Cognitive Distortions: The Term That Had to be Out There

“Who would want to get even?”

I was the only one to raise my hand, and after noticing that I withdrew it. Something was wrong.

The mockery began. Fifth grade teacher and several students pfft and rhetorically asked what person would spend a genie-granted wish on revenge?

Then it clicked.

The words “get” and “even” don’t indicate judgment. They represent a scale that is off balance. At least, literally. The words by themselves. The denotation.

I thought I could even the scale with my best friend, who often traveled and brought back neat gifts. I wanted to travel somewhere she hadn’t been and bring back something unique for her.

What I often forget that the human language is a coin and coins have two sides: denotation and connotation. I often use connotation, or figurative language in my writing when I’m in creativity mode, but among the rest of the species I tend to be literal—and most people aren’t. Society abides by unwritten codes that one must intuitively discover.

an old design 02
We might be doing this more often than we would like to admit. (Photo courtesy of Flickr user Hector Parayuelos.)

Sometimes this connotative stream of communication mixes with and dominates our perception of our world. Is someone flirting with you? Well, some people assume if they’re having a random, pleasant conversation with (usually) another gender of roughly the same age then they must be flirting. Me and the supposed other people in the world who interact using the objective thoughts paradigm take things at face value. A pleasant conversation is simply a pleasant conversation.

I never knew a term I could assign to these differences of communication modes, until recently: cognitive distortion.

Awesome. I wanted a fancy word.

This psychological phenomenon applies to virtually all of us in different ways and to varying degrees. In clinical settings it’s seen as a negative trait where a distressed individual believes that they will always fail or never be loved and other dooming thoughts.

However, I prefer to think of scenarios such as the one on the television show NCIS the forensic scientist, Abby, explains that indeed the field agent did not see the suspect because our brains register only some of what our eyes scan. He saw the man behind the door but didn’t expect to see him and turned his gaze too fast for his mind to override that assumption. The point is, he “saw” what he expected to see and not what the camera attached to him “saw” in that moment.

Ask the Brain
Should we? Which part? Do cognitive distortions belong to one region or are they traffic in several regions? (Photo courtesy of Flickr user Thomas Hawk.)

Assumptions. Overgeneralizations—oh, don’t get me started on overgeneralizations. It’s an awkward conversation when people hear “some,” “most,” and other relative terms people process as equivalent to “all,” “none,” and other absolutes. I consider those conversations as overgeneralizations because I speculate (the operative word indicating that I’m still collecting information instead of passing judgment, as opposed to the connotation that some arrive to as assuming or overgeneralizing) is people arrive to those connotations because of overgeneralizing.

However, PsychCentral’s article has an entry for polarized thinking. True, many prefer to see things as black and white as much as possible. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s also a recipe for miscommunication when it comes to intellectual conversations.

Tulip Kaleidoscope
What makes the mind fuzzier: thinking too little or thinking too much? (Photo courtesy of Flickr user George Thomas.)

Another entry in the article is jumping to conclusions. I’m just going to put this out there: isn’t assuming, overgeneralizing, and polarizing thoughts all methods for jumping to conclusions? Don’t all of these apply when you state an observation and whoever you’re talking to thinks you’re worried or angry? (Then you have the uncomfortable dilemma of coming up with a different way of stating your simple observation. I suppose if you’re sharp you’ll say, “Just an observation,” instead of being confused on how the conversation took the turn that it did until hours or days or even years later—or, the one I remind myself of: just let it go.)

Hooray cognitive distortions!

In fact, this is a good length for a post. Before my ponderings go much further, I’ll going to step away and return to my NaNoWriMo project: my friend and I attend graduate school in Newfoundland and get warped into Newfoundland’s fantastical alter ego—an island of similar size and desolation—Morrowind. (Yes, the game.) I call this guilty pleasure writing.


3 thoughts on “Cognitive Distortions: The Term That Had to be Out There

  1. Wow Leah! If I could only think 1/4 of what you say. May I have a copy of this paper??? Please?? I’m in two communication’s class, this blows me away.
    Thank you Aunt Candy

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