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Self-image And Cognitive Distortions

I have scary news.

We don’t actually see things as they are. We don’t even see. We perceive.

Your eyes, ears, and the rest of the senses receive the information from the outside world and send it to the brain. The brain, then, has to interpret these inputs.

The brain does that based on your already existing beliefs, thoughts, emotions, and even moods. That’s what we call perception.

And our perception usually doesn’t represent reality accurately. That’s because our senses can’t make sense of everything. There will always be a percentage of toxic and biased beliefs.

Those are called perceptions errors or cognitive distortions.

The more you have them, the more distorted your reality is going to be. The more distorted your reality is, the more you’ll suffer emotionally and mentally.

Why?

Because the perceptions errors will support the false and the toxic beliefs that you have.

Surprisingly, when you believe in something your perception will work to support that belief. Even if that means twisting facts and seeing things in a distorted way.

The key is to be aware of these cognitive distortions, or perception errors, and stop them from feeding the toxic beliefs. (Also not giving you an inflated, deluding, but positive image of yourself)

People who have poor self-image usually have many terrible beliefs about themselves.

And one of the ways they strengthen those beliefs is through distorted perceptions.

So, one of the best ways we can weaken, and destroy, those beliefs is by challenging those distortions.

Before that, you need to become aware of these cognitive distortions.

In this article, we’ll talk about the most popular perception errors that will deepen your self-image problems. (And even cause you a self-image problem if you don’t have one).

What Causes Cognitive Distortions?

There are many lists out there that list lots of cognitive distortions. It’s not only related to self-image but the general mental health.

Instead of creating another list and make the internet more crowded with similar information, I thought about making this list specific to self-image.

Not only that, but also while thinking about them, and reading some of the lists found online, I realized that most of the cognitive distortions share a similar purpose:

Support and verify our already existing ( and usually negative) beliefs.

Based on this fact, let’s talk about distortions in order to understand them, understand how they can affect you, and understand how becoming aware of them is very powerful.

That can be one of the best things you can do to your self-image. I can tell that it was one of the best things I’ve done to mine.

To illustrate how cognitive distortions work, we’ll talk about 4 types.

The first one will give you a general idea about how one’s perception can be distorted (and why). The next 3s are examples. We’ll talk thoroughly about the first one and briefly about the rest.

Here we go.

Biased-Beliefs Based Perceptions

The book insecure in love talks about what is called an anxious attachment system (based on attachment theory).

The person with an anxious attachment system usually looks down at him/her self (a.k.a. has a poor self-image), while, at the same time, looks up at other people.

This way of thinking makes the person feels like he is not worthy of love and will be abandoned sooner or later.

That will need to a lot of fear and anxiety in the relationship. It will also lead to many needy and clingy behaviors.

What’s interesting is that, in the book, it’s mentioned the following[1]:

“People are especially motivated to verify their self-perceptions of being worthy or unworthy of love. They self-verify by selectively paying attention to, selectively remembering, and selectively interpreting information (Swann, Rentfrow, and Guinn 2003).” ¹

That’s pretty interesting.

As soon as someone believes that they are worthy of love (or not worthy of love), they will, based on that beliefs, pay attention to specific things, remember specific things, and interpret specific information.

Specific things that verify their belief and prove it to be true.

The book goes on explaining:

Selective attention: People pay more attention to, and spend more time considering, feedback that confirms their sense of their own lovability or unlovability than feedback that disconfirms it.

Selective memory: People tend to remember feedback that confirms their sense of being worthy or unworthy of love. Sometimes they don’t even process information that conflicts with their perception, let alone remember it over time.

Selective interpretation: People tend to unquestioningly believe feedback that confirms their sense of being lovable or unlovable. They think any feedback that conflicts with their preconception is due to a mistake or deception. They also interpret absent or ambiguous evidence as support for their self-perceptions.”

This goes for people who believe they are worthy or unworthy of love. But it also applies to any kind of belief about one’s self.

For whatever reason, you believe something about yourself. Whether it’s about your lovability, physical looks, skills, competence, or even worth.

Then the distortions happen to verify this belief and support it.

You start to selectively choose what to pay attention to. You pay attention to whatever negative experiences that reinforce negative beliefs about yourself.

And you also choose what to remember and what not to remember based on your beliefs.

You remember only what supports your belief. I noticed this personally when I feel bad about myself, I remember every single thing I’ve screwed up before.

Then finally you choose what to interpret and how to interpret it. For anxious people talked about above, the single act of not texting them back make them question their own desirability and consider the fact that they might be dumped.

And it applies to all kind of beliefs.

Someone who is insecure about his/her looks will interpret every weird look as a confirmation to their ugliness.

Someone who is insecure about his social skills will interpret every yawn as a confirmation to the what-they-consider-a-fact that they are boring.

The point is that as soon as a belief, positive or negative, is adopted, you’ll do your best to confirm it (As described above).

This how the rich get richer and the poor get poorer; you’ll verify whatever you believe in.

You might have been rejected through your childhood and adopted the belief that you are not worthy of being accepted.

Growing up, you’ll strength this belief, and prove it to yourself, by perceiving everything selectively.

Sure, destroying the belief will fix the cognitive distortions. But also being aware of these distortions and consciously challenging them will help weaken the belief to destroy it as well. It’ll take time though, along with consistent work on yourself.

Here are more examples of how this phenomena manifests itself in the real world. 

Taking Things Personally

Here the person thinks that everything that other people do, they do it because of him. Like he/she is the center of the universe!

If someone looked angrily at him, he would take that at face value that the other person is doing that because of him.

If someone ignored him, he would consider that this person is doing that to him because he hates him or something personal.

If someone rejected him, he would think that it’s because he is no good.

Interpreting everything that other people do as a personal insult. People with this perception error usually interpret every conflict, rejection, or disagreement as a threat to their personal worth.

As a result, they will lose their self-confidence and hurt their self-image. They will strengthen the negative beliefs they already have about them and create even more.

The truth is that taking things personally is unrealistic.

Other people are focused on their own flaws and insecurities. Many people are too busy worrying about their own flaws just as much as you do.

And those who are focusing on your flaws, and probably mocking you, are nothing but a bunch of mentally unstable folks who can’t manage their own shit. Be assertive with them and know that what they say says more about them than it says about you.

Either way, most of the things that other people do to you have nothing to do with you. It tells a great deal about the person who is doing them.

Stop taking things personally and consider the other possible reasons.

Let’s take the example of someone ignoring you. It’s simple but it gives you a clue about why you should not take things personally.

This person can be tired, having a bad day, didn’t notice you, taking revenge because you’ve ignored him, shy, insecure and afraid of rejection, narcissist, and many other reasons.

The point is that none of those reasons have anything to do with you. So, stop using them to strengthening negative beliefs about you. Just assume nothing until it’s proven based on solid facts. But, again, be careful what you call solid facts.

Generalizations

This one is more like all or nothing.

It’s: all people don’t like me, all my friends hate me, I fail every time I try to do something, they never laugh at my jokes, it’s a bad week (just because of a bad day).

Or: he ignored my text and that means he doesn’t like me, one exam was very bad and that means I failed this semester, they rejected my resume so I’ll never find a job.

People with this distortion go to the extreme. They judge themselves, or some situations, based on one single fact.

And that’s dangerous. For instance, they may assume that everybody hates them because 2 of their friends ignored them that day (remember the first distortion!). They may judge their skills negatively because they’ve failed a couple of times.

The truth is that you can’t make overgeneralizations about yourself, other people, or most of the situations. Be careful when you use the words “all”, “every”, and “any”. Stop immediately and ask yourself if that is true, can you back it up?

Zooming (In or Out. Usually on The Negative)

This is how people with a poor-self-image reinforce their poor self-image.

They zoom in on the negative. They see the negative side bigger. And they zoom out on the positive side and see it smaller, and not that important.

It might have something to do with the perfection tendency.

Those are the people who get 50 comments on their performance, 30 are positive, 10 are negative, and 10 are fake or not that direct.

They focus on the negatives 10s and they focus on the ambiguous 10s as well. All that while giving very little credit to the 30 positive ones!

Or those are the people who can’t accept compliments and always see something wrong in themselves or their work.

They do something that is not perfect, some mistakes and some successes. Instead of looking at it just like it is (good and bad), they give a higher weight to the negative side. They don’t have a fair, normal look at things.

This can also happen with the looks. Many of the people who think less of their looks have this distortion that stops them from seeing things for what they really are.

Again, this might stem from the toxic desire to be perfect.

Believing that if you’re not perfect, if you don’t look perfect, if you don’t do perfect work, then you are not worthy of love, respect, and admiration.

Footnotes:

  • [1] Chapter 3, Confirming the “You” in You. Page 48
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