Cognitive Distortions and the Five Hindrances (Post 1)

(This is the first in a series of unknown length on my thoughts on Buddhism’s Five Hindrances and their relationship to the concept in psychotherapy of Cognitive Distortions.)

I was first introduced to the psychological concept of cognitive distortions by Maria. Per the linked Wikipedia article, cognitive distortions are thought processes that “maintain negative thinking and … emotions”. Learning to refute them is termed “cognitive restructuring”.

On reading Maria’s old post, I was immediately reminded of Buddhism, and had in fact just listened to a series of podcasts on the “Five Hindrances”. However, there is no simple mapping between cognitive distortions and the hindrances. I’m tempted to try to make a Venn diagram on the relationship between the two sets.

My readings so far in Mind Over Mood have reaffirmed my suspicion that the two concepts are inter-related. Take, for example, this statement from the book’s introduction:

Mind over Mood teaches you to identify your thoughts, moods, behaviors, and physical reactions in small situations as well as during major events in your life … you learn how to make changes in your life when your thoughts are alerting you to problems that need to be solved.

The major function for me of meditation has been to find a baseline. Our thoughts build up during the day like layers as we work on something, are interrupted, hear interesting news, spontaneously think of things that were bugging us days ago. Sometimes we follow a train of thought for a while, based mostly on assumptions. Gil Fronsdal calls these bits of imagination ‘stories’. We create stories, often about the intentions of others, build up long conversations in our heads imagining confrontations and how other people in our life will react to what we say. Aside from getting lost daydreaming these stories, we tend to accumulate feelings about our imagined conversations and conversation partners, even though the conversations have never occurred. Gil usually calls the state we arrive in after this as being ‘caught’.

Here are some examples from of people building stories in their minds:

She’s tired of working at the coffee shop. She expected so much more for herself.

Her mother is a real estate agent, hawking million-dollar homes to the contemporary gentry. Her father is a entertainment lawyer. Her older sister manages her own ballet studio. Her younger brother designs computer games for a major software corporation.

And then there’s her. A barista at a small coffee shop. Between a tall Americano and double-shot espresso, her mind wanders—

I’m the failure of the family. They were embarrassed to talk about me at the wedding; everyone else is so successful and then there’s me, the coffee girl. I hate spending time with my family. I’m trying the best that I can to get back on my feet, but they will never understand. They’re too busy with the expensive details of their lives—

She calls out, “Tall Americano!” and offers a warm smile to the elderly woman who approaches the counter to pick up the steaming beverage.

(From The Things That We Hide)

A man walked past her on the sidewalk. His dark eyes darted to her face before snapping back to an invisible point in the distant horizon.

She saw his surreptitious glance.

He thinks I’m hot, she thought to herself. He wants to ask me out, I know it.

Her stiletto heels clicked loudly against the concrete catwalk and, after he passed her, she swiveled her hips with more panache to offer him a teasing view of her backside.

They all look back—what’s there not to like?

With a gentle toss of her head, her long hair floated over her shoulder and landed softly on her back, revealing more of her voluptuous figure. Throwing her shoulders back and pushing her chest out, she continued to sashay along the sidewalk while the crowd parted around her.

I’m so gorgeous that everyone wants to look at my delicious body.

(From Perception Spectrum.)

The interesting thing about the Perception Spectrum post is that it contains several other examples of stories that could be built from the same situation. I suggest you read the whole post and think about how the stories are being built based on assumptions.

In order to extricate ourselves from the state of being ‘caught’ in our stories, it’s helpful to understand how we feel when we are not caught. Meditation gives us practice at identifying our ‘stories’ (complexes of distortions?) in a controlled environment. Having practiced in a controlled environment, we find it easier to identify story-building that occurs during our daily lives.

Can you think of an instance in which you built up a story and later found it to be far from reality?