Tim J.)