How to get out of your own way

Stop cognitive distortions holding you back.

Life doesn’t always go the way we want it to. Problems or stressful events can feel like they are popping out of nowhere. How come some people bounce back relatively quickly after experiencing setback, stress or trauma? Why do others get overwhelmed with life lingering for what seems like an eternity?

Well, one important discovery that I recently made was getting to know and applying the concept of ‘cognitive distortions’ to personal setbacks and daily challenges. This is a well-known term within psychology and specific coaching approaches. This is also a useful technique that has helped me to get out of my own way

how-to-get-out-of-your-own-way

Cognitive distortions, in short, are very fixed, learned thinking patterns that influence how we see and interpret the world around us. They also ultimately influence how we respond to it. In some situations, they can cause us to get stuck in our problems and in our lives. Something which I personally experienced as well.

Luckily, there are ways to identify these seemingly unconscious drivers with and without the help of a professional. Here are some techniques that helped me personally out of the biggest “rut” in my life and which I still use today if I get anxious or stressed out.

What are cognitive distortions and why do they matter?

Did you ever get fired and have the feeling all your future projects will be a failure? Cognitive distortion: overgeneralization and catastrophizing

Have you ever had a talk with your boss or manager only to dwell for hours, days on that one negative detail? Cognitive distortion: filtering

Cognitive distortions are automatic thoughts in response to events, which in turn lead to emotional and behavioral responses (Rnic, K. et al.). They are very much learned ways to interpret the world, ourselves and people around us. However, in some cases, they can become ingrained negative automatic responses.

Because cognitive distortions can influence our choices, actions and reactions in a negative way, they can also increase our anxiety and stress. One of the dangers is that cognitive structures seem to make a person more vulnerable to depression when the intensity of a stressor[ZD1] is heightened (Beck, 1976).

What kind of cognitive distortions are there? According to the Cognitive Distortions Scale (CDS) Professional manual (Briere, John. (2000) there is a 40 question test to find out what dimension of cognitive distortions you are stuck on. You can easily find a list online of 50 cognitive distortions that could be influencing your life (Boyes, Alice Ph.D.). Just to name a few frequently occurring ones you might also recognize, read Ben Steenstra’s previous article on cognitive distortions to get an idea.

We sometimes feel like these negative thought patterns that can make us sick are mistakes in our blueprint. However, a study from the perspective of evolutionary psychology focusing on the adaptive functions of cognitive distortions suggests that many of these distortions are not strictly errors. Cognitive distortions can be seen to use the (previously) adaptive heuristic of better safe than sorry. (Gilbert P., 1998). Or in other words, a ‘natural’ result of using quick responses to threats (real or perceived).

Furthermore, not all cognitive distortions are negative in certain contexts as I learned previously. Overgeneralizing is useful when deciding what to do with a door or how to step into any type of transportation method. Without the ability to over-generalize you would be pondering what the object is that other people would call a door or a car as they all look different, but have the same function.

Are you in your own way?

Before you read through the steps to find out how you could be limiting yourself, I want to briefly share my personal experience with cognitive distortions and how I personally managed to get out of my own way.

After a series of (generally speaking) negative and traumatic events coupled with sickness, I found myself stuck and exhausted at the age of 30. I was not able to feel motivated or enthusiastic about life. Before this happened, I had gotten the jobs I dreamed of, an apartment I loved and could travel monthly for work or family. However, somehow, I couldn’t get myself to face what had happened or make crucial life choices.

The exact scope of what happened would only fit into a book. However, I can tell you now that thanks to coaching sessions from a very good friend I was shown how cognitive distortions and my beliefs were taking hold of my life. By mapping out how I gave meaning to myself, meaning to other’s actions and how I saw the world, we were then able to spot where my thinking was getting in the way of my life.

The story of this process could also (and maybe will) be enough for a book, however, this specific part of cognitive distortions is what I wish I knew at least 10 years ago. This would have helped me break the invisible chains I wrapped around myself long ago. It has now helped me finally really face the past, myself and life.

By understanding how cognitive distortions are influencing the meaning I give to people, events or situations and conclusively how I react to all of these; I discovered how much power and freedom I actually have. Every day I have the choice to decide or change what I think, what I see and how I live my life. Ultimately creating a new truth that is helpful, healthy and good for me.

This process showed me that I have the freedom to choose how I think and react REGARDLESS of what happened to me in the past, REGARDLESS of what I feel and REGARDLESS of what others say or do. When I became more flexible with the meaning I gave, I also became more aware of which cognitive distortions were getting in my way.

Below are 4 of the most crucial steps I took and still use to this day. One important note to mention before you start: if at any step you are too overwhelmed to continue, reach out to a coach or local professional to support you.

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1. Identify the stressor (s)

Whether it’s an annoying colleague, an ex, getting criticised by your loved ones or a difficult life situation causing you stress, sadness or worry it’s important to first identify what triggered you. These examples that trigger you into a negative state are called “stressors”. Not all stressors are going to be equally overwhelming but all overwhelming stressors are the triggers you are looking for. Once you identify these stressors, write them down as factually as possible. Meaning. Write it down like a detective would when analyzing a case.

Try not to put any subjective interpretation, adjective or emotional luggage on it just yet. One added advantage of doing it this way is that you already create a little distance (breathing space) between you and the stressor. I found that writing it on post-its work best but paper, back of a bill or your phone works too.

2. Find Out How You Give Meaning

The reason for this following step is to become conscious of what subjective interpretations or “meaning” you are giving this specific event. You see, although an event, situation happened to you, you yourself are placing (multiple) interpretations or opinions onto that event or situation.

These subjective meanings are created by your own individual way of observing and interpreting the world around you. Giving meaning to a situation is a very normal thing humans do. However, this is also where cognitive distortions can occur and result in feeling stressed, overwhelmed and ultimately stuck.

If you haven’t yet, time to grab a pen & post-its. Take one of your stressors (preferably a less emotional one to start) and ask yourself the following questions:

  • This XYZ (event or situation) happened. What does it mean to me that this happened?
  • What do I believe of XYZ (person) that did this or was a part of it?
  • What do I believe about myself because of XYZ (event)?
  • What do you believe the outcome of this event will be in the future?

Write down all the things you believe right now about this happening, stressor or yourself.

Example:

Factual event (without subjective interpretation): I was giving a presentation and my manager kept looking at his phone.

  • Meaning 1: He is ALWAYS looking at his phone. He doesn’t care about what I have to say. He probably thinks I am useless.
  • Meaning 2: Why did I think this was a good idea, all this preparation was for nothing.
  • Meaning 3: It is such an important presentation to me… What if I lose my job because of this. I will NEVER be able to find such a good position.

Whether you recognize these trails of thoughts (interpretations) or think they are exaggerated, the point is to be honest with yourself. We all have thoughts and feelings that can sometimes seem illogical, but these exact thoughts will show you where your mind is tied up. And that’s the first step to untangle yourself.

3. Spot the cognitive distortions

Now it’s time to grab a list of cognitive distortions and “Mix&Match” with all the interpretations and beliefs you just wrote down. Don’t worry if you get multiple. Remember, that our brain – way of thinking – is largely learned which means you can also unlearn things and learn new ways. Here, especially highlight those cognitive distortions that are causing the most stress, anxiety or hopelessness.

This list of the most distressing interpretations is important as not all thoughts make you sick or stressed. But, all sick-making-stressful thoughts are worth changing.

Using the previous example, these are the possible cognitive distortions you can identify when analyzing the interpretations of someone:

  • For “Meaning 1”: Overgeneralization (“ALWAYS”), Jumping to Conclusions (“He thinks..”), Personalization (“He doesn’t care about what I have to say”)
  • For “Meaning 2”: Polarized (Black and White Thinking), Catastrophizing - Predicting a catastrophe (“All this preparation was for nothing..”)
  • For “Meaning 3”: Exaggerating (“It is such an IMPORTANT presentation..”), Catastrophizing - Predicting a catastrophe (“What if I lose my job..”), Catastrophizing - Polarized (“I will NEVER be able to find such a good position..”).

This is one example of the outcome of identifying cognitive distortions. The more events you analyze the more clear the pattern will be of your dominant disorders that are getting in your own way.

4. Reframe and Revisit to Get Out of Your Way

By getting to this point you have most probably reflected on and become more aware of the thoughts that can stand in your way. What I realized quite quickly in the first steps is that I could also take some distance from that which causes distress or pain. These are important steps in taking your life into your own hands. Now, it’s time to challenge yourself.

“Challenge” meaning to question the reality of your cognitive distortions and the believability of your interpretations. Become a detective again and find out how realistic your interpretation is. At the same time, you can also become an artist by painting new perspectives and interpretations. This is crucial because realizing the freedom you have with your interpretations is what is going to ultimately set you free from your pain or distress.

As a very good friend and coach of mine once said: “The freedom of choice does not exist if you do not have the freedom to give meaning because then you are imprisoned in the framework of your own meaning.”

Reframe

Take one of your interpretations (meanings) and ask yourself the following questions:

  • “What else could it mean?”
  • “If it was a friend doing it, what would it mean then?”
  • “If it has nothing to do with me, how would I think or react then?”
  • “What is the evidence that proves that I think is true?”

Continuing the previous example: “He is ALWAYS looking at his phone. He doesn’t care about what I have to say. He probably thinks I am useless.”

Challenge it (what else could it mean?):

  • Maybe someone is sick in the family or he has important issues that just can’t wait.
  • Maybe something I said sparked an idea or thought process and he is checking out a few things.
  • Maybe his boss is overpressuring him on a deadline and he just can’t be present.

You can do this with every meaning or belief you have. What it first showed me is how quickly I assumed I knew what was going on around me and how quickly I reacted to my own assumption and beliefs while actually never really knowing or checking the facts. I found that even if you do know, you probably only know half the picture and even then it's up to you how you interpret it.

By reframing your interpretations, you are challenging your set beliefs about the situation. And by doing so, you are loosening the grip of your own resolute interpretations that can not only cause you to feel distressed, sick and exhausted but can also cause you to react in ways that are limiting yourself.

Revisit

Finally, in this last step, you can now revisit the factual event or situation that occurred. By using the reframed interpretations you can now experiment with how it would be like if you were to choose to believe in a new interpretation. And how it could make you feel differently, think differently and ultimately react differently.

You could probably realize how it would have made the situation easier, lighter and even how you would have reacted (and can still react) in a different way. You can also come to the insight that by changing the interpretation; you are fundamentally also changing the choices you make in the situation. And that is real freedom right there.

“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” - Frankl.

Breath, try it or reach out

I hope this reading gave you some new ideas to try out when faced with life’s hurdles. There is much to be said and learned on different techniques you can use to identify and free yourself from cognitive distortions that make you stressed out, sick or stuck.

By practicing techniques such as these, you will be able to adapt it faster and faster to everyday situations and recognize how you are making your life harder. If this is your first time working with something like this or find it difficult to reflect on your own, I found learning the process with an experienced coach was very helpful to get a grip of the process which I can now apply independently whenever I need to.

As you might also have already experienced, we don’t usually have real influence on how other people feel, think or behave around us but we do have a choice in how we react to it. So, why not become more flexible in our reactions and professionals in our own interpretations.

Disclaimer: This method should not be a replacement for professional help when needed. Contact one of the coaches here or reach out to your local doctor if you need support.

  • Rnic, K., Dozois, D. J., & Martin, R. A. (2016). Cognitive Distortions, Humor Styles, and Depression. Europe's journal of psychology, 12(3), 348–362. https://doi.org/10.5964/ejop.v12i3.1118

  • Boyes, Alice Ph.D. (2013) 50 Common Cognitive Distortions. PsychologyToday. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/in-practice/201301/50-common-cognitive-distortions

  • Briere, John. (2000). Cognitive Distortions Scale (CDS) Professional manual.

  • Yüksel, A., & Bahadir, Y. E. (2019). Relationship between depression, anxiety, cognitive distortions, and psychological well‐being among nursing students. Perspectives in Psychiatric Care, 55(4), 690–696. https://doi.org/10.1111/ppc.12404

  • Gilbert P. (1998). The evolved basis and adaptive functions of cognitive distortions. DOI: 10.1111/j.2044-8341.1998.tb01002.x

  • Özdel, K., Taymur, I., Guriz, S. O., Tulaci, R. G., Kuru, E., & Turkcapar, M. H. (2014). Measuring cognitive errors using the Cognitive Distortions Scale (CDS): psychometric properties in clinical and non-clinical samples. PloS one, 9(8), e105956. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0105956

  • Rnic, K., Dozois, D. J., & Martin, R. A. (2016). Cognitive Distortions, Humor Styles, and Depression. Europe's journal of psychology, 12(3), 348–362. https://doi.org/10.5964/ejop.v12i3.1118

Zita Dusa Zita Dusa
20-01-2021 14 mins read
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