Things aren’t always as they seem

Ní mar a shíltear a bhítear – Things aren’t always as they seem is a statement of fact as much as a proverb. It is a true nugget of wisdom from the ancestors. And while this proverb is often utilized to announce that ‘appearances can be deceptive’, a closer translation might put it as ‘not every imagining is real’.

So here we are again, reminded that our assumptions may be different to the reality, that our core beliefs and perceptions may have a glamour or deceptive quality upon them.  We can perceive something not as it is but more how we filter it through our world view or trauma lens.

We know from previous proverbs about treating opinions (ours and those of others) with caution but we often forget that our perceptions and reading of the world may be based upon opinions without verification – that our perceptions and opinions can be prejudices, that our current predicament can be all about what we are predicting, not what is actually unfolding. We can be preaching a destructive discourse to ourselves. We can be inviting woe by stance of interpretation.

These misreading’s or attitudes are best thought of as cognitive distortions, they are the faulty thinking that drives our anxiety. We need to see them for what they are – unhelpful. And replace them with more supportive reasoning and healthy attitudes conducive to self-regulation and strong mental wellbeing. If things are not always what they seem then maybe the bad thing is not as bad as first suspected either. 

Exercise. Seeing the distortion.

There are several types of cognitive distortions or errant thinking patterns implicated in prolonged angst. We may actually engage in more than one. Some may even overlap or work in unison. Take a look at some of the more common ones listed below and acknowledge to yourself or to your journal which ones you participate with. We can work on shifting our emphasis to stronger more positive thinking patterns but for now it is good to recognise the thinking types that trigger or hype our anxiousness.

Polarized perceptions aka “Black and White thinking’ is not just a rigid mindset, it is extreme. This either/or mentality just prompts failure in the real world of mostly grey shades and complexities.

Filtering aka ‘negative scanning’ is the process of exaggerating or overestimating the negative aspect of the situation while ignoring or diminishing the positive aspects. It is making the moment conform or contort to disappointment or calamity; The restaurant had ambience, the meal was exquisite, your date was charming, you weren’t nervous or without charm yourself… but the waiter was not a smiley type – so the whole thing is ruined, what an absolute disaster. 

Personalization is the ‘I am the centre of everything’ thinking but rather than an ego of self-importance, it’s all about that centre being the bullseye. It is the belief or victimhood mentality that everything other people do or say is a direct, personal reaction/affront to you. The bird did not select you out, it pooped from a height and wasn’t looking down. Don’t take it personally. Shit happens. 

Personalisation can also be the belief that you are the cause of all the bad and stress, that everything emanates from you as well as is directed towards you. Maybe it’s not your fault the waiter didn’t smile. It’s not your fault the bird has just processed its previous lunch of berries.

Jumping to Conclusions. Our brains work off assumptions, it is evolutionally biology, it is survival shorthand; that twig snap may be a tiger so act if it is and be ready right now. The problem is we can get overly caught up in anticipatory or kneejerk reactions. We can’t predict every twig snap and sometimes it is just our stomach growling. Maybe the non-smiling waiter did not think you were unworthy of your date or the lack of smile some other negative judgment upon you, maybe they were dealing with being overworked and underpaid. You are not the centre of everything.

Blaming can be directed outward or inward but blame is the game of absenting oneself from taking action or making resolution. Blame is just recrimination, there is no justice or restitution, only aportioned fault. It is a way of kepping the ball in the air rather that setting or scoring goals. It is a way of prolonging hurt without purging the pain. It can be a way of lashing out at the world or a continuence of selfharm.

Overgeneralization isthe tendency to hold fast to a general conclusion, one often based upon a single incident or scant, unquestioned evidence, and to apply it to all other similar events. ie the job interview was not a success therefore I am incapable of conducting a good interview or conversing in general.

Catastrophizing aka magnifying is a more pernicious version of filtering – it is not just selectively reading the room wrong or misreading the now as it happens, this is applying the ‘absolute disaster’ mindset to every situation. It is playing out the worst-case scenario of every now and every future moment. It is the ‘what if’ trap. It is not just predicting catastrophe, it is expecting it, even running toward it.

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