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What to Know About the Spiral Dance of Cognitive Distortions

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“I’ve been thinking too much (help me).” 

-Twenty One Pilots

I’m a bad friend. Wait, maybe I should phrase that in a way that is nonjudgmental. I feel like I’m a bad friend. I’m what you would call an absent friend. I’m there, behind the scenes. I’m not on the front lines, going out every day for coffee with others. I’m not out at the club or the house parties, drinking and smoking. I’m at home, in my bubble of safety. I’m safe in my bubble. I’m the friend you text when you need to vent, when you need to get it out and you don’t want people knowing what you’re going through. I’m the friend who texts you to make sure you got home safe. I’m the friend who reaches out to others who are struggling, depressed or suicidal. I’m the friend who checks up on you, and wishes you a happy day.

I’m also the same friend who cancels plans last minute. I’m the friend who is absent from the baby showers, bridal showers and birthday parties. This is the part where I feel like a bad friend comes in, and it messes with me. I don’t want to miss out on all the milestones in my friends’ lives; in fact, it’s quite the opposite. I want to be there and cheer you on in life, and celebrate with you. I want to be there for you throughout your highs and lows, and plateaus.

So what is stopping me? Myself. I am the barrier. I get so stuck in my own head, overthinking and over-feeling everything to the point where I make myself sick. Some call it anxiety; I call it, “The Dark Spiral.” You don’t want to be a dark spiral dancer, it’s not fun. It starts with doing a menial task as these nagging thoughts, like reminders, flood your brain. Then the overthinking and over-analyzing begins, and takes over, leading to over-feeling. Then, it spirals downward, leading to catastrophizing and full-blown panic. At least with me, anyways.

I could be getting ready to head out and I can’t find an outfit that fits me just right, or I can’t apply my makeup evenly. Maybe I’m lagging behind and have yet to shower and get ready. It doesn’t matter, the dark spiral beckons me. It calls to me. I’ll become flustered and upset for being so silly, and admonish myself. That, right there. That’s like a trigger for the dark spiral. You get into that negative mindset, and it has this massive snowball effect on your outlook. I’ll continue getting ready, and these intrusive thoughts will attack me with such ferocity it will reduce me to tears.

“What’s the point in going? Nobody there likes you anyways.”

“You’ll just sit by yourself and not talk to anyone.”


“They won’t even notice you’re there.”

These thoughts eat away at my confidence, and deflate my self-esteem. I begin to question myself, wondering if my thoughts are, in fact, intuition. I start thinking back, trying to remember every, single interaction I’ve had with friends and acquaintances. Of course, the embarrassing and mortifying memories take front and center stage. I’m gripped with so many emotions from past recollections, it’s dizzying. Down I go, into the dark spiral.

But it doesn’t stop there. Oh no, it goes further. Panic sets in, I can feel myself slipping into the darkness, but I don’t know how to stop it. I continue ruminating on past interactions and get-togethers, compiling a mental checklist of the reasons why I am a bad friend and bad person in general. I’m no longer productive and getting ready, I’m reduced to tears, and hyperventilating. I’m my own worst enemy.

It doesn’t have to be like that, though. I can fight this. What exactly am I up against? Cognitive distortions. They’re patterns of thinking and believing things that are inaccurate or false, and have a potential to cause psychological damage. What I described in the dark spiral are various types of cognitive distortions. Polarized thinking, overgeneralization, mental filter, mind reading and catastrophizing all are forms of cognitive distortions. Let me explain.

  • Polarized thinking: Also known as black-and-white thinking, this distortion manifests as thinking in extremes, all good or all bad. I did this and this, so I must be a horrible friend. I don’t see in shades of grey, but in black or white.
  • Overgeneralization: Basically, you take one instance and overgeneralize it to an overall pattern. I canceled plans with a friend, so I think I’m a horrible friend. This kind of thinking can lead to overly negative thoughts about yourself and your environment, based on only one or two experiences.
  • Mental filter: This is similar to overgeneralization; however, with the mental filter you focus on a single negative and exclude all of the positives. I didn’t attend a birthday party, so I’m a horrible friend, even though I’ve been there for my friend through distressing times. All the good is erased and replaced by a single negative. This mental filter can foster a negative outlook of everything around you.
  • Mind reading: A form of “jumping to conclusions,” this cognitive distortion manifests as the inaccurate belief one person knows what another person is thinking. Seeing people around me whisper, I’ll jump to the conclusion they must be talking about me. We may have an idea of what people are thinking or feeling, but with this distortion we assume that we know what they’re thinking.
  • Fortune telling: Another form of “jumping to conclusions,” this distortion is when you predict or make assumptions based on little to no evidence and you hold onto it as truth. “If I go out, I’m going to make an ass of myself in front of everyone.”
  • Catastrophizing: This distortion is stealthy. It skews your perception in a way that involves either the minimization or exaggeration of importance or meaning of things. I made a mistake, that mistake must mean I’m a failure in life. On the flip side, where minimization occurs, you could do something really nice for a friend and discredit yourself because it was something “menial.”
  • Personalization: This distortion is a little self-explanatory. It’s when you take everything personally, or when you blame yourself for something, for no logical reason. My friend is having a bad day, so it must have been something I said or did.

So, how does one avoid the dark spiral dance? I’m not sure, to be honest. I don’t know if there is a way to avoid it, but perhaps we can be aware of it and on the lookout for it. My husband is my biggest support — he catches me when I start to go down that path of thinking. “You’re starting the dark spiral, babe.”

You know what I do when he tells me that? I reassure myself. I am a good person. I am a good friend. Everyone has good days and bad days. Nobody is perfect. It’s OK to cancel plans. It’s OK if you’re running late — better late than never. Those kinds of thoughts keep me from the edge of the dark spiral. Being aware of the cognitive distortions, and being mindful of my thoughts, help me avoid the dark spiral dance.

Am I a bad friend? Probably not. Will I ever stop the dark spiral dance? Also, probably not. But hey, I now know where the thoughts come from, and knowing is half the battle.

Getty image by francescoch

Originally published: October 29, 2019
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