Decision Making and Cognitive Distortions
Often we know what the right decision is. We know that we need to eat well, sleep more, exercise regularly, work on our relationships, work on ourselves, but for some reason we sometimes just don’t do it.
This is a paradox. We often know the answer, and commonly continue to make the wrong choice. Why do we do it? One explanation is that we employ what are called Cognitive Distortions.
For one reason or another, our mind works out a way of being comfortable with making an unhealthy decision. At my Ann Arbor counseling practice, I work with clients to identify, understand, challenge, and restructure these common cognitive distortions:
We believe that our emotional reaction proves something is true
Our brain experiences a civil war. On the top of the brain we have our Human Brain, or Cerebral Cortex. This is what makes us distinctly human. It is driven by our Frontal Lobes and is responsible for complex thought, logic, reasoning, creativity, and much more.
In the center and at the core, we have our Animal Brain. This part of our brain is older and is responsible for our animalistic instincts, fight or flight, and our emotional center (Limbic System). We owe our survival to our Animal Brain, so we often trust it deeply. The human part of our brain and the animal part of our brain are in tension. They are battling for ownership of our decision making. Both are involved in all of our decisions, however the extent to which they are involved varies.
When we experience a strong emotion it can transcend our logic. When we feel something strongly, it can keep us in our emotional center and prevent us from fully utilizing our Frontal Lobes. In therapy at my Ann Arbor counseling practice, I work with clients to become more aware of this and to challenge it.
Magnification and Minimization
We emphasize our failures and de-emphasize our successes
Sometimes we make a mountain out of a molehill. We can convince ourselves that something is a bigger deal than it really is. When we magnify the significance of a concern we can often prevent ourselves from making the healthy decision that we want to make. This commonly leads to anxiety.
Other times we can downplay the true significance of an emotion or concern. There could be a real tangible reason that is preventing you from making a healthy decision, and it is important to identify it. Minimizing is a step away from denial.
We think of ourselves in terms of all-or-nothing
It is easier to think in terms of black or white. We either are a person who exercises regularly or we aren’t. We either are a great friend or we aren’t. We either eat well or we don’t. We are someone who processes our emotions or we are someone who hides from them. The list could go on.
The reality is that we can be, and often are, more than one thing at the same time, even if they are two characteristics that seem contradictory. When we go to funerals we often like to sum someone’s life up in a nice, clean, neat way. But the reality is that humans hold the capacity for the complexity of internal contradiction, and it is unrealistic to believe that we can be all “good” or all “bad.”
Thinking in terms of all-or-nothing is a common cognitive distortion that prevents us from making the choices we want to make.
We assume future outcomes based on a few experiences
Making sweeping generalizations is a human thing. Most of us do it in some way. We have a negative experience, and believe that all future experiences will yield a similar result. This type of thinking can prevent us from making decisions that we want to make.
In therapy we can learn to recognize when we overgeneralize, how it may be negatively impacting our functioning, and how we can go about challenging this habit.
We believe that if we’ve thought about doing something, we’ve already sort of done it
For example, say we have to grade papers this weekend. We continue bringing it up and mentioning it to our partner. I can’t do anything until I grade these papers, or, “When I grade these papers I’m going to attach rubrics with their score summarized,” or, “I’m so stressed because I have to grade these papers.”
A funny thing starts to happen when we continue to think about something we have to do. It can create the cognitive illusion that we have made some sort of actual progress. We believe that because we have continued to think about it, we are working on it. Magical Thinking is another way that we deceive ourselves with our thoughts.
Restructuring our Cognitive Distortions
The first step in addressing our cognitive distortions is to become aware of them. In therapy at my Ann Arbor counseling practice, I work with clients to identify how their thoughts may be actually preventing them from making the choices that they want to make.
Identify – Understand – Challenge – Reconstruct
Once we are aware of our cognitive distortions, it is important to identify specifically how they are impacting our functioning and where they come from. Once we build a deeper understanding of the cognitive distortions, we must challenge them. We will work on a plan to restructure our cognitive distortions to attempt to modify how we think and feel about ourselves in several ways. This often feels like breaking a bad habit and requires practice + time.
If you or someone you know connects with the maladaptive thought processes outlined in this post, feel free to reach out to ask questions or schedule an appointment with me. I’d love to work with you on building a healthier and more fulfilling life!
About the author: Tim Wilkins is the owner and therapist at his Ann Arbor counseling practice, Identity Counseling Psychology PLLC. Tim works with clients to help identify, understand, challenge, and restructure cognitive distortions. In addition to being a counselor in Ann Arbor, Tim is also an adjunct instructor at Jackson College where he teaches Intro to Psychology, Developmental Psychology, Abnormal Psychology, and Intro to Counseling.