Blog Short #111: 2 Cognitive Distortions that Lead You Down the Wrong Path
Photo by nullplus, Courtesy of iStock Photo
In our continuing exploration of cognitive distortions, today we’re tackling “jumping to conclusions.” These distortions lead you down the wrong path because they’re based on erroneous assumptions.
There are two of them. They are:
- Fortune-teller error
Let’s start with definitions and examples, and then I’ll provide some strategies to help deal with them.
Mind-reading means assuming that you know what someone’s thinking and then reacting to your assumptions as though they’re true.
You’re at a social event, and an acquaintance doesn’t say hello when you make eye contact with her. You assume she’s upset with you or doesn’t like you.
Your partner meets you for lunch, and you’ve already ordered for him because you’re sure you know what he’ll want to eat.
In both these cases, assumptions are made and then treated as if they’re accurate.
Outside the fact that these assumptions are often inaccurate, the real danger is that acting on them as if they are true can create a self-fulfilling prophecy that ultimately reinforces the belief you’ve constructed in your mind.
For example, if you’ve decided someone’s upset with you, you might react by becoming defensive, retaliatory, or maybe shut down. Your behavior then affects the other person, and they become upset the more you react. You say to yourself, “See, she’s angry. I knew it!”
This type of interaction happens more often with people you know well. Couples can argue over nothing simply because one of them decided the other was upset or angry and personalized it.
Strategies for Mind-Reading
There are two strategies you can use to help dispel your “mind-reading” assumptions. Both of these come from David Burns, who wrote Feeling Great.
Very simply, ask! Don’t assume anything, even with people you know well. You may be right in your assumptions, but don’t guess. Inquire what the other person is thinking, feeling, or wanting. Let’s go back to the two scenarios described above.
With the acquaintance who didn’t acknowledge you, you could make your way over to her, say hello, and ask how she is. She might respond by being very friendly, and you’ll realize she wasn’t upset with you. You might find out she has something on her mind that’s holding her attention, and although she looked at you, she didn’t register it.
When your partner arrives at the restaurant for lunch, you might say, “I thought about ordering for you because I think I know what you’ll want, but I thought I’d better wait and be sure. You might want something entirely different.”
There’s always the possibility that you read someone correctly, but you won’t know that for sure unless you investigate. Sometimes those answers are cleared up just by making contact, and you quickly realize your assumptions were way off. Other times you may need to ask directly. “Are you upset with me about something?”
Self-disclosure’s a little more intimidating, and you should approach it thoughtfully based on your level of trust with the person involved. Instead of inquiring how the other person feels or thinks, disclose how you feel or what you think.
You might say to the person at the social event:
“Hey, when we saw each other a few minutes ago, you didn’t speak. I was worried that you might be upset with me about something. Are you?”
You’re inquiring, but you’re doing it by revealing your assumption. It’s direct and more intimate and makes more of a connection. If the other person is upset about something, it provides an opening to say so and discuss it. If their behavior had nothing to do with you, they’d likely appreciate the opportunity to clear that up.
Self-disclosure is personal and lets people in, and the benefit is more meaningful contact. Most people appreciate that opening. You can usually tell if someone will feel uncomfortable with this approach. In those cases, stick with inquiry only.
Now let’s take a look at the fortune-teller error.
The Crystal Ball
The fortune-teller error is the basis for catastrophic thinking. You have a fantasy about a future event and predict what will happen without corroborating evidence. Usually, what you envision is either wildly negative or wildly positive. Generally, it leans negative.
Your boss asks you to stop by his office after lunch, and you assume he’s going to fire you even though you’ve not experienced any problems with your job.
You’ve been invited to a party by a good friend. You won’t know everyone attending, and you assume that the people you don’t know won’t like you, although you have no evidence to back that up.
You’ve been depressed for several days and decide you’ll feel this way forever. You conger up dismal pictures of your future and assume nothing will help you.
Scenarios like this last one can gain power and grow. You might begin isolating yourself from friends, become more anxious, get less sleep, start making errors at work, and become more depressed. The more you sink into your predicted fantasy, the more you set yourself up to experience it.
Fortunately, fortune-telling doesn’t always end in self-fulfilling prophecies. Sometimes you imagine a catastrophic event, and when you get there, it doesn’t happen. You recognize that your emotions ran away with you.
Most of us have this experience periodically. It’s more problematic if it’s your go-to mindset. People with generalized anxiety can find themselves thinking catastrophically more often, as can those who experience panic attacks or OCD.
Part of the treatment is questioning these distortions regularly until you can turn your mind back to a more stable view of the future without focusing on worst-case scenarios.
Strategies for Fortune-Teller Error
1. Examine the facts.
What evidence do you have to support your predictions? Are these strictly a function of your fears? Are there other explanations for your assumptions?
To use this strategy, you must step outside your emotions and objectively consider real evidence or lack thereof. Writing it down helps because when you transfer thoughts (and especially emotions) from your mind to paper, you gain some distance. There are always “what-ifs,” but if you sift through them for factual backup, you can dispel most of them.
2. Imagine the worst-case scenario.
Sometimes it helps to imagine the worst-case scenario and explore what you would do if it should come to pass. Recognizing alternatives helps dissipate the intensity of your fears or anxiety, and you can back off jumping to conclusions.
Alternatively, you can also imagine the best-case scenario to help balance your worries and create a more realistic approach.
3. Take action.
Make inquiries, run your thoughts by someone you trust who can be objective, or take steps to change the experience you’re currently having that’s influencing your thoughts.
Back to our person who’s depressed, he could take some steps to help move him out of his current state of mind and expand his view. He might contact friends or family rather than isolate himself, engage in activities that help create energy, like exercise, or contact a therapist and make an appointment. All of these would alter his current state of mind and reduce his pessimistic predictions of the future.
Predictions that assume the worst often originate in other self-defeating thought patterns. As such, they reflect negative beliefs you hold and nurture through repetitive affirmations.
It’s essential to get to the bottom of these beliefs and hold them up for examination before you can successfully stop predicting or thinking catastrophically. Therapy is the best option because someone can help you through this process.
That’s all for today.
Hope you have a great week!
All my best,