Cognitive Distortions And Socializing
Many of the problems and conflicts people face are sustained in part by distorted, maladaptive thinking:
- Someone who's shy often sees other people as more critical and judgmental than they really are.
- A person struggling with anxiety may see the world as exaggeratedly dangerous, and underestimate their ability to cope.
- Someone who's depressed will look at everything through a bleak, hopeless, pessimistic lens.
- Chronically angry types often read hostile intent into the other people's neutral or benignly thoughtless actions.
- A man who's insecure in his relationships may constantly interpret what his girlfriend says as a sign she doesn't really like him.
- A woman who keeps getting discouraged and giving up on new hobbies may have unrealistic expectations about how quickly she'll be able to learn new skills.
I could easily give hundreds more examples. Someone could have maladaptive thoughts about being able to grow tomatoes on their balcony. While there are a limitless number of distorted thoughts a person can have, about any number of subjects and situations, psychologists have identified about a dozen core errors in thinking. The first step to dealing with them is knowing what they are.
This article will describe these main cognitive distortions. They're a well known concept from Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, and you may have seen a similar list elsewhere. I'll also provide a lot of examples related to the difficulties people have with social situations.
As you read the descriptions below you'll likely notice that several of the distortions blur into each other or produce similar outcomes. When someone has a maladaptive thought you can often make a case for several different distortions applying to it.
All-or-Nothing Thinking / Black and White Thinking
Seeing things in simplistic, absolute terms. This may involve extreme comparisons like Perfect vs. Useless, or words like "never" or "always". People may think things such as:
- "Not every last person in my class loves me, so that means I'm a complete reject."
- "That conversation didn't go perfectly, therefore I'm hopeless at socializing."
- "I didn't hear about one get together my co-workers had. That means no one will ever want to be friends with me."
- "My friend gave me some constructive criticism about how I come across to people. True friends never think anything bad about each other, so that means they hate me. "
- "People are either effortlessly charming and popular, or awkward losers. I'm not super-charming so that means I'm a loser."
Black and White thinking also tends to trip people up when they're setting goals or monitoring their progress:
- "I don't think I'll be able to become the world's most charismatic person, so there's no point in trying to improve my social skills."
- "I wasn't 100% confident yesterday with my friends, so the day was a total write off."
- "I felt shy for five minutes at that mixer. I was aiming to never feel shy again. There's no point in working on this."
- "I've been trying to improve my conversation skills for two weeks and I'm still not flawless at making small talk. I'll never get good at this. I should just give up."
- "I told myself I'd call my friend at 2:00pm today to ask him to hang out on the weekend. It's 2:02pm and I haven't made the call yet, so I've failed and shouldn't bother."
Taking a few isolated incidents and making sweeping generalizations about yourself, other people, or your life:
- "That one person didn't invite me out. No one likes me."
- "Those two people I just talked to weren't interesting to me. I have nothing in common with anybody."
- "I asked someone for directions and they said they were in a rush and couldn't help. No one in my city is friendly."
- "My female friends in high school were petty gossips. All women are like that."
- "I felt shy at that one party. I shouldn't bother going to parties anymore. Apparently I can't socialize at any of them."
Applying a "dark tinted" mental filter to your perceptions so that you see and dwell on the bad aspects of something, while ignoring the good. This can involve "seeing what you want to see". Because life offers up a variety of experiences, no matter what conclusion someone wants to reach, they can usually cherry pick enough "evidence" to support it.
- Someone who sees themselves as socially awkward can't stop thinking about the one stilted conversation they had last week, but disregards the other thirty times from the same period where they chatted to people with nothing going wrong.
- Someone who's feeling discouraged about getting over their shyness remembers the handful of times they felt self-conscious and inhibited, but "forgets" all the instances where they weren't.
- A guy thinks of other men as macho jerks he has nothing in common with. He fails to notice all the guys who don't fit that stereotype, but can't forget it if he spots someone acting like an obnoxious bro.
- Someone who sees their situation as hopeless focuses only on the things that have gone wrong for them.
Disqualifying the positive
When you dismiss positive events for no good reason, probably while being all too eager to accept the negative ones.
- "I had a really nice conversation with Sandy at that party. But it doesn't count. She's just friendly to everyone. I still suck at talking to people."
- "That guy told me I dress well, but he doesn't know what he's talking about. I obviously have no style."
- "I had a great time at that party, but it was just a fluke. I know I'm weird and terrible at mingling. I'm sure I'll be back to my old ways by the next one."
- "I've been feeling a lot less nervous around people this week. I don't think that means anything though. It seems too good to be true. I'll always be anxious in social situations."
Jumping to conclusions
When you quickly assume something negative, even though it has no basis in reality. There are two variations, one involving how people think, the other related to how something might turn out:
When you believe someone thinks a certain, usually negative, way, even though you have no real evidence to support it:
- "I just know everyone in my study group hates me."
- "He didn't say 'hello' to me in the hall because he thinks I'm lame for mentioning I liked that one band last week."
- "The woman in the corner is playing a game on her phone. She'd be irritated if I tried to start a conversation with her."
- "My friends don't really like me. They all think I'm just a tag along and are just tolerating me out of pity."
- "My roommate's friends all think I'm a snob."
When you jump to conclusions by assuming something will turn out a certain way, though the belief has a shaky grounding.
- "There's no way I'm going to have fun at the bar tonight. I bet at some point in the night some random jerk will try to pick a fight with me."
- "When I meet my friend's parents they're not going to be very talkative, and I'll get nervous and uncomfortable. Then I'll be too anxious to eat dinner, and everyone will get mad at me."
- "If I meet up with these people they're going to start giving me a hard time for being a vegetarian."
When your mind leaps to the worst thing that could possibly happen. In this sense it's Fortune Telling turned up to 11.
It can also mean to see a situation as totally hopeless or unbearable, when it's really just uncomfortable. This cognitive distortion tends to fan the flames of anxiety.
- "I have no plans this weekend. I can't take it. I just know I'm going to go through all of undergrad without making a single friend."
- "If I chat to my co-worker and things go wrong then he'll tell my boss what a creep I am and I'll get fired."
- "I feel a bit nervous right now at this party. I can't stand it. This is the worst feeling ever."
- "My shyness is only going to get worse and worse. In a few years I'll become a total agoraphobic shut-in!"
Fortune Telling and Catastrophzing can also be baked into the scary "What if?" questions we ask ourselves when we're worried, e.g., "What if I go out to dinner and have a panic attack in front of everyone?" It's technically just considering a possibility, but you can treat the awful outcome as if it's a given, imagine all the ways everyone will take it badly and judge you, and so on.
Magnification and minimization
Overstating or understating how something really is, again with a poor reason to back up your thinking.
- "Everyone is way more sociable than I am. They're completely confident and have no insecurities."
- "The first week of college is totally critical. It makes or breaks you socially. If you don't make friends during that time then you're screwed for the next four years."
- "Looks are everything when it comes to making friends. If you're not dressed super-stylishly then there's no point in trying."
- "Yeah, I'm good at singing, but I just can't see how it could help me socially. I also think joining a choir is an overrated way to meet people."
- "I'm always being told I'm really witty. I don't know though. I don't think anyone appreciates funny people that much."
Thinking that because your emotions are telling you something is X, that it is truly is X.
- Thinking that because you're feeling anxious, there must be something happening that is worth being anxious about.
- Thinking that because you feel like the world's biggest loser, that you actually are.
- Believing that other people are all jerks, because you're in a grumpy mood at that moment.
- Feeling like your entire life is boring, because you're bored right then.
- Thinking all your friends suck, because you're feeling a bit depressed due to the crappy weather.
Constraining yourself with unrealistic expectations about how things "should" be.
- "People should invite their friends to hang out at least once a week, otherwise it's a sign they hate you."
- "I should always have brilliant things to say in conversations."
- "I should always be the life of the party."
- "I should always be able to push aside my shyness and be able to talk to anyone I want to."
- "How I dress shouldn't matter. People should be able to look past my outer appearance."
Slapping simplistic labels on things in order to explain them, rather than looking at the unique facets of the situation.
- "I'm a gamer and he was a jock. That's why our conversation didn't go well."
- "She's a hipster. Hipsters wouldn't like someone like me."
- "I'm an introvert. There's no way I'll be able to do that."
Thinking you directly caused something to happen, or that something relates to you, when other forces may have been at work.
- "He's in a bad mood because of something I did to offend him" (He just had a tough day at work).
- "Everyone wants to call it an early night because I'm so boring to be around" (They're really just tired).
- "The conversation hit a lull because I said something too random" (They just paused to listen to a song that was playing in the background).