I recently completed a class on Emotional and Social Intelligence, also known as ESI. One part of the course was about self-regulation (or self-management), one of four competencies in emotional and social intelligence.
Self-regulation includes self-control and adaptability. It builds on self-awareness — we have to recognize our emotions in order to regulate them. One way we can use self-regulation is to recognize and think about our feelings to avoid becoming a victim of emotional hijacking.
A thought pattern of emotional hijacking is called Cognitive Distortion. Cognitive distortions are ways our mind convinces us of things that aren’t true. This way of thinking can reinforce negative thinking and emotions, keep us feeling bad about ourselves, and interfere with our ability to self-regulate.
I wanted to share this post about cognitive distortions because I recognized some of this type of thinking in myself. By sharing, maybe others will recognize this type of thinking, too, and learn how to address it before it gets out of hand.
In this post, I’ll provide a few examples of cognitive distortion, plus a few humorous examples from pop culture. I’ll then share 6 strategies for self-regulation and a few resources to find more information.
Examples of Cognitive Distortion
A few examples of cognitive distortion provided by the class include:
- Polarized Thinking
- Jumping to Conclusions
- Personalization and Blame
- Magnification and Minimization
Seeing only in black and white.
An example of cognitive distortion includes polarized thinking. That is, instead of seeing variation, this line of thinking excludes all possible outcomes to only black or white options: success or failure, win or lose, friend or foe, etc. But there’s often more nuance than those two extremes.
Something is everything.
Another example of cognitive distortion is overgeneralization. In this case, it means taking the negative outcome of one event or experience and concluding all similar experiences or events will result in the same outcome. Or concluding that the one bad outcome was due to an inherent character flaw. Ex: Going on one bad date means you’re terrible at relationships.
You are not a clumsy fool.
In this example, you identify with your shortcomings. This is the same as tripping on a broken sidewalk and instead of saying, “The city should fix this sidewalk. It’s dangerous,” you say, “Oh, of course I tripped. I’m clumsy!”
Jumping to Conclusions
You are not a psychic.
There are two examples of this. One is called mind reading. This is assuming other people are reacting negatively to you, even though there’s no evidence for it. Ex: The security guard at work didn’t say hello this morning, so you assume it’s because they don’t like you anymore. It could be because they were distracted or having a bad day.
The other example of jumping to conclusions is fortune telling, which is predicting things will turn out badly, also without evidence. Ex: You decide not to apply to a job in which you’re objectively qualified because you tell yourself you won’t get it anyway.
Personalization and Blame
Who really done it?
In the case of personalization, you may blame yourself for an outcome that you weren’t entirely responsible for. For instance, you’re on a creative team for a big client. Unexpectedly, the client decides to cancel all accounts and withdraw from the agency entirely. While there are multiple people working on this client’s account, you put all the blame on yourself for their decision.
Blame is when you overlook how your own behavior could have contributed to an outcome. For instance, perhaps the security guard from above didn’t say hello to you this morning because you never say hello back, and today was the day they just stopped trying.
Magnification and Minimization
Live in a van down by the river! or Tis but a scratch!
In magnification, this is an example of taking a single bad outcome and blowing it way out of proportion. Ex: You went on a date that went poorly, so this means that for the rest of your life you’ll never find someone to settle down with…which means you’ll die alone and no one will come to your funeral. Or you didn’t get a perfect score on the SAT, which means you’ll never get into Harvard, which means you’ll have to go to community college…which of course you’ll fail out of and then end up homeless on the street.
Minimization is taking something that should rightly be of concern and shrinking it’s importance. Ex: You have pains in your stomach, but tell yourself it will go away on its own. A child in 3rd grade is still reading at a 1st grade level, but it’s overlooked instead of trying correct it or understand why this is the case. There’s find incontrovertible evidence a spouse is having an affair, but it’s dismissed. You discover financial fraud at work, but say it’s no big deal.
If you want to read a few more examples, there are links at the end. But first, here are a few examples from pop culture.
Pop Culture Examples of Magnification and Minimization
I guess this type of distortion can seem so wildly ridiculous it can seem hilarious to others, and we can find examples in pop culture. It is funny, but it also shows that it’s not uncommon. It happens so often, to so many people, and going back so many centuries…we can all be in on the joke. (So if you find yourself identifying with one of these examples, remember to not identify with your shortcomings: you’re not a magnification-ist!)
A few examples of magnification and minimalization are from Saturday Night Live, Monty Python, and Shakespeare.
Example 1: The Saturday Night Live skit, Van Down By The River, is a funny take on magnification. A motivational speaker is brought in to talk to the teenagers about drugs and their future, but he blows everything out of proportion and says that if they keep making bad choices they’ll live in a van down by the river — just like he does.
Example 2: Monty Python and The Holy Grail has a hilarious take on minimization in the Black Knight scene. Arthur reaches a “bridge”, which is defended by a knight dressed in black. He’s offered a position at court, but the knight doesn’t accept and refuses to let Arthur pass. A battle begins, with Arthur eventually cutting off one of the knight’s arms. Instead of conceding the battle the knight says, “Tis a scratch!” and continues fighting. Despite further devastating injuries, the knight remains obstinately defiant, saying things like, “I’ve had worse.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_Knight_(Monty_Python)
Example 3: There is a similar line from Romeo and Juliet, after Mercutio and Tybalt duel. Mercutio says, “Ay, ay, a scratch, a scratch. Marry, ’tis enough. Where is my page?—Go, villain, fetch a surgeon.” Ironically, Mercutio is not engaging in minimization, as he promptly asks for a doctor. He has recognized the seriousness of his injury. But, by calling it “a scratch”, he uses irony to convey his message which perhaps causes others to minimize the seriousness of his wound, because they assume that he’s joking.
Self-Talk: Where Cognitive Distortion Begins
Part of the reason we begin engaging in this type of thinking is because we let our self-talk get out of control. Self-talk is that inner voice we all have. But sometimes it can become negative and damage our ability to self-manage. We let our inner voice create our outer reality.
Strategies for Self-Regulation
The course discussed a few strategies for self-regulation.
- Take control of your self-talk. Recognize when you’re doing it and when it’s getting out of control.
- Focus on your freedoms, not your limitations. Getting stuck on your limitations is demoralizing and can conjure negative feelings. Focus on remaining flexible and open.
- Find something to learn from everyone you encounter. This can be hard, but try to do it even after encountering people you find irritating, annoying, or critical of you. Perhaps you will learn patience from those people. Try to find something to gain from every encounter.
- Stop and think. Take a moment to stop and think before responding. Hard to do in the moment! Try to think about how you can learn from the situation.
- Focus on a purpose. I strongly recommend this Coursera course on learning to live a life of purpose: Finding Purpose and Meaning In Life: Living for What Matters Most. I wrote two posts about my experience with this course. Read Part One and Part Two.
- Talk less and listen more. Listening doesn’t mean agreeing, but it does mean making an effort to understand. This effort will demonstrate empathy and make for a better relationship.
Another strategy is to try journaling. Journaling can help you become more aware of your thoughts and help you catch destructive or counterproductive self-talk. You can write about concerns, accomplishments, disappointments, interactions with other people, and positive and negative incidents in your life.
Greater Good Magazine has several articles on journaling for gratitude, to avoid rumination, and to help get through hard times. https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/search?q=journaling
- This post began with a brief introduction to self-regulation as a key component of emotional and social intelligence, or ESI.
- I introduced cognitive distortion which is a way our mind can convince us of things that aren’t true.
- A few examples of cognitive distortion include polarized thinking, overgeneralization, labeling, jumping to conclusions, personalization and blame, and magnification and minimization.
- Pop culture examples of magnification and minimization show that cognitive distortions can be very common and widespread. No one should feel unique if they find that they’ve been thinking this way. (Don’t label, overgeneralize, or personalize!)
- I explained that cognitive distortion can begin with negative self-talk — that is, we let our inner voice become negative.
- Finally, I gave a few strategies for self-regulation, to help get back on track.
Self-Reflection: As I mentioned at the top, when I learned about cognitive distortion, I recognized some of this type of thinking in myself. Although it’s better to avoid this type of thinking, it was a comfort to have a name for it. And the pop culture examples helped me see it’s so common we can joke about it. I hope this post is helpful for someone else.
I plan to continue learning more about cognitive distortions. I’ve included a few additional resources below with more information.
Learn More About Cognitive Distortions
There are more cognitive distortions than the ones I included. Find out more about cognitive distortions here: https://www.healthline.com/health/cognitive-distortions
David Burn’s Book “Feeing Good: The New Mood Therapy” (New York: William Morrow & Company, 1980, Signet, 1981), is apparently a seminal book on the topic. More information about this book can be found on the author’s website, feelinggood.com.
Web: As I linked to above, Greater Good Magazine has many helpful articles which can help with self-regulation. Find them at greatergood.berkeley.edu.
Course: I took a great course that explained purpose and how to live a life with purpose. It is offered by the University of Michigan on Coursera. Finding Purpose and Meaning In Life: Living for What Matters Most. I highly recommend this course. Greater Good Magazine also has a course on finding happiness in life, though I have yet to sign up.