In the world of cognitive therapy, people are taught to identify and eliminate “cognitive distortions.” In the therapy approach of Albert Ellis, similar processes were used on “irrational beliefs.”
Eewwh. Cognitive distortions. Irrational beliefs. I must be pretty messed up. No wonder I’m in therapy. Will I ever get out of this hole? Not only are my emotions messed up; even my basic thought processes are messed up. This is gonna be a huge project. Will I ever like myself?
Well, yes, you can start appreciating yourself immediately. Here’s a different way of looking at it: you have a beautiful, creative, powerful mind that likes to make up stories. The cognitive distortion known as fortune telling? You are able to make up very detailed stories about what will happen in the future. The cognitive distortion known as mind reading? You are able to speculate in great detail– sometimes even correctly– about what is going on in the minds of people you know. You are able to hypothesize, speculate, dream, imagine all kinds of things. You are able to take a few facts and flesh them out into very detailed pictures using your powerful, creative mind.
OK, if my mind is so powerful and creative, why am I depressed, anxious, unhappy? Because you love the story that you made up so much that you forget that it’s a story and start to believe it’s true.
So how to get back on track? Well, sometimes you need a second person to bounce your ideas off of. It could be a good friend. The one thing you have to watch out for is that your story is so good you can sell it to your friend, who will then co-sign your worries. As one person I talked to put it, you have to question your paradigm, not persuade others to adopt it.
This is where a therapist may have a job. I’ve certainly had clients who fell so in love with their stories that it was hard for them to be objective. But that’s what it takes. Consider yourself an investigative journalist, a detective, or a scientist. What are the facts? What can be verified? What parts come from your imagination? What parts are speculations that need to either be corroborated by evidence or tested by experiment? For example, if I’m mind reading– making up a story about what’s going on in the mind of another person– I can always ask. If I’m right, that’s great. If I’m wrong, I didn’t take a misguided action based on an incorrect guess– so I still win.
Another example of a cognitive distortion that can be seen as the working of a creative, determined mind– should statements. “They should treat me better.” “I should have done better on that test.” You have a clear vision of a better world. In this case, an objective look at the world as it is– acceptance– is needed. It doesn’t mean you have to give up on your vision, but it does mean that there may be work needed to plot a feasible course from what is to what could be. Just another job for your beautiful, creative mind.