So much of human thinking is irrational. This kind of messed-up thinking, often referred to as cognitive distortion, perceives reality in ways that are misleading or flawed, if not completely wrong, false, or stupid. (Examples follow below and more are found here.)
Irrationality floods our mind in the first years of life, so its staying power shouldn’t surprise us. The young child has to deal with pronounced self-centeredness, aggression, passivity, and baby fears. The child’s mental and emotional life is also confounded by the trauma of weaning, ambivalence, moral reproach, the threat of punishment, toilet training, the limits of brain power, the inability to frame situations on the basis of experience, the ups and downs of what is pleasant and unpleasant, and various other demands of necessary socialization.
In addition, a child soon starts to experience guilt and shame, along with a litany of what’s forbidden to see, exhibit, feel, and talk about. Much of this mental and emotional disorder remains in the adult psyche in the form of inner conflict and cognitive distortion.
Overcoming cognitive distortion is the primary aim of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which is America’s leading product in the mental-health marketplace. Yet CBT’s methodology just skims the surface. Depth psychology, in contrast, penetrates into the source of this distortion. This article offers readers a chance to understand cognitive distortion from the different points of view of these two methodologies.
Cognitive distortion is present in many painful emotional conditions and self-defeating behaviors. It contaminates the thinking of people who are cynical, envious, jealous, shy, stubborn, indecisive, hateful, bitter, lazy, hypochondriacal, chronically bored, apathetic, mediocre, and shame and guilt-ridden. It also occurs in addictive personalities, as well as the lonely, the fearful, and the depressed. These psychological problems have their roots in unconscious inner conflict, which is recognized and addressed by depth psychology. When inner conflict is resolved, cognitive function is more rational, and people won’t be so encumbered by emotional and behavioral problems.
Depth psychology addresses cognitive distortion as a symptom of the mental and emotional conflict that permeates the human psyche. CBT sees only one side of this inner conflict. It recognizes the conscious side which states the obvious, for instance, “I want to flourish and feel good about myself, and I am aligned with that goal.” CBT doesn’t confront the other side of the conflict, the unconscious part, that harbors a primitive obstinance and perversity that contaminates our emotional intelligence.
This other side, which expresses both a stubborn resistance and an appetite for suffering that is baked mysteriously into human nature, is not interested in self-development. This resistant side expresses itself, usually unconsciously, with assertions along these lines: “I’m not going to let go of the old, familiar sense of myself, even if that involves continuing self-doubt, fear, guilt, and shame. It is who I am. This is my fate.”
We become more astute and stronger emotionally when our mental and emotional intelligence becomes aware of this psychological perversity (perversity is used clinically, not morally). CBT does recognize that many of our cognitive distortions are unfairly self-abasing. The therapy encourages people to think better of themselves. It advocates using rational evidence and argument, in silent dialogue, to refute distorted thoughts and wear them down over time. But a process of inner dialogue already occurs, ineffectively and to no good purpose, in our conflicted psyche. As depth psychology recognizes, our inner critic makes insinuations and accusations against us and a weak, passive voice inside us tries to defend us with counter-arguments. This passive voice (I call it inner passivity) represents our best interests very poorly. The conflict between this passive side and our inner critic produces cognitive distortions, often in the form of thoughts that serve as unconscious psychological defenses. These defenses are often faulty rationalizations for why our suffering is supposedly necessary.
In one example, CBT cites as cognitive distortion the tendency of some people to catastrophize. Such people can believe an inconvenience or an uncomfortable situation is, in fact, a worst-case scenario. Along with their flawed thinking, they typically also become stressed, anxious, and overwhelmed. Again, CBT advocates as a treatment the use of rational evidence to “prove” the situation is not as bad as the individual believes.
The problem goes deeper, however. Underlying the tendency to catastrophize is an emotional attachment to inner passivity. This means the individual is unconsciously willing and even compelled to experience the event or situation in terms of being helpless and overwhelmed to deal with the challenge of it. The individual feels he or she won’t rise to the occasion and instead will be overwhelmed and defeated. This unpleasant and often painful feeling is a kind of emotional addiction. The deep passivity, functioning as an emotional default position, literally compels the individual to experience this inner weakness. If this aspect of the psyche remains unconscious and is not exposed clinically, it will likely continue to be a powerful negative influence in the person’s life.
People who are chronically angry believe irrationally that their anger is justified. Depth psychology, however, teaches that the anger is usually covering up some unresolved weakness or sensitivity in themselves. Angry people often believe they’re being unjustly deprived, refused, controlled, criticized, rejected, or betrayed. Their perceptions of such injustice or mistreatment are often distortions of reality. They can feel controlled, for instance, not necessarily because someone is actually controlling them or trying to control them but because being passive or submissive is inwardly their emotional default position. Their anger is a defense covering up this weakness: “I’m not willing to feel controlled—Look at how much I hate the feeling and how angry I get at those who try to control me!”
They might interpret someone innocently asking a favor as an expression of control or domination. They are triggered by their inner passivity (a common ingredient in inner conflict), which misreads or misinterprets reality, often in a way that accentuates the feeling of being at the mercy of, or beholding or submissive to, the influence or power of certain individuals or groups.
Inner passivity, which permeates the human psyche, is itself a cognitive distortion. Inner passivity, according to depth psychology, produces our defensiveness, which is a psychological maneuver, often used unconsciously or instinctively, intended to mislead us. Whether expressed inwardly to ourselves or outwardly to others, defensiveness is a ploy used to protect us in a variety of ways, often from inner fear associated with challenges to our fragile sense of self.
Inner passivity is difficult to recognize because doing so is offensive to our ego-based self-perception. In our psyche, we constantly try to cover up our inner passivity, which itself is the means through which we allow our inner critic to present itself illegitimately to us as the master of our personality. Humanity is largely ignorant of this primary conflict. How many people acknowledge to themselves, even once in a while, that they’re not masters of their own house, though Freud informed us of this fact more than 100 years ago. In refusing mentally and emotionally to accept this, we remain, as one example, too unintelligent and proud to really care about the dangers that climate change poses for future generations.
In general, we want to strive to see the bigger picture when trying to make sense of our thoughts and emotions. We can be misleading ourselves when we pay heed exclusively to the specific content in a typical cognitive distortion. What does this mean?
A person would be emotionally and mentally entangled in a cognitive distortion when, for example, he or she focused on and became upset about a single critical comment in a workplace meeting that otherwise went well. An individual who is tormenting himself or herself in this way is typically preoccupied emotionally and mentally with the specific details of that workplace meeting, replaying the situation over and over in their mind. CBT would have this individual come up with various evidence and arguments concerning what happened for the purpose of overriding the person’s negative self-assessment and bolstering a sense of worthiness and value. But the actual workplace event, in itself, is incidental. The individual is unconsciously using this event as a prop, as a means to replay and recycle unresolved inner conflict. It’s as if the inner conflict itself goes looking for convenient situations (any port will do) for the purpose of being activated or triggered and producing unconscious mischief.
With that in mind, what might the inner conflict be in this particular case? Consciously, the individual wants to be appreciated, valued, and even praised. Unconsciously, however, this person is emotionally attached to feeling criticized. This means he or she resonates with feeling criticized because that sensitivity is unresolved from the past and now functions as an emotional addiction, which corresponds to a willingness or even a wish to suffer. This individual, defying all common sense, is willing to embellish or intensify—unconsciously, in a given situation—the pain of feeling criticized.
This emotional weakness, which produces cognitive distortion, can be traced back to unresolved conflicts originating in childhood. The psychological condition involves self-criticism, a sensitivity to criticism from others, and a tendency to be critical of others. This all produces not only cognitive distortions but an emotional bias toward perceiving a given situation more objectively.
Some people might never come to terms with this depth psychology. In such cases, there can be benefit in trying, in the CBT method, to talk rationally over the top of inner conflict. Yet people ought to be given the chance, at least, to see deeper into their unhappiness and self-defeating behaviors. Self-knowledge arises from our effort to see ourselves more deeply, and this knowledge empowers our intelligence and strengthens self-regulation of emotions and behaviors.
My latest book has just been published. It’s titled, Our Deadly Flaw: Healing the Inner Conflict that Cripples Us and Subverts Society (2022), and it’s available here in paperback (315 pages) or as an e-book.