Challenging Cognitive Distortions
Part of Aspiration is directing our thoughts towards healing. This may seem difficult at times, especially when our thoughts take mental shortcuts that reflect—and fuel—certain beliefs about ourselves.
Everyone’s thought processes take mental shortcuts from time to time. For example, you may predict the length of your commute based on what traffic was like yesterday. Sometimes, however, these shortcuts are unhelpful and do not reflect reality. A cognitive distortion is a mental shortcut our minds take that is rooted in feelings of shame, judgment, or self-blame. Such shame-based shortcuts are especially common among survivors of child sexual abuse. Cognitive distortions (sometimes referred to as “thinking errors”) often reinforce the shame that we are already feeling, rather than providing a different, more compassionate perspective.
An example of a shame-based shortcut might be:
Situation: You have a headache.
Thought: “I am so incapable of coping with life that even the smallest things give me a headache. I shouldn’t even try to function as an adult.”
Cognitive Distortions Commonly Experienced by Child Sexual Abuse Survivors
Thinking in Extremes
- “It’s impossible for me to connect with anyone.”
- “I’m always alone, and I never get to do things with friends.”
Stuck in a Single Event
- “It was really difficult to share my story, and the person I just disclosed my abuse to responded cruelly. I shouldn’t tell anyone about my abuse because they will have the same reaction.”
Filtering Out the Positive
- “I didn’t experience any setbacks today, but that’s probably just a fluke.”
- “I received good feedback on my project, but it’s only because they didn’t read it closely enough to see all my mistakes.”
Jumping to Conclusions
- “My friend hasn’t been supportive in the past, so she probably won’t be supportive in the future.”
- “Others see me as damaged.”
Making It Personal
- “She seemed upset. It must be something I said.”
- “They changed that policy. It was probably because I was late two months ago.”
This activity will provide a sample script with an example of an unhelpful thought, challenging questions that can help you analyze it, and possible answers to those questions. Work to come up with instances of cognitive distortions from your own life, using the example as your guide.
In your journal, write down any unhelpful thoughts you may be experiencing.
Examine those thoughts through a list of questions to determine whether those thoughts are helpful or unhelpful.
Think of your breath as an anchor that holds you to the present. Your breathing serves you right now, in this moment. You cannot take breaths for the past or for the future—only for your present needs.
So let’s begin.