Uncovering the cognitive distortions fueling your anxiety

The author and spiritual teacher David Deida tells a story about being at a party and seeing his mentor’s wife talking with an attractive man.

“Aren’t you jealous?” Deida asked his mentor.

“Yes,” his mentor responded. “But that I’m jealous isn’t bothering me.”

In other words, his mentor was choosing how to relate to his jealousy. He wasn’t turning the emotion into a problem. He was allowing it to just be there.

As the therapist and meditation teacher Ralph De La Rosa says, “Our emotions aren’t up to us. What we do with them, however, is absolutely up to us.”

I love this story because it illustrates the power of mindfulness in a way that we’re all familiar with.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve felt jealous. I can’t tell you because I’ve often been literally unaware of it.

My brain gets hijacked by stories and assumptions. Within seconds I’m the world’s most unlovable person. And the person who my lover or friend is talking to must be the world’s smartest, funniest, sexiest, most interesting person.

Intellectually, I know all of that is wrong. I know that this capitalist, patriarchal, white supremacist society tricks us into thinking that love and connection are scarce and not abundant. That love and connection will only come from finding the perfect partner, working my ass off, getting rich, buying stuff, competing with others, having the perfect body, etc.

These messages are hammered into our heads through school, TV, movies, advertising, magazines, the corporate news media, and the myths we tell each other about “just the way things are.”

“We’re being trained to be capitalists,” writes the organizer and author adrienne maree brown, “to compete, in a system of scarcity, to be better than each other to access resources to meet our basic human needs.”

I know that capitalism and patriarchy and white supremacy suck. But in those moments of feeling jealous — or afraid or lonely or [insert painful emotion here] — I’m lost in thought.

I’m numb to the love and connection all around me. I can’t feel my feet on the ground or hear the breeze moving the trees. I can’t tell whether I’m breathing in or out. I don’t remember that the person I love can love other people while still loving me.

My head is full of rigid, either/or stories about who I am and what other people are doing and how the world is.

The psychiatrist Aaron Beck called these thought patterns “cognitive distortions.” They’re basically short cuts that our brain takes to try to figure out what’s going on. They color most of our thinking, especially when we’re overwhelmed by an emotion — like jealousy.

They don’t mean we’re broken or crazy or bad. “Cognitive distortions happen automatically,” writes the psychologist Matthew Walley. “We don’t mean to think inaccurately — but unless we learn to notice them, they can have powerful yet invisible effects upon our moods and our lives.”

My go-to cognitive distortion is catastrophizing. I take things to the negative extreme in the snap of a finger. She’s going to leave me for that guy and I’m going to die alone. He doesn’t like me anymore and I’m going to have no friends because I’m getting old.

Some other cognitive distortions:

  • Displacement is when you’re feel unable to directly confront someone who has harmed you, so you pick a safe target to attack. Think of the man who takes his resentment toward his boss out on his children after work.
  • Projection is when you don’t want to admit something unacceptable about yourself, so you place it on someone else. Think of a cheating partner who suspects their partner is being unfaithful.
  • Filtering is when you notice details that support your internal thoughts and feelings while ignoring contradictory evidence. Political arguments on social media are rife with filtering.
  • Overgeneralizing is when you come to general conclusions about life from a single incident. Whenever you’re using “always” or “never” or “no one” or “everyone,” you’re probably overgeneralizing.

Deida’s mentor had simply done the inner work to get to know his jealousy. He probably had felt a familiar fireball in his chest or tension in his shoulders but was able to soothe his own anxiety.

I bet all kinds of cognitive distortions were blaring in his mind as his wife smiled and played with her hair. He just wasn’t listening to them.

From this mindful standpoint, he could decide to intervene or discuss the situation with his wife after the party. Or he could decide not to.

He could choose his response to what was actually happening instead of reacting based on the cognitive distortions in his mind.

Hi, I’m Jeremy, a writer, meditation teacher, and host of the Meditation for the 99% podcast. I’m here to help you be more mindful about work, relationships, and politics. Subscribe to my weekly email here.

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Photo by Sue Clark.