My daughter, who is 6 and has the observational abilities and attention span of any 6-year old, stopped me the other day and handed me a worksheet from school. It was a cartoonish drawing of a balloon-headed, bald person with a cylinder aimed at their face. Below the picture she had written, “My mommy only ever drinks coffee ever.” I set my coffee cup down as I read this, looked into her excited face and asked, “is that mommy drinking coffee?” Of course it was. Mommy only ever drinks coffee. Ever.
At the risk of sounding like I seriously overanalyze otherwise mundane moments, I started thinking immediately about cognitive biases and what David Burns and Aaron Beck identified as “thought distortions.” The common flavors or types of distortions we are subject to are common and consistent enough they have been named and cataloged to general consensus amongst leaders in the field. Most of these distortions are unhelpful and negative. Being able to identify our own patterns of distorted perceptions can be a genuine gateway to positive change. On occasion, this realization can have the impact of a dazzling breakthrough for individuals in therapy.
I am going to try control my enthusiasm for discussing these common patterns of thinking, mostly unhelpful and negative, but I do get a bit of a thrill when working with individuals as they identify their own patterns of distorted perceptions because that is a remarkable step towards to real insight. None of this, of course, was on the table with my 6-year-old. But it still felt like an opportunity to do something I genuinely like and explore some cognitive biases (no comment on my daughter’s enthusiasm), so I sat her down and asked, “what else do I drink?”
“No, seriously, think back. Have you ever seen me drink anything else?”
“Nope. Never.” She is obviously playing this for the attention at this point, but she has my curiosity up, so we are both going for a ride.
“What about that orange juice we drank at breakfast. You insisted we toast and we touched our glasses and said cheers?” Oh, yeah. She remembered that. But other than that, she noted “it’s always coffee.”
“What about the bottle of water I am always drinking from and refilling? The one you always want a sip out of?”
“Ugh,” she said. She wasn’t having as much fun with this and let me know.
“Well, it just seems like it’s always coffee because I never get to play with you when you are drinking coffee.”
If she had been a client, this would have been where ‘the rubber hit the road’ so to speak. Because what we pretty quickly came to was the insight that not all things are weighted equally in our memories and thoughts. Coffee loomed significantly larger to her because it had an emotional context that was lacking with my trusty Nalgene water bottle. In therapy, this would be a meaningful insight, the jumping off point for a breakthrough, or at least some increased clarity.
The distortion at play here is overgeneralization, the view that a single negative event is reflective of a broader pattern, in the absence of any confirming evidence or even in the face of conflicting evidence.[i]
Identifying thought distortions is frequently at the heart of cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) interventions, particularly when working with individuals with depression or anxiety. Individuals seeking therapy to help manage depression are routinely struggling with viewing the world through a lens that filters out positive inputs, makes negative inputs seem much larger and more meaningful than anything else. And this all happens so fast and so frequently it doesn’t even register.
There are a number of ways to catch and disrupt these distortions, though I promise I didn’t subject my kiddo to any of them. But it can be very interesting when we start paying attention to our thinking. Not so much particular thoughts, but the actual processes of thought: how we talk to ourselves, how often we recognize our own good traits compared to our negative traits, or how we minimize the positive things people say to us, but allow infinite gravity for the negative things we hear…or don’t hear and just assume people are thinking.
I strongly recommend reading David Burns Feeling Good Handbook. Looking at different types of thought distortions are a great DIY mental health project.
[i] Burns, David D. (1980). The Feeling Good Handbook: Using the New Mood Therapy in Everyday Life. New York: W. Morrow