Erroneous conclusions — cognitive distortions —which we have arrived at under stress in some situation or other appear to have some sense in them so they’re very easily substituted for newly observing what is going on. Thus a cognitive distortion is adopted and substituted for really looking, evaluating and concluding.
How does the cognitive distortion become so fixed? Because, as time goes on, the situation it was supposed to handle just gets more and more intense — it’s not being properly solved, so it grows worse. So you jam the distortion in place even more to try to deal with it. Like taking the wrong medicine for an illness or repairing a leaky pipe with the wrong materials -- things just get worse.
The cognitive distortion was adopted instead of freshly, calmly and rationally working out what was actually happening. You ceased to engage your full reasoning capabilities for whatever reason and decided instead to put a ‘solution’ there to substitute for observation — and at that moment you began a downward spiral for yourself and for those around you.
Let’s say at a young age you were attacked by some people physically and verbally — bullied, perhaps. Apart from the amygdalic fear responses which now kick in whenever you are surrounded by people who vaguely remind you of the people in that incident, you also have part-conscious thought patterns which, like antibodies, race to your ‘rescue’ mentally: perhaps you concluded that ‘People of such-and-such a kind are always nasty’ or ‘The world is basically a negative place and I’m doomed to be a victim again and again.’ They act as points of stability, even though they can be mentally poisonous. These drag you down mentally and ruin what might have been positive interactions for everyone around you too.
If you don’t confront something, it tends to ‘haunt’ you. But cognitive distortions prevent real confronting and inspecting. They are automatic solutions. They are ‘safe and proven’. They ‘solve’ things. Using a cognitive distortion means that your mind/brain has to work less.
The trouble is, they don’t really solve anything. People who think with cognitive distortions get caught in the middle of situations they dread, even when those situations are not particularly threatening in reality. Their minds collect more and more confusion and their ability to inspect and think rationally declines. The things, conclusions, patterns of thought, semi-rationalisations and so forth which they adopted to deal with their environment for them are the precise things which are reducing their ability to deal with that environment.
What’s the way out?
Obviously, if you could take every situation newly and look at it completely analytically, you probably wouldn’t be as nervous about it. Whereas animals largely function automatically and are wired to survive, human beings have the capacity to think, and that means the capacity not to think or to think incorrectly.
As soon as you become worried about your own ‘rightness’ you enter into the necessity to dominate your environment to some extent in order to ‘remain right’ at all costs.
Your insistence upon ‘rightness’, leads to a compulsion to command, followed by a further compulsion to avoid wrongness. Everything goes downhill. You feel that you have to make something or someone in your surroundings ‘wrong’ in order to be ‘right’, even though it doesn’t make sense to do so.
You will find that people defend the most ridiculous cognitive distortions in order to be ‘right’. Just engage in a political debate on social media if you don't believe me.
You are always, as a human being, trying to be right.
Your analytical, reasoning mind is always computing, always observing, always seeking to come up with the correct answers. When it is fed distortions, it still attempts to be right. Too many distortions and it becomes obsessed with being right even when it knows things are ceasing to make sense.
Trying to be right isn’t wrong — but asserting rightness over the top of crazy distortions is obviously non-optimum. You end up with reduced rationality, answers which simply don’t fit the incident or event occurring, but which you are forcing into place, like jamming square pegs into round holes. Your situation will worsen: but you’re doing it to yourself.
A cognitive distortion by definition will produce a wrong solution. But it’s your solution. Like Gollum and the One Ring in The Lord of the Rings, you may be overwhelmed by it, but you’re going to go on using it. It might have been the perfect solution when you first thought of it. But now it dominates your life and ruins it.
You are going to find these distortions in yourself and those around you. They are the keys to your sanity and the sanity of others, in that, if you can spot them, you can start living again.