I’ve been wanting to write this post and episode for a few months now and I’m so excited to share it with you today. Something that can really change the way you live in this world and interact with it, is awareness of what are known as cognitive distortions. This shift in my way of thinking marked a before and after in my life thanks to therapy, but it was even more eye opening when I started to see my relationship with food through this lens. Today we’ll be talking about what cognitive distortions are, what some of the most common ones are, and how these are wildly present in today’s wellness culture, not to mention in our own relationship with food and exercise. We’ll also discuss how by slowly becoming aware that these are popping up for us, we can find our sweet spot when it comes to being vegan or making more vegan choices, so that it doesn’t become a battle against cravings, a battle against others, or a battle against ourselves. We’ll dive into a few of these common cognitive distortions in today’s post, with more coming up next week in part 2.
What are Cognitive Distortions?
The American Psychological Association defines cognitive distortions as “faulty or inaccurate thinking, perception, or belief. An example is overgeneralization. Cognitive distortion is a normal psychological process that can occur in all people to a greater or lesser extent.”
John M. Grohol, doctor in clinical psychology has a definition I love for this common thought process: “Cognitive distortions are simply ways that our mind convinces us of something that isn’t really true. These inaccurate thoughts are usually used to reinforce negative thinking or emotions — telling ourselves things that sound rational and accurate, but really only serve to keep us feeling bad about ourselves.”
For example, a common cognitive distortion is black and white, polarized or all or nothing thinking, in which a person sees themselves or their accomplishments as either perfect or a complete failure, with no space for the nuance or grey areas in between. In this way, getting a low grade on a test is taken to the extreme of meaning “you are terrible at this”, ignoring the possibility that it was just one test in which we didn’t do as well as expected, as well as ignoring all the other times we have done well.
All or nothing thinking isn’t the only cognitive distortion, there are too many to mention them all here, but let’s begin our exploration of some common ones and how awareness of them can help us challenge these automatic patterns of thinking that so many of us rely on.
Cognitive Distortions and Our Relationship with Food
You’ve often heard me say that the way we act and react in this world can also be found in the same way within that microcosm of our relationship with food. Because this is something we do every day, multiple times per day, it’s normal to have some of the psychological issues that affect us, and some of these filters through which we view life situations, to seep into the moment of eating.
For me it was so liberating when I started to learn through my own therapeutic process (cognitive behavioural therapy and EMDR), and my own healing journey with food, that many of the thought patterns I had about myself, my body and my eating, were not unique to me. They were part of these very normal and frequent cognitive distortions that so many of us share, and when we can develop that mindfulness muscle, and that awareness of the present moment almost as an outside observer, we can start identifying these ways of thinking and notice that rather than helping, they are actually giving us only a part of the picture and won’t contribute to us finding peace with food.
It’s the perfect time for a spoiler alert, the way we start to reduce these patterns of thought, is by having those brief pauses before acting on them, and that wonderful sense of presence mindfulness can bring, and take notice. The moment you understand a particular thought as not only just “a thought” as opposed to truth, as well as a slightly skewed version of reality, we can begin to challenge these patterns and question them. We can begin to add nuance and set these aside to make space for something healthier.
When I got started on this journey into noticing my own cognitive distortions, I began to see how they were EVERYWHERE! So much begins to change when you realize that these are sneaky little creatures masquerading as friends. As usual, the first step is always that “noticing” or that awareness of the fact that these are present. The second step is to ask yourself some questions to challenge these patterns of thinking, adding as much gray as possible so we can slowly and with practice, let them go.
Some Common Cognitive Distortions that Keep Coming Up in Our Relationships with Food
All or Nothing thinking (also known as black and white thinking or polarized thinking)
We go to extremes with our thought process and with food, leaving no room for the gray. For example, we believe we were good when our eating was “good”, and bad when our eating fell outside of what we consider “healthy eating”. We are either on a diet or off the diet. We are either 100% vegan or anything labelled as vegan won’t be consumed by us because we aren’t vegan. When we’re trying to incorporate more movement in our lives and skip a workout, we take it to mean we can’t keep exercise up and therefore need to quit. When we desire to go vegan we eat something that wasn’t vegan and that means we’ve quit and won’t continue exploring or learning. When someone chooses not to be vegan anymore, other vegans take this to mean the person is bad, selfish or insensitive. When an ex vegan feels this rejection they take it to mean they are never welcome again and can’t incorporate some vegan meals into their lives even when they don’t identify as vegan anymore.
When we add nuance to these thought patters, we can see steps back as just one meal, one choice, one action, one workout missed, out of many, and we can carry on without self judgement, and without going to extremes.
Ask yourself: Where is there a bit of all or nothing thinking in your relationship with food and exercise? When you find an area in which this is popping up for you, ask: Is it true that this happens (or happened) all of the time? Look for instances in which this wasn’t the case.
Filtering occurs when we choose to see a situation through a negative filter, ignoring the positive side of things. For example, when we eat something we think of as a “treat” like chocolate cake, and feel unnecessary guilt afterwards, we might engage in filtering by saying “I can’t be around this food.” “If I’m near sugar I lose control.” “I failed at trying to eat healthily”. “Because I didn’t eat healthily I need to restrict my food intake or exercise to make up for it”. You get the idea. When we’re engaged in filtering as a distorted way of thinking, we forget that perhaps aside from the cake, we also had a delicious nourishing meal. We forget to notice how having cake as a part of celebration is also a part of being mentally and emotionally healthy. We might not notice that even when having the piece of cake, we were able to savour it and enjoy it, and that this might be great progress when we’re trying to eat more mindfully or intuitively.
Ask yourself: Where has there been a bit of filtering in your thought patterns? Is this situation or this statement I’m currently replaying in my head, always true? From a positive filter, what is also true?
3. Mislabeling (a more extreme version of another common cognitive distortion: Generalization)
When we’re engaged in this type of thinking, we tend to put a label on ourselves that is a blanket statement and of course doesn’t tell the full story. For example, we indulge in yummy desserts over the holidays and label ourselves as sugar addicts and embark on unnecessary and harmful restriction. We’ve tried one or two activities as exercise, didn’t keep them up or enjoy them, and we label ourselves “lazy” or as “someone who doesn’t exercise”, removing the possibility of discovering something we might enjoy, or doing some form of movement when we can. We try new activities, or even new vegan foods, and we let the first experience label any further experiences. When a family member or friend has reacted negatively to us going vegan, we label them as “unsupportive”, never giving them a chance to come around to it or understand it with time.
Ask yourself: Where have I made a blanket statement, generalization or where have I mislabelled myself, others or my relationship with food? What would happen if I tried again when I immediately made up my mind about something? Is this label I’ve placed upon myself true? When have I acted in a way that is different?
4. Jumping to Conclusions
Fellow introverts and people with social anxiety commonly engage in this cognitive distortion. When someone reacts in an abrupt way towards us, or we aren’t chosen for a job or activity, we suffer any kind of rejection when it comes to our eating or image, etc., this distortion brings to mind thoughts like “they don’t like me”, “I’m not good enough”, “they rejected me because of the way my body looks”, “they will never be supportive of my choices”. We jump to a conclusion even in spite of not having all the information, even often by interpreting a “look” or the “vibe” we got from someone else, or their tone of voice when answering. We can also jump to conclusions about ourselves by for example thinking that any habit change will be impossible, just because the first attempt was hard.
Ask yourself: What is another possible outcome or reason behind this? What don’t I know about the other person, or what will happen next? What could be another possibility or outcome?
There are so many more cognitive distortions, and we’ll continue exploring some of them in our next post and episode, but I thought these 4 would help us see when these thought patterns are popping up, and now we have one or two questions to help us challenge these, so that we can learn to live in the gray a little. A place most of us don’t spend enough time in.
As I’ve said many times before, we can begin to find these patterns in our day to day life and then zoom into our relationship with food and see how they’re expressing themselves there as well. On the flip side, we can begin to look at these when it comes to our eating and body image, and once we become habituated to noticing them and challenging them, we’ll see how this wonderful new skill can seep into many other areas in our lives.
We’ll have more for you next week! When reading this, did you notice any cognitive distortions that might be popping up for you from time to time or even all of the time? Feel free to share them in the comments below!
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