Most of us have thoughts where we worry about the worst possible outcome, or we fixate on how we were perceived. We have thoughts that are skewed, disruptive, or just blatantly false. And then you become a mother and the anxious, negative thinking can feel like it’s nonstop. These negative thoughts are known as cognitive distortions and they can interfere in relationships, hold us back from reaching our full potential, and impact our confidence as a person and a parent. Cognitive distortions can also contribute to anxiety and depression, and be a major roadblock to be a present parent.
Where do these thoughts come from?
From the very beginning, our brains are collecting data about the world around us, and sometimes the conclusions that we draw from the data are biased or incorrect. Research suggests that people develop this thinking as a way to cope with adverse life events, or as way to cope and survive stress. If a relationship is going very well and it abruptly ends, we might draw the conclusion that our actions or shortcomings are to blame. “If I was more loving/giving/attractive, he/she would have stayed with me”. It’s safe to say that this is a patently false conclusion that leads to negative self-talk and feelings of low self-worth. The snowball effect of this false conclusion could be that we carry it into other interactions where our thoughts, actions, and perceptions are altered by this idea of not being enough.
Another source of cognitive distortions is our environment, meaning what we heard, saw, and experienced growing up and throughout our lives. If you grew up in a family that blamed hard times on external sources and you heard things like, “We have bad luck” or “Nothing good ever happens to us”, there is a decent chance that when things go afoul in your life you might hear a similar narrative in your head.
Regardless of their origin, cognitive distortions are not based in reality, but they are disguised as automatic thoughts, which can be hard to identify. The more stressful and chaotic life becomes for a busy and overwhelmed mother, the easier it is to perceive the world in this faulty lens, and harder to be able to see it for what it actually is.
According to David Burns, a well-known psychiatrist in the world of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, he has identified about 15 common cognitive distortions. For the sake of simplicity here are 3 most common examples that many mothers experience.
3 Examples of Distorted Thoughts
Catastropizing is what happens when you jump to the worst case scenario regardless of the situation. It could be a low level situation and your mind jumps immediately to the worst case possible. For example, your partner and children are due home at 5pm and they are 30 minutes late…your mind starts to stir up possible conclusions like his car is in a ditch or he’s having an affair, when they most likely stopped for milk and is running late. Something simple happens, but you draw the most dire conclusion possible, that’s catastrophizing.
We attribute the behavior or emotions of others to ourselves. An example of personalization: You’re at school function with other parents, and you run into a friend and she rushes past you with a quick hello and keeps going. That was weird, right? She didn’t even stop to talk to me. What’s her problem? I wonder if I missed her birthday and she’s mad at me. Did I do or say something wrong when we had lunch last week? I really shouldn’t have made that comment about politics in front of her and now she’s mad at me. Later, she sends a text explaining that she had just gotten a call from the babysitter and had to head home early to take care of child who felt under the weather. Perfectly reasonable and it had nothing to do with you.
Everything is black or white, no middle ground. If you find absolutes creeping into your self-talk, never, nothing, everything, all-or-nothing thinking might be playing a role. For example, you were home all day alone with the kids and there were a few interactions throughout the day where you snapped and yelled, or had to stop the fun activity sooner than planned because one of the kids was pushing the limits. By the end of the day you have convinced yourself that the day was terrible, and you’re the worst parent on the planet. Meanwhile, you’re forgetting that throughout the day were lovely interactions and moments with your kids. Yes, you had challenges today, and yes you had moments where you were human. Hard moments don’t make you a terrible mother.
There are a variety of effective, evidence based approaches to address and treat your cognitive distortions:
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy: This type of therapy is centered around becoming aware of negative thoughts and behaviors, calling them out, and replacing them with healthier, more accurate thoughts and behaviors. CBT has been shown to successfully treat conditions like depression, anxiety, phobias, and PTSD to name a few.
Keep a Thought Record: Once you’re aware that negative thoughts are a problem, it’s helpful to recognize what things “trigger” the thoughts. People, places, things, smells, phrases are all examples of triggers. Becoming a mom can bring a whole new set of triggers: overstimulation from noise or too many people talking at once, the stressors of trying to being a “good mom”, the chaos of multiple schedules to manage, the list goes on. If you have been in a happy mood all morning & you notice a shift, that’s the time to use your thought record. In therapy, you’ll learn to ask yourself probative questions: “what happened just before I started to have these thoughts” or “how did I feel directly after I saw/heard whatever triggered me”.
Take your Thoughts to Court: You’ll be the prosecutor, defense attorney, judge, and jury. Make three columns for each thought “evidence that my thought is true”, “evidence that my thought is false” and “verdict”. Once you’ve determined the validity of your thoughts, the ones that are false are gradually replaced with more adaptive thoughts.
The first step to correcting this behavior is being able to identify your negative thoughts for what they are. Next, is knowing that you do have the power to change them. Thoughts are just thoughts. You get to choose what you do with them. If need you help identifying your cognitive distortions and developing healthier coping, help is available here at Better Being Mainline.