Some negative thought patterns can distort your sense of reality and cause anxiety. So how do you tell your brain to stop selling yourself short?
She can’t hang out tonight. I must have done something to upset her and now she doesn’t want to be around me anymore.
They said I’m a great friend but anyone would have done the same thing.
I said the dumbest thing in the meeting. I’m always so awkward. I shouldn’t even try for the promotion because I’m clearly not cut out for this.
If you’re a sensitive, responsive person, you can probably think of a time or two (or three…) when you’ve had harmful thoughts like these — the kind of thoughts that hold you back — as well as a time when you’ve helped a friend through them.
For me, it’s easy to see why these types of thoughts are harmful or inaccurate when someone else is the one expressing them about themselves. And I know what to do: I have a compassionate “reframe” ready to go to help the person realize the glitch in their thinking — and how it’s selling them short. I’m highly sensitive, after all. I can see a situation clearly and empathize with someone stuck in their harmful perspective. I can usually help lead them out of their pessimism and into a positive, clear outlook.
However, when I’m the one with these thoughts, it’s a whole other story. They become gospel truth. I dig up a lifetime of evidence to support them. Suddenly, it’s positive outlooks are for everyone else. I see my own life situations with bleak “realism” — which is typically just a way to justify tearing myself down.
It turns out there is a reason for these conflicting interpretations of our harmful thoughts: humans are good at tricking themselves. In fact, psychology has a term for this kind of mental self-trickery: cognitive distortions.
What Are Cognitive Distortions?
Cognitive distortions are inaccurate thought patterns that distort our perception of reality, usually by making it more negative. Born out of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), one of the most widely embraced interventions in psychotherapy today, cognitive distortions are harmful — they bias us to feel bad about ourselves.
These biases can affect sensitive people differently than others. Often, they hold us back.
Of course, as sensitive folks, we take pride in our ability to see things with pristine clarity thanks to our extra-responsive brains. In fact, science confirms that highly sensitive people’s brains really do operate differently from less-sensitive people’s. For example, a 2011 study led by neuropsychologist Jadzia Jagiellowicz utilized fMRI scans to show that sensitive people’s brains respond to visual stimuli with greater activation in parts of the brain. Likewise, a 2021 study led by neuroscientist Bianca Acevedo revealed that sensitive brains continue to process information deeply even when at rest.
Even with our responsive brains and strong intuition, highly sensitive people (HSPs) can fall into distorted thinking just as much as the next person — and perhaps more so, given our tendency to overthink!
So how do we know when to trust our thoughts and when to refute them? How do we know if our minds are protecting us or holding us back?
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The Key to Stopping Harmful Thoughts
The key to stopping cognitive distortions is to get curious about your own thoughts.
This is no easy task because, in the moment, you won’t want to to believe that these harmful thoughts aren’t accurate representations of reality. After all, they seek to validate themselves and gather mountains of (flawed) evidence to prove their accuracy. We think they’re truthful because, unchallenged, they present a convincing argument.
Not only that, cognitive distortions become so familiar that we mistake them for safety. They quickly reinforce themselves and become habitual, so we turn to them again and again because we confuse their flawed logic for helpful self-protection. In reality, all they really do is stress us out and hold us back.
That’s why it’s so important to question, challenge, and ultimately replace harmful thoughts with helpful ones. There’s a reason CBT is so widely used in therapy: it’s designed to help you identify and challenge habitual, harmful thoughts. That’s why so many of the techniques I offer below are drawn directly from CBT. (Working with a CBT therapist is also a great option if you find yourself identifying heavily with cognitive distortions.)
So what kind of cognitive distortions should you be looking for? What do they look like, and how do you catch them — and change them?
7 Harmful Thoughts that Hold HSPs Back the Most (and Helpful Alternatives to Get Your Brain Back on Track)
While HSPs can fall prey to any cognitive distortions, a few stand out as especially common and harmful for sensitive people. By learning to identify these harmful thought patterns, you can get your thinking back on track — and start utilizing your sensitive brain the way it was meant to be used.
1. “It’s always my fault.”
Type of Cognitive Distortion: Personalization
Example: “My friend couldn’t hang out tonight. I must not be fun to be around.”
We fall into this harmful thought pattern when we connect personal responsibility to outcomes that have little, or nothing, to do with us. Despite our keen ability as HSPs to see and evaluate other plausible explanations, personalization happens when you still convince yourself that you’re to blame.
Helpful Thought Alternatives: If they have given me a reason, I can trust it. If they haven’t, I can’t know for sure that it’s about me. What other possible explanations could there be that have nothing to do with me?
2. “The worst will happen.”
Type of Cognitive Distortion: Catastrophizing
Example: “If my partner leaves me, I’ll be alone for the rest of my life.”
We HSPs can see a myriad of possible outcomes from an event. But thanks to the brain’s negativity bias we can get stuck on the worst-case scenario in any given situation. It’s a gift of foresight that ends up being more of a curse. The good news is we can make our seemingly “psychic” powers work for us by staying open to other outcomes and not giving too much weight to the worst case.
Helpful Thought Alternatives: There is always more than one possible outcome. Encourage your brain to imagine neutral-case and best-case scenarios to supplement the worst-case. Bonus points if you can plan an actionable response to your three outcomes (and gold stars if you can dwell on the fact that there are always endless possible outcomes!)
3. “Anyone can do what I can do.”
Type of Cognitive Distortion: Disqualifying the Positive
Example: “I got lucky on that test, anyone could have done as well on it.”
As mentioned above, the sensitive brain actually responds differently to the stimuli it takes in. So no, your achievements, strengths, and abilities are not so easily replicable. You can acknowledge and honor the role of your effort and assets alongside any other factors for your success.
This is a tough one for those of us who grew up with the value of humility. But humility without an adequate assessment of our effort can be as false as arrogance. Own your strengths and appreciate the role they play when things go well.
Helpful Thought Alternatives: In her book Trust Yourself, a guide for HSP professionals, author Melody Wilding suggests using “Yes, but” thought alternatives to stop disqualifying the positive. It looks like this: “Yes, others did well on the test, but I studied hard and I also took care of myself by getting enough sleep the night before. My efforts helped the outcome.”
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4. “The bad outweighs the good.”
Type of Cognitive Distortion: Filtering
Example: “She assured me I’m a good friend but told me one thing I did that upset her. I’m really a terrible friend.”
It’s important to notice when all the overthinking we do as sensitive people errs toward the negative. We can turn a situation over and over in our minds on an endless cycle and still get caught up in the negative. If you find yourself feeling like something always ends up going wrong, you’re probably filtering your experience through the negative aspects and losing sight of any positive factors in the process.
Helpful Thought Alternatives: My positive attributes are always true, even alongside the negative ones. Both are valid and should be believed. I can honor my strengths while working on my flaws.
5. “I know what they’re thinking.”
Type of Cognitive Distortion: Jumping to Conclusions
Example: “They all think I’m annoying because I didn’t want to go to that crowded, noisy restaurant.”
It’s true that sensitive people can be especially astute at picking up on subtle cues of others’ feelings. But this doesn’t mean we should assume we know what someone else is thinking or feeling, especially if we always jump to the negative. When we come to conclusions based on limited information, we aren’t utilizing our responsiveness as well as we could be.
Helpful Thought Alternatives: What information am I basing this on? What information don’t I know? What are three alternative conclusions that could be just as true?
6. “I feel it, so it must be true.”
Type of Cognitive Distortion: Emotional Reasoning
Example: “I’m feeling self-conscious at this event so everyone must be looking at me and judging me.”
Okay, deep breaths everyone. This one can be especially tricky for HSPs because emotional reactivity is a cornerstone of being sensitive. Unfortunately, many HSPs have had a lifetime of societal messaging that our feelings should not be trusted. HSPs often need to nurture a healthy reconnection with our emotions and guide our reactivity toward emotional intelligence. Our emotions are meant to inform us in balance with our bodies, minds, and spirits. However, allowing our temporary feelings to dictate our reaction or perspective often stops short of the full range of information we’re gifted with as sensitive people.
Helpful Thought Alternatives: What does my mind say? My intuition? My body? My spirit? What is the best way to understand this situation, given all the facts, including — but not limited to — my emotions?
7. “Things should/shouldn’t be this way.”
Type of Cognitive Distortion: “Should” Statements
Example: “I should be further along in my life goals by now.”
HSPs can see so clearly how things should or shouldn’t be. This is an asset — it can yield well-executed plans and produce productive outcomes. But it can also be frustrating to always be confronted with how much better things could be if only things were this way or if only this would happen. With the right focus and practice, sensitive folks can harness the power of their “Shoulds” toward helpful action instead of frustrating stagnation.
Helpful Thought Alternatives: Evaluate the “Shoulds.” Where did these rules come from? Are they truly helpful in your life? What is a source of contentment for you right now?
Left to their own devices, our minds can latch onto these cognitive distortions for dear life. It’s up to us to disrupt them, question them, and bring our brains back to reality. Our responsive minds are capable of incredible insight. But just like any superpower, they must be kept in check and wielded wisely. HSPs must learn to live in a paradox: We must trust ourselves, while not believing everything we think.
You Might Like:
- Why a Little Bit of Environmental Psychology Can Be Life-Changing for HSPs
- How to Deal with Negative Emotions as a Highly Sensitive Person
- How Being a Highly Sensitive Person Affects Your Body Physically
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