The Effect of Cognitive Distortions

Earl Nightingale once said “we become what we think about.” While this assertion has fueled many self-help and peak performance philosophies, it has a practical application in preventing anxiety and depression as we definitely feel what we think about.It would logically follow then that if our thinking is overly pessimistic, negative, inwardly hateful, or self-critical, we are going to become depressed and/or anxious.

Cognitive distortions are thoughts that present themselves as iron clad facts but are untrue. These distorted thoughts are regularly used to bolster negative judgements or emotions. The source of these distortions are numerous and often start out as maladapted childhood coping strategies that have become rigid and fixed in adulthood. Thinking that is dominated by cognitive distortions can result in self-esteem crushing feelings of despair, failure, anger, frustration, hopelessness, resentment, and anxiety that left unchecked can lead to a high degree of dissatisfaction in life.

Lawyers who struggle with anxiety or depression issues ultimately report experiencing some form of this very negative thinking pattern. Dr. David Burns’, Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy, a ground breaking work on overcoming depression, cites cognitive distortions as a key cause of anxiety and depression. Changing these distortions is a foundational and major goal of psychotherapy. If our beliefs about ourselves and others’ behaviour and intentions are skewed, we are inevitably looking at life through a seriously distorted lens which can lead us to cause ourselves and others serious harm as a result.

Consider the following: Perhaps a lawyer receives a voice message or an email from their managing partner or their biggest client that said “call me as soon as you get this.” The lawyer immediately then jumps to the conclusion that they have done something wrong and are about to be fired. The lawyer then procrastinates calling back and agonizes for hours over what terrible thing they could have done wrong. But when the lawyer finally calls their boss or client they are congratulated for a job well done and told what a valuable member of the team they are. The lawyer then beats him or herself up for being so paranoid and irrational.This lawyer would have fallen into a cognitive distortion trap which certainly would have led to unnecessary and unpleasant dread and fear. However, there is good news. If we are prone to cognitive distortions we can identify and challenge them and avoid unnecessary emotional and damage to ourselves and our relationships. Cognitive distortions fall into several categories.

  1. All-or-nothing thinking: Seeing things as polarized or in “black or white” categories. If your performance falls short of perfect, you see yourself as a total failure. Everything is seen as an either/or proposition. An example is the lawyer who obtains a great settlement for his client who is happy with it, but the lawyer feels like a total failure because he had to abandon some aspect of the claim.
  2. Over-generalization: A single negative event is viewed as a global defeat. For example a lawyer who makes a minor mistake on a file may quickly and inappropriately label themselves as a total loser who can never do anything right. This person will regularly feel like an “imposter” in social and work contexts and constantly lives with the dread and fear that they are going to be found out and fired.
  3. Mental filtering: We pick out a single negative detail and focus on it exclusively, ruling out and discarding any positive or mitigating factors. This distortion can manifest by looking for “evidence” that we are doing a bad job, we are not “okay” or to support the belief that people don’t like us.
  4. Discounting the positive: This similar to Mental Filtering. We reject positive experiences or attributes by insisting they “don’t count” for some reason or other.
  5. Jumping to conclusions: (a) Mind reading - arbitrarily concluding that someone is reacting negatively to but not bothering to check it out; (b) Fortune telling – anticipating that things will turn out badly and feeling convinced that this prediction is an already-established fact.
  6. Magnification (catastrophizing) or minimization: This distortion exaggerates the significance of things (your boss didn’t say good morning), or it inappropriately shrinks things until they appear insignificant. This can be deadly when combined with jumping to conclusions. A junior lawyer’s boss doesn’t respond when she says “good morning” and heads into his office and closes the door. The junior interprets this as evidence nobody likes her, she does poor work, and is about to be fired by the end of the day.
  7. Emotional reasoning: Reasoning based entirely upon how we are feeling: “I feel like an idiot so I must be one,” or “I don’t feel like being polite to another lawyer so I don’t have to.”
  8. The Shoulds: Stop “shoulding” on yourself! This distortion manifests in rigid rules about how we and others “should” conduct ourselves. People who don’t conform make us angry, and we feel guilty when we violate these rules. A lawyer who suffers under this distortion may exhibit severe perfectionism and genuinely believe they are motivating themselves or others with should and shouldn’t (or must and ought to), but this approach leads to anger, guilt, shame, resentment, frustration and feelings of inadequacy. It can also severely damage relationships.
  9. Labeling: This is an over-generalization where we attach a negative label to ourselves such as “I’m such an idiot”, or “I am a loser.” We may have made a minor mistake and fail to consider it under the appropriate context – we all make mistakes. Instead we condemn ourselves with global pejorative label. Alternatively when someone else’s behavior rubs us the wrong way, we attach a negative label to him or her (“he is such a loser”, etc.). Labeling uses language that is highly negative and emotionally charged. This language amplifies feelings of anger and resentment towards ourselves or others.
  10. Personalization: This distortion causes us to view ourselves as solely to blame for some negative external event for which we were not entirely responsible. Or alternatively we blame someone else for the event while simultaneously overlooking ways in which we might have played a part. A lawyer suffering from personalization may accidentally show up late for court and then blame himself when client gets detained.

Law is a stressful and demanding profession. It is hard enough without our own thinking getting in the way. Cognitive distortions result in negative biases that left unchecked can lead to feelings of helplessness, fear, anxiety and severe depression. Once we become aware of our own distortions we can start to challenge them by examining the evidence and countering negative statements about ourselves and others.