Cognitive Distortions and Self-Esteem

Self-esteem is a crucial part of how we survive the trials and tribulations of life.  Humans form an identity based on the qualities they like and dislike about themselves; how they make meaning of those qualities plays a significant role in whether they see themselves positively or negatively.  Several experiences influence self-esteem throughout our lifetime.  It can begin with our upbringing and how we build security and attachment.  As we go through different conflicts in our life and learn (or not) how to work through these events, this also can strengthen or break down our sense of self-worth.  We all have different qualities that we don’t love about ourselves.  However, when these things start interfering with our relationships and professional life or leave us feeling as though our negative qualities are worth more, it can be devastating to our quality of life.  Below are the common distortions that come up when we struggle with self-esteem. 

1.  Overgeneralization

This distortion takes one experience and assumes that every experience like it will share the same result.  In this case, the rule is permanent, and there is ultimately nothing to be done but to accept failure and assign it to your self-worth.  Some indicative phrases of overgeneralizing include statements that begin with:

  • You always…
  • You never…
  • Everyone thinks…
  • Nobody thinks…

2.  Global Labeling

Like overgeneralization, global labeling oversimplifies character traits.  It forces people to draw pejorative and demeaning conclusions about themselves, thus creating a label that they are forced to wear and cannot change.  These labels can include comments about intelligence, appearance, capability at a job, success/failure rate of relationships, etc.  Some examples of pejorative clichès may consist of:

  • I’m awkward
  • I’m a failure
  • Nobody would want to be with a loser like me
  • My life is a never-ending disaster 

3.  Filtering

Filtering only allows people to focus on facts that confirm their negative opinions or how they believe others view them.  As a result, social mistakes, awkward encounters, or moments of rejection are brought to the forefront and make it nearly impossible to remember anything positive.  Filtering can make people inaccurate reporters of their life events because they cannot see the “big picture” and have several blind spots.  Reflect on a recent social event you attended.  If you spent three to four hours with others and can only remember the awkward joke you told that led to a few minutes of awkward silence, you may have encountered this before.  Those who exhibit this cognitive distortion tend to utilize skewed “data” of their day-to-day experiences.

4.  Polarized Thinking

This cognitive distortion ultimately implies an absolutist mentality that events filter through an “all or nothing” paradigm.  All events are quickly labeled as right or wrong, black or white, success or failure, and placed in their categorized box, leaving no room for areas of grey.  The problem with this either-or dichotomy-style thinking is that it creates unrealistic expectations and no room for error or growth.  Thus, if you fail once, you forfeit all. 

5.  Self-Blame

Self Blame creates a universe where you are ultimately to blame regardless of the time, place, or concern, no matter the situation.  You take every insecurity as evidence as to why you cannot possibly measure up and never allow yourself to see your positive qualities that co-exist with them.  If you experience self-blame, you might find yourself perpetually apologizing. 

Example: The rain ruins your plans with a friend; you take their disappointment in the weather as disappointment in you; in return, you apologize.

6.  Personalization

It has a “main character syndrome” component. 

 A person who displays personalization feels as though they are constantly under criticism and observation by everyone in the room.  They immediately compare themselves and consider who is better looking, more fun, or more intelligent.  If conversations are happening nearby, they assume it’s about them somehow.  Despite being the center of everyone’s attention in this distortion, there is little they can do to change the feelings of negativity they perceive others have of them.  As a result, those who experience this distortion might respond inappropriately to this discomfort.  Some examples:

  • You are picking a fight with a spouse when unwarranted.
  • Acting grandiose to gain more attention and appear “more fun.”

7.  Mind Reading

You assume that every person has the same values, morals, etiquette, and thinking style as you.  As a result, when someone acts in a way that goes outside this rigidity, the person experiencing mind-reading jumps to the conclusion that the action was intentional or a result of something they did wrong.  This distortion creates much room for assumptions not based on fact and can cause misinterpretations in relationships.  Some indicative thoughts that you are mind-reading can include:

  • “I can just tell they’re mad.”
  • “I just have a feeling.”
  • “I just know it.”

8.  Control Fallacies

Two types of control fallacies can distort thinking: over-control and under-control.

Overcontrol causes an overwhelming responsibility to ensure that all events go as planned and that all people act within approved social norms.  When this cannot happen, they blame themselves for not being able to take control and fix the problem even if it isn’t within their power.  Therefore, they interpret it as a personal failure.  Some common phrases: 

  • They have to hear me out.
  • I have to get them to see my side.
  • I’ll make sure they do the right thing.

In contrast to overcontrol, under control leaves a person powerless to the situations happening around them.  It can mimic a sort of helplessness where a person believes that nothing they do can positively influence the outcome of an event.  Self-esteem takes a devastating blow and leaves the person feeling useless and depressed. 

9.  Emotional Reasoning

Interpretations of events come from feelings instead of logic when emotional reasoning is at play.  Feelings are ever-changing and easily manipulated; they can create an unstable rollercoaster in how a person perceives their life.  It also means that your emotions govern your self-worth, and ultimately, “you are what you feel.”

It is common to have stumbled into one of these cognitive distortions at some point in life.  Sometimes this is based on getting negative feedback and feeling defensive; other times, based on whether we take time for self-care and allow ourselves permission to make mistakes.  If, in reading this blog, one or more of these distortions resonated as a familiar feeling you experience and not just situational, it may be helpful to seek support.  Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) has effectively understood how and why we exhibit faulty thinking.  CBT helps to make edits and changes to harsh self-review to make room for a well-rounded and kinder perspective of the self as a complete person.  After all, flaws are just as significant as strengths, and the concept of “perfect” is subjective.

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