This week, we’ll look at the remaining most common cognitive distortions that contribute to anxiety. Labelling (or mislabelling) occurs when we observe one behaviour, event or characteristic of a person and label the whole person on that basis. Joey didn’t do well in a test so labels himself as a failure. This might make him feel sad and Joey may decide that there’s no point trying if he’s a failure. Labels only make us feel bad and can fuel and maintain painful emotions. Rather than labelling himself a failure, Joey would do better to acknowledge that he failed the test; look at why he failed and consider what he could do in future to reduce the likelihood of his failing other tests. We need to be wary of labelling other people too. Sloane may have seemed abrupt when I asked her something. Rather than my thinking and labelling her as rude, and avoiding her, I might consider that she had something on her mind and I distracted her. It’s always better to give people the benefit of the doubt rather than habitually labelling them.
There are some people who believe they have the gift of mind-reading. Have you ever said to someone, “I know what you’re thinking or feeling!” Most of us have at some time. Sometimes there may be hints as we note their facial expressions and body language, but realistically, most of the time we have no idea. We can guess at something, but it becomes a problem for us (and contributes to our anxiety) when we believe that guess to be absolute truth. Children can think they’re masters at mindreading. Terry answered a question incorrectly and thinks that the teacher and the whole class think he’s silly. If asked, his teacher might actually be really happy that he had a go and other students might be thinking of their own responses to the question. No- one thought he was silly. If Terry continues thinking that way, he may develop anxiety and give up answering questions.
A person who is prone to using terms like “should”, “must” or “ought” may place unrealistic expectations on either themselves or on others. Expecting others to meet our expectations can lead to anger and bitterness, or we can feel upset when we fail to measure up. Rather than thinking that a person must do a particular thing if they care for me, it’s better to remind myself that while I would like that person to do it, I actually have no control over them and the relationship will be much smoother if I accept their “imperfections”. A side benefit – I will be happier too.
The last cognitive distortion that we will look at is Control Fallacy. A person who blames other people for all of their difficulties starts to see him/herself as a helpless victim. Such a person is referred to as being externally controlled. If we see our children blaming others, it’s a good idea to point it out and challenge it gently, by reminding them that we’re all responsible for our own actions and responses. It can develop into a bad habit if let go. A person is said to be internally controlled if they believe they are responsible for the pain or happiness of those around them. That person may say, “If you’re not happy, it’s all my fault.” Again this is a fallacy and we need to remind ourselves of people’s personal responsibility.
Next week, we’ll consider some practical steps we can take to help manage anxiety.