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Cognitive Distortions

Cognitive Distortions

When I was younger I loved going to the local show with my friends and looking at our reflections in funhouse mirrors. I loved how they could make a group of skinny kids look comically overweight or ten feet tall and bean-pole thin. As I grow a little older I find sometimes the mirrors in clothing stores can have a similarly distorting effect. I assume I am not the only person to buy clothes that look awesome in the store only to sometimes find they look terrible in front of my own (more realistic) mirror at home!

The sad reality is that many of our young people experience the world through their own internal distorting mirrors that change how they see both themselves and the world. Over many years I have found that young people often develop ways of thinking about themselves and the world that are not only objectively incorrect, but which also lead to poor mental health and wellbeing.

Emotional reasoning is one of the most common of these cognitive distortions; one of which we can all be guilty from time to time. When we engage in emotional reasoning, we treat our own subjective emotions as objective evidence in forming our understanding of reality. We might think for example “I am feeling anxious.  Therefore, this activity is frightening,” or “I am feeling angry. Therefore, I have been treated unfairly.” Emotional reasoning is a particular problem for teenagers, as their wildly fluctuating hormones can play havoc with their emotions. It is important that we acknowledge and respect our teenagers’ feelings. It is also important, however, that we do not treat them as holding equal weight with objective reality.

Over-generalising is a similarly common cognitive distortion, and one I often hear from distressed young people in my office: “They always laugh at me,” or “I always fail in exams.” The world is a complex place, and to navigate it successfully we must simplify it by looking for and predicting patterns. As a small child I burned my hand on some metal that had been left near a fire. I learned from that experience to assume that all metal near fire is hot. This has been a helpful pattern of thinking and has no doubt helped to protect me from further burns. At the same time, however, many young people perceive patterns where none objectively exist and predict the future on this basis. Being laughed at or failing an exam is an unpleasant experience, but if we take unpleasant experiences as predictive of future suffering and link the extent of the unpleasantness of the experience with the perceived likelihood of the pattern repeating we can develop learned helplessness. After all, inevitability leads to apathy! As parents and as educators we should not minimise or ignore the unpleasantness of young people’s experiences. But, we must encourage them to develop more accurate predictive ability by helping them explore what causes things to happen and how they can influence the world around them.

Blaming too is a common cognitive distortion. When we blame we focus on others as the source of our negative experiences and feelings. It is not unusual when young people end up in my office for each of them to attempt to lay the fault for whatever has happened at the feet of others. While it is appropriate as adults to investigate incidents and to apportion responsibility where it should legitimately go, our purpose is to grow young people who have what is called an “internalised locus of control.” An internal locus of control is the implicit understanding that we are both capable of charting our own course in life and taking responsibility for our actions. In this way we hope to grow young people who understand themselves to be the masters of their own fate, rather than simply the victims of circumstance!

Our most fundamental purpose at the College is to partner with parents to grow outstanding young people who love God, pursue their God-given purpose and build their capacity. In order to do this we must be both intentional and explicit in protecting our young people from these unhelpful and unhealthy cognitive distortions that can prevent them from achieving all they can and becoming the young people they were created to be.

Owen Laffin
Head of Secondary Years

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