5 Cognitive Distortions HSPs May Experience

A highly sensitive person experiencing a cognitive distortion

One example of a cognitive distortion is “filtering,” when you look at a situation through metaphorical binoculars and focus on the negatives vs. the positives.

Highly sensitive people (HSPs) are sensitive souls who are so very in touch with their emotions, yet also spend quite a bit of time thinking about things in their headspace. With their strong desire to not only be liked by others, but also to not let others down, they can certainly be a bit tough on themselves. This pressure isn’t the best feeling, for sure, and combined with anxiety and depression that some HSPs may experience, it can certainly feel difficult to navigate.

Let’s talk about thoughts for a moment. Have you ever noticed that the more you focus on a thought, the stronger the emotion underneath it becomes? Take a minute to remember a time something happened that you felt really anxious about. Maybe you were worried someone was upset at you, for example. I bet the more you thought about it, and the more you ruminated on it, the more that feeling of anxiety grew stronger and stronger and stronger — uugh! But, if we look at the other side of the coin, which is so easy to forget to do sometimes, there may be times when something happens that feels exciting, or even makes you really happy. Maybe someone told you how much something you did helped them, and your feelings of happiness and joy made you feel like you were on top of the world.

So, in knowing this — how much thoughts impact how you feel — it’s especially important to be aware of the thoughts that you’re experiencing. Especially those more automatic thoughts.  Those thoughts are the sneaky ones, as they’re so second nature, you may not even think twice about them. And, unfortunately, they aren’t often the thoughts that make you feel happy and secure. For example, if you suddenly find a thought in your head that seems to come out of nowhere, it’s an automatic thought, as it’s not something you’re consciously thinking about. It’s like background noise that often doesn’t stay in the background. For example, let’s say you’re thinking of pursuing something that sounds interesting to you and your self talk quickly moves to “You know this is a terrible idea. How are you even going to make this work? What are you even thinking?” This is an example of an automatic thought. And if you’re a sensitive person, these thoughts may be even more magnified. (After all, it’s hard for HSPs to take constructive criticism, even when it’s well-intended.)

What Are Cognitive Distortions?

We’re going to go over some particular types of thoughts called cognitive distortions. As a psychotherapist, I see this type of thinking quite frequently as it is so, so, so common. I really believe everyone has experienced these in one form or another. So, if you identify with any of the points listed below, please know you are not alone by any means. 

But first, what are cognitive distortions? They’re when you have a distorted and irrational thought process that really impacts how you perceive a situation. You may also recognize them as part of the inner critic, that inner voice that’s judging and second-guessing you. Of course, in the moment, it feels so very real. Especially the more you think and ruminate on it, as HSPs tend to do. But, at the core, these thoughts are just thoughts. And thoughts like these are often based on assumptions. It is crucial to remember this. 

So, in knowing this, it’s always good to challenge your automatic thoughts. For example, if we reference the example above, you can ask yourself, “Is this really, truly what’s happening here? Or, is this my anxiety speaking?” And then you can decide if there’s any validity behind what these thoughts are trying to convince you of. In order to challenge them, it’s important to take a step outside of your headspace. Kind of like seeing them from an outside perspective, as though to say, “Hey, wait a minute here. Is that you again, cognitive distortion?” But, keep reading to learn about some common cognitive distortions that HSPs may experience. 

5 Cognitive Distortions HSPs May Experience

1. Catastrophizing — thinking about the worst-case scenario

I have a feeling this one may feel familiar. This is when you have a case of the “what-ifs,” as I like to call them:

  • What if I fail this test and get kicked out of school?” 
  • What if I forget what I want to say during my presentation and everyone will think I don’t know what I’m doing?” 
  • “My friend is late to meet me. What if she hates hanging out with me?” 
  • “My husband isn’t answering his phone. What if he got into an accident?” 

As you can see in all these examples, you are jumping to conclusions — and the conclusions are worst-case scenarios, with anxiety and sadness mixed in. And when you’re a sensitive person, you’re already empathic and taking on others’ emotions, which makes it easy to catastrophize, too.

2. Personalization — yes, when you take things personally, to a fault

This type of cognitive distortion is where you take things personally.  But, you take things so personally that it can include things that aren’t even caused by you — yet you attribute meaning to it anyway. 

Let’s say you just went on a date that went amazingly and you can’t wait to talk to this person again. Your HSP intuition thinks it went well and you are so eager to hear from them that you find yourself intently checking your phone the next day. But, no message. And then the thoughts start. They may be saying: 

  • “What did I do?” 
  • “Why aren’t they texting me?” 
  • “What did I say?” 
  • “Why am I not good enough?” 
  • “If only I was prettier…”  
  • “If only I was more successful then she/he/they would definitely text me right away…”

All of these thoughts are jumping to conclusions again and you’re taking it personally that your date is not texting you after just one day, which is so easy for the sensitive HSP to do.

Another example might be if you’re a parent and your child is struggling in school. You may start to blame yourself, worry about others judging you, or even believe your child’s academic struggles must mean that you are a terrible parent. Therefore, you take their academic struggles personally. This is a rather common cognitive distortion for HSPs since HSPs often are prone toward personalizing things when they perceive someone to be upset or distressed.

3. Filtering — when you look at a situation through a filter, usually a negative one

Filtering is when you look at something that has happened through a “filter,” and in cognitive distortions, this is usually through a more negative filter. When this happens, you also tend to overlook the positive things that happened, as all you see are the negative aspects. It’s as though the positive pieces are filtered out. It makes me think of looking at a situation through binoculars and having a filter suddenly turned on. Some examples may be:

  • You’ve given a presentation at work and everyone shared what a great job you did!  Except for one person, who told you, “It would have been better if you would have included xyz.” This is frustrating when it happens, but in filtering, you may start to think, “I did a terrible job. See? I don’t know what I’m doing. I’m never going to agree to do a presentation again.” Therefore, you filter out all of the positive and zone in on the negative statement from one person.
  • Or perhaps you’ve begun to explore your passion for art. You get up the courage to share a piece you’ve created with some friends and family members. Everyone is sharing what a great artist you are, except one person gives you criticism. In filtering, your inner critic may say, “oOf course this was terrible — they were just being nice and didn’t mean what they said” or “I’m never going to share my art with anyone again.”

This can commonly happen when you want approval: you want to be liked or accepted by someone, as you tend to be tougher on yourself in these instances. It can also relate to having high expectations for yourself so you won’t let someone else down — which is also important to  HSPs since there’s often a strong tendency to feel responsible for others’ feelings.

If we look at an example, maybe you received a performance review at work and everything is positive except for one piece of constructive criticism. Has this ever happened to you before? If yes, then you may know how this story plays out. Your filter of the review is overly focused on the “negative,” the growth area, rather than acknowledging all of the positive feedback you received. You are left feeling as though you have failed in some way.

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4. “Should”-isms — when you think you “should” have done this or “should” have done that

Have you ever had a case of the “should-isms”? You know, those times when you feel things “should” be a certain way? Or when you feel you “should have” done this or said that? Yes, this is another cognitive distortion which creates a sense of pressure and expectation: 

  • “I should have a superior rating in all categories of my performance review.” 
  • “My wife should just know to ask me if I’m okay when I’m quiet.” 
  • “I should be funny and talkative or they won’t like me.” 

When the “shoulds” are not met, there’s an energy of being “let down,” and this can definitely be followed by feelings of sadness and disappointment. Maybe you believe you are letting yourself down, letting others down, or others are even letting you down. When others are involved, this often speaks to unspoken or assumed expectations. And, since highly sensitive people are empaths, they may think others are as in tune with their feelings as they are with theirs, which is often not the case.

5. All-or-nothing thinking — there is no grey area

The words “never,” “always,” and “every” usually tag along with all-or-nothing thinking. Some examples may be:   

  • “I’m always disappointing her.”
  • “He is always yelling at me.”
  • “I can never do anything right.”
  • “I’m always saying things that make me look ridiculous.” 

It’s really seeing things through the lens of absolutes — there is zero room for a grey area. Which means zero room for self-compassion, too. And, for highly sensitive people, who often are really tough on themselves, it sometimes can be difficult to see these types of situations through a different lens when self-blame kicks in.

For example, maybe you’ve mustered up the courage to attend a party, despite feeling anxious.  You’re having a great conversation and then – the conversation comes to a standstill.  You feel uncomfortable and don’t know what to say.  This person says “it’s been nice talking to you” and walks away.  You may think “I’m always so boring, uugh, why can’t I ever think of anything interesting to say to keep the conversation going?  I’m always messing up conversations.  I’m never going to make any new friends.” This is an example of all or nothing thinking.

What You Can Do If You Experience Cognitive Distortions

So, do any of the above feel like they ring true for you? And what can you do if you experience them?

Step back from your thoughts. Yes, this may be a challenge since highly sensitive people are big thinkers. But, just like with any change you are working to make, this helps with having an awareness of the types of thoughts you are having — rather than them operating automatically or on autopilot. Another important piece is this process helps you to see that the thoughts are a part of you, which makes it easier to evaluate them. If you’re too “in them,” it’s hard to look at them from the lens of challenging them. So, try to notice what your thoughts are saying. Are your thoughts more negative, more positive, more critical, or more worrisome? What situations tend to trigger them for you? And, what emotions do you notice? It’s like you’re evaluating the pattern or the process.

Ask yourself if they are one of the cognitive distortions that you may have resonated with. If the answer is yes, you can literally tell yourself, “Stop.” This can interrupt the thoughts. One technique I often share with my clients is to ask yourself, “How is this thought helpful?” and “What is the evidence here?” You may even want to write this down or say it out loud, as if it is irrational, it becomes much easier to recognize this way. (Plus, HSPs are great at processing things deeply, and writing is an effective way to do so.) Similar to when you’re talking to a friend and find yourself saying, “Now that I say that out loud, it sounds ridiculous.”

What is a new thought you would like to tell yourself? Let’s use an example that your husband is not picking up his phone and your immediate thought is, “Oh my gosh, what if he got into an accident?” This is then followed by anxiety and fear. A new thought could be, “Maybe he’s on the phone” or “He has been tired lately; maybe he fell asleep” or “Maybe he’s busy right now. I’ll try to call him again in 20 minutes.”

If irrational thoughts and cognitive distortions feel overwhelming to you, seeking professional help from a licensed therapist is always a great option. It’s best to look for a therapist who specializes in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which helps you take a closer look at your thought patterns, identify cognitive distortions and irrational thoughts that you may be experiencing, and helps you learn to challenge these thought patterns in order to create new, healthier ways of thinking.

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