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SALT LAKE CITY — While driving to an unfamiliar place, have you ever found yourself squinting to read road signs as you search for the next place to turn? When your eyesight isn’t what it should be, you notice.
When your life-sight, or perceptions, aren’t what they should be, do you notice just as easily? Albert Einstein once said “reality is merely an illusion,” arguing our perceptions shape our world. How do you see your world? How do you see, or give meaning to, your actions in your world?
Whether we are aware, we often fall into distorted patterns of thinking called cognitive distortions. Just as road signs can be distorted and blurred with poor vision, our thinking can be out of focus and inconsistent with reality. Your thoughts can be self-defeating, and you might talk yourself out of a healthy lifestyle and healthy goals unwittingly.
The resolutions we set with renewed energy at the start of the year to drink less soda, eat more vegetables or cook more homemade meals are just as valuable to us today as they were Jan. 1. The space between then and now is filled with thoughts that may or may not help you meet your goals.
Give yourself a perception check-up against common cognitive distortions to help you stay on track with healthy resolutions any time of the year.
The first very common distortion is the all-or-none thinking pattern that does not allow wiggle room for imperfection. It demands you complete all of your goal or give up. Worse, you may not start at all if there is a chance you won’t hit all your targets. This thinking pattern can be seen in the popular diet mentality, “I’ll start Monday.” While progress is graphed at an upward slope, in real life, that slope is wavy. Each healthy choice you make, including with foods, exercise, your thoughts and relationships, is progress and you are better today for trying than to have not tried at all.
Another distorted thought pattern, called global labeling, occurs when we overgeneralize and assign ourselves a limiting label. For example, you may think, “I didn’t play sports as a child, so I’m not athletic.” With this thought in mind, you may prevent yourself from trying new things. As an adult, you are more coordinated, understand better how to learn new things and may enjoy recreating in ways you hadn’t considered before. You may think, I’m a meat and potatoes person, and choose not to branch out and try new foods. This label would prevent you from progressing. Instead, examine the evidence and challenge your labels. It can be invigorating to defy your limiting self-perceptions.
Prophesizing happens when you try to tell the future by predicting the outcome of your goal in a negative way, and then fulfill your prophecy. It might sound like, “Why I am I trying to cook more vegetables for my family? No one has ever eaten them, and they will not eat them.” After predicting failure, you discourage yourself from trying. In reality, each time we try to make a positive change in our lives, the variables are different than the last time, and the outcome is unknown. Instead, focus on the good you have accomplished, and celebrate small victories. Certainly a negative prophecy is no help in achieving a goal.
Minimization occurs when you misconstrue big problems as minor ones. In terms of health, this could be called, “the eat drink and be merry distortion.” You may think, “It doesn’t matter what I eat because I’m going to die anyway. I might as well indulge.” This thinking ignores or minimizes the impact of lifestyle choices on the length and quality of life, which affects you and those you love. Lifestyle choices are not without consequence.
Lastly, arbitrary inference happens when you arrive at a conclusion without examining any evidence. For example, you might think, “I was out of town last weekend and ate out every meal, so I know I gained five pounds” without getting on a scale to check. You may choose to quit exercising and give up on healthy food choices based on an unchecked assumption.
When giving yourself a perception check-up, recognize distorted thinking, check your thoughts against the evidence, correct your thought and move toward progress instead of despair.
Make your next choice a healthy one. The power is in your hands and mind to improve your life.
Erica Hansen is a registered dietitian nutritionist with a masters degree in Nutritional Science from BYU. She works with individuals and businesses to make meaningful and nourishing changes that stick. She owns the website foodsthatfityourlife.com.