by Sandee Nebel, MS, LMHC, CEDS, E-RYT 200, Eating Disorder Specialist & Guest Contributor
Cognitive distortions are thought patterns that reinforce false beliefs about ourselves and the world around us. These patterns can be deeply ingrained and often it takes an outside observer like a therapist or sponsor in a 12 step program to see them.
As an eating disorders therapist, I often focus on helping my clients see where they thinking may be distorted, and how that can affect their food and weight issues. Here are three examples:
All-or-nothing Thinking – also known as polarized thinking. People with food and weight issues often have trouble recognizing anything between black and white. Either you’re on your diet or not, you’re exercising every day or not at all, a person is good (perfect) or they’re bad. While some aspects of your recovery – like your food plan – really do need firm boundaries, veering from your plan shouldn’t mean you throw away all of your healthy eating habits. Yet that’s what you’d do if you were caught in all-or-nothing thinking. “I messed up anyway, so why bother trying!”
When you find yourself going between extremes, try meeting in the middle, e.g., “I made a mistake, and I can learn from it and do better,” or “I’ve had a problem with this in the past, and I have new tools now. The grey area between black and white is not as exciting or dramatic, but recovery is about finding a more balanced sense of calm.
Should Statements – when someone is constantly dissatisfied with whatever’s occurring in the present moment. If they’re doing something, they should be doing something else. If nothing is happening, something should be happening. If something is happening, something else should be happening.
When you get caught up in should statements, you feel guilty for violating these artificial rules. That self-criticism can lead to wanting to harm yourself with excess food, restricting food, purging, body obsession, or over-exercising. In relationships, should statements lead to anger, disappointment, and hurt feelings when other people aren’t doing what you think they should.
When you first start monitoring your thoughts and words for “should,” “must,” or “ought to,” you might be surprised at how often they come up, yet that awareness is key to healing this distortion and moving towards healthier thoughts patterns. You may also find it helpful for a therapist or friend to gently reflect back to you when they hear should statements – you may not even realize you’re making them.
Ideally, you want to re-frame your wishes into choices, not shoulds. Instead of, “I should go for a walk tonight,” say, “I will,” making a commitment or, “I want to go for a walk because I want a healthy life.” Sometimes I encourage my clients to say, “I get to….”
If you notice your anger flaring up when someone isn’t doing what you think they should, practice letting go of being in charge of other people. You may think, “I wish he would get some help for that problem, but that’s his choice,” or, “I don’t like the way he left the dishes on the counter, but I can choose not to fight about it.”
Catastrophizing – cognitive distortion like having a huge case of the “What if’s?” What if I hurt my foot exercising and can never leave the house again? What if I can’t stick to my food plan and everyone abandons me? What if my weight changes and I still hate myself and can never be happy?
When you’re trapped in this mindset, you not only jump to the worst possible conclusion, but you also do not believe you will be able to cope with or even survive that outcome. It’s a double-edged sword that draws from your low self-esteem and your negative outlook on life – both of which are common for people with eating and weight disorders.
Obsessing about these negative outcomes take you out of the present moment and can make it difficult to function in your day-to-day activities. Catastrophizing will also affect your relationships, whether people choose not to be around you as much, or your constant negative outlook colors your time together.
Writing for Psychology Today, Alice Boyes, PhD, suggests trying to imagine other possible outcomes of a situation besides the very worst one. Steering away from all-or-nothing thinking, come up with examples of varying degrees of positive and negative things that could happen. She also notes that if you can picture yourself coping well with a difficult situation, your anxiety will decrease and that will actually help you manage whatever comes up.
The good news is that when you’re on a positive path to recovery, you can start collecting evidence about your capability for success – small wins that not only prove good things happen, but that you can make good things happen. A therapist, sponsor or trusted friend can be instrumental in sharing this positive feedback so you can learn to integrate it and see it as the truth.
You’ll also start to see that even when things don’t turn out exactly the way you thought you wanted, you can accept that and find the gifts in the reality of life.
Sandee Nebel, MS, LMHC, CEDS, E-RYT 200