This is my sixth post in the Cognitive Distortions Series. “Cognitive distortions” is another name for beliefs that hold us back and prevent us from living our best lives. The key reality for this series is that our thoughts have profound effects on our perceptions of reality. In order to improve our lives, we must first become aware of our false or negative thoughts and replace them with positive ones.
Distorted thinking is unavoidable. Although they may seem natural and accurate, many of the thoughts that pop into our minds are distorted. We often think of skewed thoughts as being too negative, but they can actually be unrealistically positive as well. Distorted thinking usually results in a mood shift in the downward direction. Even those unrealistically positive thoughts can send our moods spiraling as we begin to realize our unrealistic expectations!
It sure seems like a positive attitude is nearly impossible to achieve, huh?
The good news is that there is a way out of the messes we create in our minds. We can work on changing the thought patterns that cause us the most difficulty. Magnification is a common distortion and, in my opinion, one that society unknowingly rewards in various ways.
Magnification makes problems bigger than life. Magnification also causes us to have unrealistic expectations of events, products, situations, and people. An example of one of these magnifications is when we build up an event to be so much more than it can possibly be. (Have you ever planned a birthday party or family gathering? They never go as well as you want them to!) When the event fails to deliver on these expectations many people experience a crash that will throw them into a deep depression. The way that society rewards magnification is that drama is rewarded. The everyday flow of life is often thought of as boring. To combat this boredom, many people…shall we say, “embellish.” The way they embellish is by adding elements to their stories (the ones they tell themselves and the ones they tell others) that make things much more exciting. Sometimes we even feel that if we don’t magnify our stories nobody will pay attention.
For the last month or so, people in my area have been dealing with the rise in seismic activity in my area (earthquakes). Emotions are running high as people fear for the safety of their homes, roads, bridges, and themselves. While sitting in a Town Meeting yesterday, I noticed that many people seemed to think that they wouldn’t be heard if they didn’t use strong, loud language seasoned with scare tactics. As I watched the reactions of those at the meeting, I had to admit that those people who added a good deal of drama to their statements got the most attention.
This tendency isn’t just in town meetings about highly charged topics, it is also present in our everyday storytelling. Have you ever listened to an obviously embellished recounting of an event by someone that you know is not generally a dishonest person? I have. I see if all the time. People generally laugh or cry more at their creative flourishes. On the other hand, a person who recounts the events realistically is generally met with a mediocre reception. I wanted to address this because I think it is important to realize how we all contribute to this particular distorted way of thinking. As long as there is positive reinforcement for this, it will be difficult to overcome.
When we talk about magnification, we are typically talking about the tendency to exaggerate the importance of our own errors, fears, and flaws. In essence, we talk and think about things in a catastrophic manner and make them considerably more “awful” than they are. The result of this is lowered self -esteem, lack of confidence, lackluster performance, compromised energy to complete a task, and just plain old depression.
Before you can correct magnification, you have to be able to recognize it. Since it is most likely a habitual way of thinking, detecting it might be difficult. The payoff of the attention that is received from this type of thinking has to be less than the payoff of changing. In other words, people don’t usually change the way they do things unless the pain of not changing is greater. Even if you are not ready to change your thinking pattern of magnification, I would like to challenge you to start noticing it. Notice it in yourself, in others, and even in the media. Just notice it. You don’t have to change it right now, but notice it and ask yourself some questions about why people would want to engage in magnification. As you become more and more aware of it, you might start noticing the difficulties that are caused by it.
When you are ready to work on reducing magnification, here are some tips:
- Raise your awareness. Label it when you see it.
- Ask yourself what the payoff is. What are you getting from looking at an issue, event, product, or person in this way?
- Ask, “Could the rewards for changing the way I look at this be just as great?”
- Try to restate it without the magnification.
- Ask yourself, “Is this true?” and, “What parts of this are true and what parts are not true?”
- Reframe the way you are thinking about the situation or event.
- Be gentle with yourself. Changing a habit is hard.
If you would like some help with changing your thinking, please drop me an email. The journey is well worth your time! Change your thoughts and you will change your life!