As a high school Marine Corps Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps (JROTC) cadet, I learned a phrase that would subsequently stick with me throughout the rest of my life: Perception is Reality. Throughout the succeeding years, I found the phrase to continually pop up in both my personal and professional life. What I came to find is that I personally used the phrase as a personal mantra, to ensure I carried myself in the best way possible. This is especially true, because I once heard that within seven to 30 seconds of someone meeting you, an impression of your character and trustworthiness is created in their mind. Therefore they say first impressions are lasting impressions. However, as I have matured, I began to question the why. Why are first impressions lasting impressions? Why do we solidify perceptions as reality? Can I trust what my senses and brain perceive to be real? The answer lies in the psychological concept of Cognitive Distortion.
According to positivepsychology.com, cognitive distortions are defined as “biased perspectives we take on ourselves and the world around us. They are irrational thoughts and beliefs that we unknowingly reinforce over time.” In essence, our mindset and our outlook in life, are controlled by all the positive and negative information, people, environments, and experiences that we are exposed to daily. Over time, our brains begin to create patterns and biases, which we later use to make decisions and fabricate subjective conclusions. Why is all this important to know? Because like me, you too can be falling into the cognitive distortion trap.
The truth is that there is a plethora of cognitive distortions. Although they all differ and hone in on different things, they all have three things in common: 1) They are tendencies or patterns of thinking or believing; 2) They are false or inaccurate; 3) They have the potential to cause psychological damage. Many psychologists have dedicated their careers to studying cognitive distortions, and their role in depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues. One such pioneering psychologist is Dr. David Burns, who wrote the book “Feeling Good, The New Mood Therapy” which was initially published in 1980. Dr. Burns lists a number of cognitive distortions in his book. However, I would like to hone in on three that I have fallen prey to, and that I feel apply to the life and times we are currently experiencing: 1) Polarized Thinking; 2) Mental Filter; and 3) Emotional Reasoning.
Take a minute to think about yourself, as well as your personal and professional social circle. Is there anyone that you can immediately pinpoint as an extreme thinker? Someone who only thinks in shades of black and white? Polarized thinking is a distortion that manifests itself as an inability or unwillingness to see shades of gray. People who think this way are inflexible, believe everything is set in stone, and have a difficult time believing that circumstances do have the ability to affect an outcome. Have you fallen victim to this distortion?
As a kid, I was brought up with this mindset. I was led to believe that success ONLY meant obtaining a collegiate degree, getting married and having children, and working until retirement. I was led to believe that if a man pierced his ears and had tattoos, or if a woman had tattoos and dyed her hair with unnatural flamboyant colors (such as red ), that he was a THUG or she was PROMISCUOUS respectively. I was led to believe that I HAD TO listen to an authoritative figure, and keep my mouth shut if I disagreed with something, even if it was at my personal expense. Not surprisingly, like many before and after me, I was raised in a culture, and have been in professional environments that breed and perpetuate this form of cognitive distortion.
As an adult, I began to formulate my own conclusions. I realized that SUCCESS is a SUBJECTIVE term, that can be rooted in a variety of tangible and intangible things, such as academic achievement, financial wealth, family structure, physical prowess, or even intrinsic equanimity and serenity. Through personal life experience, I have been exposed to MEN AND WOMEN of all shapes, colors, and sizes whose actions and not appearance, led me to believe they were of a certain good or bad CHARACTER. Through my academic and professional life experience, I realized that just because an authoritative figure (i.e. professor or supervisor) claims something, it does not necessarily make it true. Moreover, I DO NOT need to follow guidance or orders I would construe as unethical, illegal, or immoral.
Polarized thinking can lead to the cognitive distortion of mental filter. Again, lets reflect on our previous experiences. Maybe growing up you were always a straight “A” student, and after taking a hard class you hated, you received a “B+”. What did your parents do? They forgot about all the hard work you put in previously, and decided to hold that one “B+” over your head, because they now view you as a failure. Maybe you are an awesome romantic partner who has really tried for months or years to make your significant other feel love and appreciated. One day you state a negative comment, or act in a way they considered disrespectful, and they now hone into that isolated incident so deeply, that they believe there is no way the relationship can successfully move forward. In both of the latter examples, the parents and the significant other, focused on a single “negative” piece of information, and excluded all the positive ones. The latter dynamic inevitably creates a pessimistic view of everything around them moving forward, because they have decidedly chosen to focus on the negative.
Growing up, my father was very critical of everything and everyone. It seemed as though no matter how hard one worked, no matter how much effort one put forward, one always fell short. My father had a lot of personal pride and was highly committed to excellence. However, when he became fixated on a negative piece of information, it would be very seldom when said negative piece of information would cease to be brought up as a constant reminder of failure. The same could be said with romantic relationships. Once upon a time, I was in a relationship with a woman who is very ambitious and has a very convicted mindset. Throughout the course of our relationship, there were isolated instances where I allowed emotions to get the best of me, and either made comments or acted in a perceivable disrespectful manner. Although I owned up to my statements and actions, the negatives outweighed the positives for her, and she decidedly terminated our relationship instead of other alternatives.
The final cognitive distortion is in my opinion, the most important one that we as individuals need to act, reflect, and be consistently cognizant of. How many times have you personally been put in a situation where you observed something, heard something, or more importantly felt something, and immediately believed it to be true? Too many of us (myself included at times), have fallen victim to allowing our emotions to override our logic. As soon as we feel something, we automatically assume that it is factually true, with no supporting tangible facts to prove our suspicions. Two powerful emotions that tend to override logic are love and anger.
In life, many of us are brought up believing that receiving and being loved from an external entity, is the ultimate source of happiness. However, many are not taught that true love comes from within ourselves, and is manifested internally and externally in the form of benevolence, grace, honesty, and transparency. Instead, we are brought up believing that love is sacrificial at its core, and that mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual abuse is an inherent part of a “loving” relationship. This emotional belief of “sacrificial love”, blinds us from the fact that neither of the people in the relationship genuinely love each other or themselves. “Even though they are hurting me, they love me, and they just do not know how to express it.” Loving yourself, means understanding that you are factually worthy and valuable, and that you will not allow anything or anyone (to include yourself), to do anything that will negatively affect your body, mind, and spirit. In comparison, when you love another, you understand that they are factually worthy and valuable, and will not allow that person, yourself, or any other person for that matter, to do anything that will negatively affect their body, mind, and spirit.
The other side of the coin reveals the surge of negative hostile adrenaline one begins to feel, when we are enormously displeased with a person or a situation: anger. Anger manifests itself passively through things like lack of care or silence, or in the form of a verbal or physical lash out, where one wants to assume forcible control over a situation. In my personal experience, my anger has stemmed from lack of patience, lack of feeling like I did not have say in any given situation, or previous unresolved traumas or incidents that unconsciously spilled into a current situation at hand. Most often than not, the person or situation at hand is not the true source of the anger you are feeling. However, your unconscious ignorance of the source, and/or your perceived impotence at being able to overcome the root problem, eventually creeps up and presents itself in the form of anger.
Call to Action
The fact is that first impressions and perceptions are not always rooted in reality. This is not to say that first impressions nor perceptions should be ignored either, as they could have merit at some point in time. However, one needs to have the ability to discern between feelings and reality. Discernment allows one to temper biases that lead to unsubstantiated impressions and perceptions. Give a person or a situation the benefit of the doubt, as perceptions can lead to an unmerited finding of guilt. Concurrently, remain receptive to actions, behaviors, or “flags” that may lead you to corroborating your perception with tangible realities. Below, you will find a list of three things you can do to balance perception and reality, to lead to a grounded state of discernment.
Focus on Facts, Not Opinions or Emotions
In law enforcement, everyone is assumed innocent until proven guilty in the court of law. The purpose of court, is to find the objective truth based on the facts of the case, in order to prove someone innocent or guilty of the crime they are accused of having committed. How do you handle incidents and people in your life? Do you condemn them based on the court of public opinion or one of personal emotions? Do you believe that people are presumed guilty until proven innocent, or do you give them the benefit of the doubt, and let the facts speak for themselves? As explained above, cognitive distortions can make it extremely easy to fabricate subjective conclusions, based on past experiences.
It is easy to connect the dots, make comparisons, and believe that what we think and how we feel is the truth. On the surface, two people, or two situations may seem remarkably similar. However, you may find that even though an outcome may parallel a previous experience, the facts and actions that led to said outcome may have been completely different, potentially rendering some or all of the actions justified. Facts are not meant to necessarily corroborate your emotions or opinions. Rather, they are meant to shine light on things that are questionable. By shining light, you can create an informed and educated decision on a person or incident, based on tangibles that can be proven indisputably.
Have Receptive Dialogue
While fact finding may focus on physical and tangible “hard” evidence that substantiate the truth, creating a receptive space for dialogue focuses on the intangible “soft” evidence gathered from people. The latter is especially important in platonic and romantic relationships. If a person you care about has vocalized something, or acted in a way that makes you feel wronged, it is important to have an open and honest conversation with them. Create a space where effective non-hostile communication can take place, so that you may reveal how words that were vocalized, or actions that were taken, made you feel wronged and disrespected. The purpose is to listen for understanding, and not to formulate a response. If done correctly, you may corroborate or debunk your feelings and perceptions with facts. The person you are conversing with may also become aware of words and actions they are unconsciously indulging in, that are rooted in unresolved and repressed incidents, memories, or traumas.
Perhaps the most powerful thing you can do before your cognitive distortions become an external issue, is to tackle them internally. If you find yourself negatively Acting on your cognitive distortions, take the time to Reflect profoundly about them, in order to become Cognizant of their root source. You, me, or no one is going to ever be perfect. However, that does not alleviate our burden of taking ownership, responsibility, and accountability for our lives. Allowing lack of courage to personally deal with, or seek help in dealing with, unresolved relationship, childhood, or other personal traumas will come at a cost greater than you and I are willing to pay.
These unresolved traumas will find ways to haunt you, and will manifest themselves as broken relationships, unmerited biases and prejudices against others, and a deep-rooted void and emptiness that you will never fill. Worst of all, your ignorance will inevitably spill into the thoughts and minds of the impressionable children and adults that surround you. Unless later enlightened and well-informed, those influenced children (who DO NOT KNOW any better), and influenced adults (who DO NOT WANT to know any better), will wreak havoc. Our society WILL begin to implode as a consequence of cognitive distortions such as polarized thinking, mental filtration, and emotional reasoning. Some of it can be seen occurring throughout the United States as you read this blog post.
Cognitive distortions will never cease to be part of our human nature. We are emotional beings, who are hardwired with a desire to be accepted, a fear of rejection, and a biochemical system designed to keep us “safe”. It is incumbent upon you and I to do all we can, in order to make ourselves productive members of our worldly tribe. Take ownership and responsibility for your life. In doing so, you will be able to positively show up for family, friends, society, and a tribe who needs you. I believe in you. Now it is time you break the shackles of your perceptions, and begin to live a life grounded in reality! If you need help in starting your Intruistic journey, check out some of my previous content here. For further resources, inspiration, and motivation, click here.
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Seize the day, seize your life, and we will seize our communal tribe together!