Healing Resources for Child Sexual Abuse Survivors:Challenging Cognitive Distortions
What Are Cognitive Distortions?
Everyone’s thought processes take mental shortcuts from time to time. For example, you may predict the length of your commute based on what traffic was like yesterday. Sometimes, however, these shortcuts are unhelpful and do not always reflect reality. A cognitive distortion is a mental shortcut our minds take that is rooted in feelings of shame, judgment, and self-blame. Such shame-based mental shortcuts are especially common among survivors of child sexual abuse.
An example of a shame-based shortcut might be:
Situation: You have a headache.
Thought: “I am so incapable of coping with life that even the smallest things give me a headache. I shouldn’t even try to function as an adult.”
Ultimately, cognitive distortions (sometimes referred to as “thinking errors”) often reinforce the shame that a survivor is already feeling, rather than providing a different, more compassionate perspective.
Cognitive Distortions Commonly Experienced by Child Sexual Abuse Survivors
Recognizing the mental shortcuts you take can help you evaluate if they are actually helpful or not. Here are five types of cognitive distortions that many survivors of child sexual abuse commonly experience:
Thinking in Extremes.
This includes seeing things in black-and-white terms, with no in between, as well as exaggerating our idea of what is happening.
- “It’s impossible for me to connect with anyone.”
- “I’m always alone and I never get to do things with friends.”
Stuck in a Single Event.
Taking one instance and expecting all current and future situations to be similar to that single instance.
- “It was really hard to share my story, and the person I just disclosed my abuse to responded cruelly. I shouldn’t tell anyone about my abuse because they will have the same reaction.”
Filtering out the Positive.
Acknowledging positive experiences but then rejecting them as meaningless or exceptional.
- “I didn’t experience any setbacks today, but that’s probably just a fluke.”
- “I received good feedback on my project, but it’s only because they didn’t read it closely enough to see all my mistakes.”
Jumping to Conclusions.
Making assumptions about the future or about what other people are thinking based on your current emotions, past experiences, or small bits of information.
- “My friend hasn’t been supportive in the past, so she probably won’t be supportive in the future.”
- “Others see me as damaged.”
Making It Personal.
Assigning blame to yourself or assuming the situation hinges on your actions rather than other circumstances.
- “She seemed upset. It must be something I said.”
- “They changed that policy. It was probably because I was late two months ago.”
How to Challenge Cognitive Distortions
Once you identify a cognitive distortion you may be having, you can challenge that thought with several questions. These questions can help you analyze a shame-based thought as well as provide alternate ways of looking at the situation that brought about the thought.
Below is an example of a cognitive distortion, the questions you might pose to challenge it, and possible answers to those questions.
Thought: “I’ll never be able to trust anyone.”
Cognitive Distortion(s): Black-and-white thinking, jumping to conclusions
- Do I know for certain that I will never be able to trust anyone?
- “No, I guess not.”
- Am I 100% certain of the consequences?
- “Well, not 100%, no. I’m not 100% certain of most things.”
- What is the evidence of this fear or belief?
- “I’ve been hurt, betrayed, and abused in the past. People are capable of terrible things. And I just can’t be entirely sure that someone won’t try to hurt me again.”
- What is the evidence against this fear or belief?
- “There are a couple people in my life who have generally been there when I needed them. They have said before that they care about me and their actions show it.”
- How can I be sure I know the answer? Do I have a crystal ball?
- “It feels like I know what’s going to happen based on the past, but I guess I don’t actually know what will happen. I guess maybe I’m not completely as sure as it feels.”
- Is it possible the opposite could happen? What would be the outcome if that occurred?
- “I could decide to trust someone, and they don’t treat me the way I’ve been treated in the past. We could build a healthy, strong relationship that supports us both.”
- Is my negative prediction driven by the intense emotions I’m experiencing?
- “Yes. I’m currently experiencing anxiety, fear, and distrust—and annoyance at my anxiety, fear, and distrust.”
- What is the worst thing that could happen? What could I do to cope if it did?
- “I decide to trust someone, and they let me down. It would be painful, even heartbreaking. I would probably cry a lot, talk to my therapist, and write about it in my journal before burning the pages. I could probably get through it though. I mean, I have before.”
- If someone I cared about had this problem, what would I tell them?
- “I’d probably tell them that they deserve to have healthy relationships and feel close to others. I’d tell them that if they’re really that anxious, they can take their relationships one step at a time, at a pace that’s comfortable for them. I would also tell them to be patient with themselves and remember to take care of themselves first.”
Be Patient and Self-Compassionate
Identifying the mental shortcuts your mind sometimes lends itself toward, as well as how those shortcuts may be reinforcing shame, is a long-term process. But if you start by recognizing certain shame-based thoughts you experience now and challenging those thoughts with the questions above, it will become easier to identify your cognitive distortions in the future. It will also begin to feel more natural to view the world from a different angle—rather than from a lens of shame—and to allow space for additional self-compassion, context, and understanding. We encourage you to apply this activity, along with other self-compassion techniques, with patience and curiosity.
As you identify and challenge your cognitive distortions, you are practicing:
- Acknowledgement by recognizing the shame-based thoughts you are experiencing and how those thoughts may be impacting your perception, emotions, and behaviors.
- Mindfulness by observing your thoughts with curiosity, sympathy, and self-compassion.
- Aspiration by working to build the skill of reframing your thoughts in order to help manage shame you may experience in the future.