Am I a good person or a bad person?
Is my life awesome or downright horrible?
Am I a successful person or a complete failure?
If I don’t have everything, does it mean that I have nothing?
Is life always supposed to be either black or white?
Cognitive distortions are habitual ways of thinking that are often inaccurate and negatively biased. Cognitive distortions usually develop over time, mostly in response to adverse events and our observations in our environment. These distortions are hard to change because they are so subtle, that often we don’t even recognize them as something that needs to change.
There are a number of cognitive distortions. However, the questions that you read above are examples of a specific cognitive distortion called dichotomous thinking or polarised thinking. It is also known as all or nothing and black or white thinking. This distortion manifests as an inability or unwillingness to see the ‘SHADES OF GREY’ in our life. In other words, you see life in terms of extremes – something is either fantastic or awful; you believe you are either perfect or a total failure. This is distorted thinking because in reality, life is a mixture of good and bad for all of us. This ‘either – or’ way of thinking does not even consider the possibility that there could be something bad in everything that you see as good or there could be something good in everything that you see as bad. This type of thinking can be responsible for a number of negative evaluations of yourself and others and also might hinder your growth.
Evaluating your life by thinking in terms of extremities lays a fertile ground for self-blame and even self-hatred, because what you are really doing is demanding perfection from yourself. Also, besides perfection the only alternative that you consider is complete failure. In the long run, such type of thinking gives a massive hit to your mental health. This cognitive distortion is commonly noticed in individuals suffering from depression, anxiety and other mental health issues. It is also seen among the other people who haven’t undergone any symptoms but are at risk to mental health issues.
Let’s look at an example of polarised thinking : Picture yourself as trying to stick to a diet and if you think about your diet in all or nothing terms, even a small brownie (cheat meal) is considered to have ruined your effort. In your mind, if it’s not 100% it might as well be 0%. So realistically, even if you stick to your diet 90% of the time, the all or nothing thinking will have you believe that you have totally failed and you might as well eat anything that you want.
The solution to this cognitive distortion is to make an effort to see the shades of grey. It is to recognize that a small brownie doesn’t erase the success that you have had with your diet. You are allowed to (and are supposed to) consume food outside of your diet because the body needs it in order to fulfill the requirement of nuitrition. So, completely devoiding the body of somethings might cause other troubles. You have made significant changes and you can expect that things always won’t go perfectly. A major part of this effort is paying attention to what you are thinking and the terms that you use when you express yourself.
Given below are a few examples of words that we use in our daily life. Your job is to simply just notice how you are using these words and identify if you are engaging in dichotomous thinking.
EVERYTHING – “Everything is going wrong!” This term “everything’ is often used to go from something specific that happened to making a global generalization about a particular topic. In long term it tends to prohibit you from seeing things that are actually going right.
ALWAYS – “You are always late” or “I always mess up.” You need to take a step back and ask if “always” is really true. Certainly “always” might be true sometimes, but other times it just keeps you in a vicious cycle of believing that things can’t get better.
NEVER – “I never do well in presentations” or “Things will never get better.” “Never” can do equal damage as “always” because it tends to get rid of any hope, flexibility or benefit of the doubt in any situation.
CAN’T – “I can’t do anything right.” or “We can’t handle this.” Ask yourself if you really cannot do something or the use of this word gets you into a cycle of negative thinking and evaluations? Does it interfere with a realistic evaluation of your abilities?
TOTALLY – “My life is totally ruined!” or “Something is totally wrong with her.” When you go from part to whole so quickly and inaccurately, you blind yourself from seeing the potential positives of a situation or person and keep out the actual good things which in the end makes you feel stuck.
EVERYONE or NO ONE – “Everyone hates me” or “No one cares about us.” Similar to “everything” there is a generalization to all people in the world from encounters or experiences with few people in our life.
It is important to understand the way you use similar words like these in your daily life. I urge you to keep a check on your train of thoughts and identify if you are engaging in polarised thinking. If you are, then here are some steps you can take to change this pattern of thinking.
Maintain a diary/journal and monitor your thoughts more closely. For every dichotomous thought come up with an alternative thought that is closer to reality and isn’t polarized.
By every time trying to strive for absolute perfection we end up putting pressure on ourselves and others around us too. So try to accept that everyone is unique in their own way. No one is perfect; everyone has their own imperfections and so do you!
Practice self-compassion by spending more time with yourself. Try to accept and love yourself for the way you are.
Try to acknowledge your own as well as other’s accomplishments however small they may be. Simple acknowledgement and acceptance is a way of spreading positivity in our own life as well as for others. It also boosts our motivation and helps us to ‘try’ before judging ourselves with anything.
Getting support from a therapist or a counsellor is not a sign of weakness. If you feel the need for professional support then do not hesitate to contact a mental health professional.
Life Is Not Only Black & White But Everything In Between Too – It’s Shades Of Grey
- Nishita Vaswani
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