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Ringing in the New Year Without Your Old Cognitive Distortions

by Kate Clemmer, LCSW-C

Now that the winter holidays have passed by and our thoughts turn to this new year, it can be an exciting time to reflect on 2021 or to make a fresh start in areas of life that could use some extra attention: friends, family, self-care, school or work. Unfortunately, the changing of the calendar year (and the co-occurring mass marketing of New Year’s resolutions) can also stimulate increased cognitive distortions. 

Cognitive distortions are defined as a pattern of thinking or “self-talk” that consistently shifts life events into a negative framework. 

There are different types of cognitive distortions including “all-or-nothing” thoughts that force experiences, relationships and feelings into categorical extremes of all good or all bad. There’s also “filtering” in which a person’s thoughts magnify negative aspects of a situation while simultaneously ignoring important positive information. Many people deal with cognitive distortions occasionally but some people, including those with eating disorders, depression or anxiety, may struggle with more frequent or more intense negative thoughts. The danger lies not with the distorted thought in and of itself but in one’s tendency to believe that the thought is 100% true when it is not.

Holiday advertisements and New Year’s promotions tend to add fuel to the cognitive distortion fire, strengthening one’s belief that false and negative thoughts are actually reality.

Three types of distortions stand out in the holiday media frenzy:

1. Shoulds, Should nots & Have-tos

Based on Christmas catalogs and holiday specials, the list of holiday “have-tos” is endless: I have to decorate my house like Martha Stewart; I have to find the perfect gift for everyone on my list; I have to fit into that dress I bought three years ago. The arrival of a holiday often brings with it even more pressure: I shouldn’t eat that dessert; I should go to every event I’m invited to or people will be upset with me.

2. Jumping to conclusions & Comparisons

Assuming you know exactly how other people are thinking and feeling, or creating assumptions about someone else’s life from limited observations, can make it difficult to focus on yourself in any positive way. Have you ever received a pristine holiday card in the mail only to fantasize about that person’s supposedly perfect life while putting yourself down for not measuring up? Just because he/she is in one picture with a spouse and three children in matching holiday outfits doesn’t mean they necessarily have a blissful marriage, are happy at their jobs, or that they have never struggled with health, mental health or addiction problems. It is important not to compare yourself to a one-second snapshot of someone else’s life.

3. Magical Thinking

New Year’s weight-loss resolutions are the ultimate cognitive distortions when it comes to magical thinking. Pick up any magazine, listen to any commercial and peruse any social network to find businesses, entire industries or even family and friends touting the message that weight loss equals happiness and fulfillment. This is usually financially motivated.

Remember that the weight loss industry (and many others) zero in on the things people are looking for most out of life and repeatedly pair them with weight loss when marketing their products. They know that people will pay money if they think there’s a magical road to happiness, friends, confidence and success.

If you find yourself thinking that fitting into a particular size or changing your body in some way will “fix” everything that you think is wrong in your life or change who you are, take a step back.

Not only does the research show that chronic dieters are more likely to be depressed, but dieting itself has been linked to weight gain and increased risk for disordered eating behaviors.

This year, if you’re tempted to make a New Year’s resolution, you may want to assess your options. First make sure your goals are not the result of “shoulds” or “have-tos” generated by external sources like the media or even family and friends. Then, consider starting off your resolutions with something more focused on creating positive moments in your life during 2021.

Here are a couple possibilities:

  1. “This year, I think I would find fulfillment in…”
  2. “This year, I would really enjoy…”
  3. “I’ve been wanting to spend more time with…"

Finally, turn off the TV and put away your fashion magazines or anything else that tempts you to compare yourself to other people or seek happiness through the shape or size of your body. This year, allow your focus to be on building yourself up emotionally, putting a stop to harmful cognitive distortions, and establishing self-acceptance in the present moment, in the present body.


If you or someone you know is in need of support for an eating disorder, learn more about our eating disorder treatment programs.


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