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Marek Struszczyk

Co-Founder ManagerUp


Have you ever experienced excessive agitation or anxiety before a meeting? Have you created a mental picture of what an office event might look like without knowing how it will play out? These are all examples of cognitive distortions. And they’re caused by our own thought processes and biases – they’re not always based on fact either.

We all experience these thoughts in life, it’s normal. The problem, however, arises when these distortions persistently occur and interfere with our daily functioning. 

Cognitive distortions have the potential to skew our thinking and create unnecessary problems. They might cause you to rush to the worst conclusion in every situation, no matter how plausible the outcome might be. In practice, this could present as assuming a proposal to the CEO will undoubtedly be rejected, regardless of the quality of the proposal or the fact that it will likely be subsequently approved.

Your distortions can cause you to catastrophize the future which causes undue stress and worry.

What are examples of cognitive distortions?

To understand where cognitive distortions come from, we must first understand cognition.

Cognition is the mental process – either conscious or unconscious – that we use to acquire information. Cognition includes perception, recognition, conception, and reasoning. The information obtained through these mental processes is then used to guide our behavior. 

In other words, cognition is the brain’s capacity to observe and react, process, and comprehend, retain and recall information, and decide and respond appropriately. 

The brain, however, is susceptible to developing flawed associations between thoughts, ideas, choices, and outcomes. And when negative biases underline our thought connections, cognitive distortion takes place. 

If you experience these distortions, your inner voice of doubt can be strong and persuasive. It can even make you believe things that are not real. And when regularly reinforced, these cognitive errors can exacerbate depression, heighten anxiety, wreak havoc in relationships, and disrupt your work life. 

Let’s look at the most common workplace cognitive distortions and how to overcome them!

Examples of cognitive distortions in the workplace

Arbitrary evidence: jumping to conclusions without evidence.

We often personalize life events. For example, we might attribute a colleague’s tone or a manager’s behavior as a sign of dislike, even though another explanation may exist.

Similarly, we sometimes catastrophize things. Rushing to the worst conclusion in every situation, no matter how implausible. This cognitive distortion often comes with questions of “what if.” For example, what if my project isn’t approved? What if my boss fires me? And other baseless questions might follow in response. 

These future assumptions lead us to fortune-telling. You make predictions based on little evidence and hold them as gospel truth.

Mental filter: eliminating all positive information in favor of a single negative piece of information.

Cognitive distortions can occur when you focus on the negative and ignore positive signs. For example, you focus on social rejection symptoms and overlook social approval symptoms. This can lead to misinterpreting behavior. For instance, you may perceive a colleague’s yawn during a presentation as disinterest and dismiss their applause afterward. This kind of negative focus can damage your self-esteem and increase self-doubt. 

Dichotomous thinking: splitting efforts into two opposing groups.

For a dichotomous thinker, everything in the workplace is either black or white. An all-or-nothing mindset outlines this condition, as do frequent “should statements.” You may commit to something you must or should do, even if it’s highly unrealistic. For example, you think your work is either perfect or absolutely redundant. There’s no in-between. 

The outcome of holding on to our “should” claims about ourselves or others frequently result in shame when we fall short of them.

Minimizing: reducing the importance of a situation or event.

Victims of this distortion typically downplay an event’s meaning, importance, or probability. This could mean minimizing the impact of a positive event. For example, continuing to think you’re nothing special even after getting a promotion. Or reducing the effects of an adverse event, such as considering serious errors in your work as nothing. This could end in significant losses or wasted opportunities when you refuse to credit yourself.

Tunnel vision: seeing things from a perspective that fits your mindset.

People in this category often accept their emotional reasoning or perceptions as fact. And they do so because it suits their mental state. For example, you may think an overweight colleague at work is lazy. This could result from a biased implicit attitude toward all overweight people. Similarly, you may think people who joke at work are not serious, despite the cognitive advantages of such restorative activities. 

How to overcome cognitive distortions

While recurring patterns of cognitive distortions can be a significant cause of worry, fortunately, there are several ways you can defeat them:

Mindfulness

Mindfulness promotes a sense of awareness and clarity of thought. It can help you recognize your thoughts and feelings in the present moment and observe them without judgment or attachment. You acknowledge that the ideas are useless and let them pass by, keeping in mind that nothing is ever permanent. 

This helps create an impartial perspective, allowing you to see beyond your biases. Additionally, mindfulness encourages acceptance and kindness, reducing the stress and anxiety associated with cognitive distortions. 

Reason with your thoughts

Recognize and challenge your unhealthy thoughts by gathering evidence to support or refute them. Ask yourself, “What concrete evidence do I have that they dislike me?” “Is there proof that they could like me?” 

It may be helpful to consult with others to avoid being locked into one way of thinking when seeking proof. You could also list down alternative possibilities for the scenario. Seeing both sides of the argument will become easier with practice.

Journaling

Get everything out there. A potent and cathartic approach to conveying what you’re going through is via writing. Additionally, it’s a terrific tool for quickly detecting the cognitive distortions you’re using. It can help you decide on the best and most logical course of action.

Over time, you’ll also have a substantial archive of ideas. You can track your development and identify unproductive thinking patterns that may impede your growth.

Grayscale thinking

Try to perceive the middle ground rather than allowing yourself to think in extremes. For example, you may have a challenging coworker you don’t like working with. Instead of thinking I no longer like my work, think I find it challenging to collaborate with XYZ, even though I like my job

Nothing is flawless and black-and-white thinking is useless. Learn to recognize your challenges and gain confidence by addressing what you appreciate to enhance your problem-solving skills instead.

Logical approach

The words “should” and “must” can harm how you view yourself and your environment. You can use the logical approach to reinterpret these claims more advantageously and productively. 

For instance, instead of saying, “I should have prepared better,” say, “I wish I had prepared better, but it’s alright that I didn’t. I’ll do better next time.” This way, you can rewire your brain into a positive thinking pattern. 

So, the next time you experience those negative thoughts, defeat them before they defeat you!

Knowledge is the key

There are hundreds of examples of cognitive distortions; some are more relevant in the workplace than others. To ensure you’re working at your best and most productive, it is best to recognize and defeat these distortions. 

Knowledge and awareness are key. Consider how your own distortions might be impacting you. Start by looking into your daily routine with the distortions mentioned above in mind. Once you recognize your distortions, you will be well on your way to overcoming them with some of the tips above.

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