Have you ever had an experience where something relatively small set off a firestorm of catastrophic thoughts, to the point where the thoughts and feelings that were created were so much larger, deeper and distorted than the event that started it all in the first place? This is how cognitive distortions can hurt us more than we could imagine, and why we need to continuously work on staying in the present and focusing on what’s “real”, not what’s a product of our wild and distorted imagination (by the way, our imaginations are often driven by our eating disorder and critical voice).
An example of this phenomenon happened while I was in session this week with a client. Several weeks ago Katie was truly taking in the fruits of all her efforts in recovery. She was feeling very accepting of her body, her eating was much less “rocky”, she was able to see life in a more positive way, and she was able to set some short term employment and academic goals for the next few weeks/months. Overall, her thoughts were clear and she was very self-nurturing. This week, she came in saying that she was not going anywhere in life, she was a failure, her eating was “crazy”, she hated her body, and that her whole recovery was completely back to the drawing board. Whoa!!!!! Could that possibly be true? Could she have possibly done a complete 180 degree turn in three weeks, after feeling completely different the last time I saw her? Of course not. The only things that changed were her feelings, which were ignited by distorted negative thoughts, and her loss of healthy perspective. The event that started the cascade of distorted thoughts and loss of perspective was a conversation that her father had with her about going back to college in the fall, in which he put pressure on her to pick a major and get the ball rolling for re-admission. She felt overwhelmed and, instead of trying to talk things through with her father and hold onto perspective, she shut down from the conversation, and indulged numerous catastrophic thoughts that carried her right back to her eating disorder behaviors and negative self-talk.
Other examples of these distortions of thought are:
Maggie got an 82 on her math test. She is normally an A student. She immediately said to herself “I’m a complete failure. I should have studied more. I’ll never get into college. I’ll never be able to have a career. I’m such a loser.” And, what do you think Maggie wanted to do to make herself “feel better”? She wanted to use her eating disorder. And what would that have accomplished? Absolutely nothing. What Maggie needed to do after getting the 82 on her math test was to feel whatever feelings bubbled up…sadness, disappointment, confusion, and a little anxiety? Then, Maggie needed to gain perspective instead of letting her critical inner voice run wild. The best thing for her to do next would have been to reflect objectively on the situation and think to herself “Well, the material on this test was super hard. I really studied as much as I could have. One test won’t ruin my entire GPA, my ability to get into college, or my life’s goals. If I need extra help in math for the rest of the marking period, I’ll ask my math teacher for the help.” If Maggie followed this type of thinking, she would feel a bit less upset, and she wouldn’t have such strong urges to use her eating disorder. Feeling negative feelings associated with a situation like Maggie’s is normal, but letting her thoughts become catastrophic is not. The distorted thoughts are a byproduct of negative self-esteem, and her eating disordered self-critical voice. They are the thoughts that will instantaneously drive the “need” to run to her eating disorder for numbing out, distraction, self-soothing, etc.
Jen had been dating a guy for about 6 months. Things were going well, when without any notice, he told her that he wasn’t “feeling it” and didn’t want to go out with her anymore. He said it was nothing personal but he wanted to move on. Of course she was hurt, sad, confused, and a bit angry. The news took her by surprise because she thought the relationship was going smoothly. Her thoughts went wild. Instead of calling a friend, crying, or talking it through with the guy, she immediately thought “I’ll never find love. I’ll never have a boyfriend again. I’ll be alone the rest of my life. I’m always going to be alone. I am unlovable. It must be because I have a F-A-T stomach.” Wow! Jen jumped to a millions and one conclusions, none of which had any basis in the truth. They were all manifestations of her strong negative feelings and her low sense of self. It is true that the breakup was very painful, but her mind took the situation and created one distortion after another, making her feel one hundred times worse than she would have if she tried to maintain perspective and looked at the situation as it really was. The truth was that she was getting hints for a few weeks that he wasn’t happy. She wasn’t completely happy with the relationship either. Their goals were very different and, in fact, she was questioning if she really liked him. She was contemplating talking with him about taking a break from the relationship but hadn’t wanted to hurt his feelings. But, since he confronted her and told her he wasn’t “feeling it”, she lost perspective and her distorted thoughts escalated, causing her to feel terrible about herself. Then, she wanted to use her eating disordered behaviors to “show him” that she didn’t care about him. In reality, he didn’t see any of what she was trying to tell him. Instead, he just moved on with his life.
The distorted thoughts (not the healthy ones) that we create are the ones that keep us SICK. Distorted thoughts are not about the truth. They are not based in fact. They are often gross exaggerations or completely false. For more information and specific examples of cognitive distortions, there are numerous sites on the internet. For example http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cognitive_distortion
Never judge your life, your future, or your recovery when you have just been triggered by a situation that evoked strong feelings. Try to regain perspective with the help of support people – family, friends, and professionals. Try not to indulge those cognitive distortions that you create. And, above all else, refrain from using eating disordered behaviors as an attempt to self-soothe, communicate, distract, or give up. Take a deep breath, regroup, and reset! You know you can!Share on Facebook