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The First Necessary Step to Improve Your Life is to Learn to Challenge Your Damaging Cognitive Distortions(The following is adapted from The Theory & Practice of Well-Being by Lee LaMee.)

I think all human beings have one fundamental goal in common. We all want to find some level of happiness, contentment, and peace.

Is that too much to ask? I don’t think so. In fact, I know it’s not.

Getting to that goal is possible for all of us on some level.

To achieve peace and well-being, we have to be able to make positive changes in our current lives that get us from where we are to where we want to be. And the first step necessary to do that involves becoming aware of, assessing, and changing your habitual thought patterns.

Whether you realize it or not, the way you perceive and respond to the world is filtered through cognitive distortions that can lead to or worsen depression, anxiety, pain, anger, grief and loss, trauma, guilt, and shame. A lot of the unhappiness and pain you feel is because of the way you have been conditioned to think.

The good news is that you can change that conditioning — but you have to become aware of it first.

That is why, before you can begin to make positive changes to reach a peaceful, content place in life, you have to identify unhelpful distortions and perceptions in your thinking patterns and challenge them.

The Distortion of Anger

Anger often arises when we feel violated or something important to us is threatened. This can lead to frustration, offense, or feeling hurt about being treated unfairly. Your brain activates when you have these feelings and wants you to deal with the threats or damage right away. It wants you to make things right. Think about it. Beneath it all, doesn’t anger often feel like something needs to change to make you feel OK? Your brain seeks its own confirmation, and confirmation bias is one of the strongest cognitive distortions we all have. 

Often with cognitive distortions, you can identify a specific trigger that initially urges you to react. But anger begets more anger and pretty soon, you may find that the anger is fueling itself. It’s a feedback loop. Anger activates the stress response and immediately takes your brain “offline.” When it does, you are not open to exploring, learning, or finding a resolution.

While anger can be seductive in making us feel powerful and invulnerable, the feeling is almost always a cover-up for a deeper issue. Negativity creates more negativity, anger creates anger, and hatred creates more hatred. Additionally, anger often leads to depression.

Begin to Challenge and Change Anger

To begin to challenge the distortion of anger, try the following exercise. When you are calm, think about which of your needs isn’t being satisfied in a situation that makes you angry, or try to pinpoint what unrecognized deficit from your past may be surfacing. Another exercise you can try the next time you feel anger is to stop and consider what you perceive the real threat to be and what the original and underlying pain might be stemming from. In other words, think of the anger as a symptom and try to figure out what the root cause is behind it.

The First Necessary Step to Improve Your Life is to Learn to Challenge Your Damaging Cognitive Distortions

Grief and Loss

Remember that grief and loss are different from depression. They are sadness related to a specific life event. It could be the loss of an important person in your life or a job or something more abstract, like a dream you had, or a way of looking at the world that has shifted. Even a positive change in your inner cognitive map can be a kind of loss.

Most commonly in the past, grief has been explained using Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s five stages of grief—denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance — which can be insightful. However, a newer model to express the stages of grief has emerged. The wave model of grief defines the first wave of grief as so overpowering it can knock us over. The expectation is that the waves of grief will continue to come but will become less and less forceful as we allow ourselves to be open to and feel the sadness. 

When you let grief move through you, it dissipates and decreases rather than bottling it up for a later time when it will be more difficult to deal with. Eventually, after we’ve honored and experienced our sadness, we can say goodbye and psychologically progress to a place of acceptance.

Begin to Move Through Grief and Loss

If you are struggling with the distortions of grief and loss, ask yourself if you have grieved all your losses. Remember to consider the abstract ones as well.

Severe Injury or Trauma

Next, let’s look at severe injury or trauma, whether psychological, emotional, physical, sexual, or moral. I’ve worked with plenty of people who’ve experienced trauma. This can be developmental trauma from their youth, which stems from significant emotional, psychological, physical, and/or sexual abuse, or neglect. 

The First Necessary Step to Improve Your Life is to Learn to Challenge Your Damaging Cognitive Distortions

These consequences can be disastrous to a person’s sense of self, others, the world, and the future and can seriously impede the ability to develop safe and healthy boundaries. Whether they experienced developmental or adult trauma (sometimes both), people who have been impacted often go on to develop:

  • Hypervigilance or anxiety, or being on guard all the time waiting for something bad to happen. Essential to this experience is feeling like life has a pendulous lack of predictability.
  • Flashbacks of the event or stressful experience, as if they are reliving it.
  • Avoidance of thoughts, feelings, or situations that remind them of the trauma.
  • Negative thoughts and perceptions about themselves, others, the world, or the future.

Begin to Recognize the Distortions of Trauma

As an exercise to heal trauma, consider whether you can recognize in yourself any of the behaviors — hypervigilance, reexperiencing, avoiding, or negative thinking — that might actually be related to something traumatic in your past instead of whatever is bringing up the feelings in the present. Ask yourself how unprocessed and raw is the trauma and what you need to do to heal.

Cases of severe trauma require the guidance of a professional. Cognitive processing therapy (CPT) focuses on turning trauma into a narrative, typically written, and can play a powerful part in healing. In order to heal trauma, a person has to feel safe in an environment with someone they trust who has the expertise to guide them through it. 

The Consequences of Distortions

Unfortunately, many negative consequences arise from our cognitive distortions. For example, hurt can beget hurt, repeating the cycle of trauma. Trauma can even change a person’s brain and be passed on to future generations. For example, a mean toxic person might really be a walking case of unresolved trauma — most are. Have you heard the saying, “hurt people hurt people?” They carry forward the trauma they feel and, in doing so, only compound their original trauma. What these toxic people really need is to develop safety, nurturing, and closeness with others and heal their own trauma. Instead, they continue the cycle. We’ve all seen it happen too many times.

Another consequence of cognitive distortions can be unprocessed guilt, where we might do something we consider wrong and turn the anger inward, or shame, where we feel like we are something wrong. You feel the sharp, burning pang of guilt usually after you’ve violated one of your own values. Guilt and shame are typically internally generated but can also be placed on us externally by others and, if neglected, can result in depression and mental and physical illnesses.

Often involved with feelings of guilt is the underlying core belief, which is just out of our awareness, that we don’t deserve good things in life because we’ve done bad things that are unforgivable. When you think about it, this is an erroneous pretense where a person assumes they are the only individual on the planet who cannot be forgiven or find renewal and restitution.

The First Necessary Step to Improve Your Life is to Learn to Challenge Your Damaging Cognitive Distortions

Move Toward Well-Being

Typically, guilt can be resolved by either making restitution, making things right where we can, or realizing we’ve done everything we can and then, then taking the next difficult step to move on and extend compassion to and forgive ourselves.

It helps here to be aware of any retrospective bias we may have. Retrospective bias is judging ourselves and our actions in the past from the vantage point of the knowledge we have since acquired. You have to take into account the knowledge you had at the time of the event causing the guilt. We all tend to carry guilt around for things we couldn’t possibly be responsible for.  This kind of toxic guilt is especially corrosive.

We can also explore what I call the guilt or responsibility pie. This can be literally drawing a circle or pie and then dividing up the “slices” or percentages of what we were responsible for and what others were responsible for. When you do this exercise, remember that each piece of pie must be substantiated with evidence. Then, ask yourself:

  • Are you sure?
  • Is there any room for error in your estimation?
  • Could you convince another of your guilt with facts?

Conclusion 

When you let your thought and emotional patterns of vulnerability, threat, and pain from your past go unchallenged and just believe and live according to them, you will pay the price. Sooner or later, you may suffer, often unnecessarily, from chronic and debilitating anger, overwhelming grief and loss, compounded effects of trauma, avoidable guilt, and crippling shame.

You do not have to carry these feelings around with you forever and let them fester and turn into mental and physical illnesses. It’s not inevitable.

Positive change is possible. It starts with you challenging your patterns. And it can start today.

Guest Author

Lee LaMee is a Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner with a background in various settings, including oncology, psychiatry, veterans affairs, and medical-surgical nursing. He studied in Amsterdam before continuing his studies in the United Kingdom and working as a registered nurse. A US Air Force veteran, Lee is passionate about understanding human behavior and helping others improve their mental well-being.

For more advice on how to overcome your distortions and experience well-being, you can find The Theory & Practice of Well-Being on Amazon.

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1 Comment

  1. I’ve never heard of cognitive distortions spoken of in this way. But I find it very interesting because these suggestions seem to take us deeper into the core of what’s holding us back. Thanks very much!

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