Survivors of complex trauma often see the world as a horrendous place where there is only pain and sorrow. It is very difficult for people like us to step back and see the trees for the forest.

During this season of the year, the thinking patterns of survivors can turn dark as we consider what happened to us and the way our family of origin behaved during the holidays.

To feel better, survivors must change their thinking habits and this article will center on that premise.

What are Cognitive Distortions?

Cognitive distortions are exaggerated patterns of thinking that are not based on fact. Because these thinking patterns are by nature negative, they can lead you to believe and see things as more negative than they truly are.

Cognitive distortions convince you that negative things about your life, world, and self are true when in truth they are not. Another way of stating it is that cognitive distortions can convince your mind to believe negative things about yourself that are not always true.

The way we think greatly impacts how we feel and behave. If you treat the negative thoughts as facts, you will see yourself in that light and act accordingly. Cognitive distortions might include:

“I am no good at anything.”

“I can’t do this.”

“I am doomed to fail”

“I am stupid”

There are four types of cognitive distortions: polarized thinking, catastrophizing, overgeneralizations, and personalization.

Polarized thinking. Also known as black and white thinking, polarized thinking occurs when people are in the habit of always thinking in extremes. You may feel you are either going to be successful or a total failure with no room for any outcome between them. Of course, this type of distortion is unhelpful and unrealistic.

Catastrophizing. This distorted thinking pattern makes people assume the worst when faced with unknown circumstances. People who catastrophize quickly escalate their feelings of doom from ordinary worrying. They may go from considering the fact that a check is in the mail to believing the mail will be late, or worse, the check will never arrive. People who develop catastrophizing cognitive distortions have often developed it in response to having experienced repeated adverse events so that they always fear the worst.

Overgeneralization. This distortion occurs when people reach a conclusion about an event and incorrectly see the conclusion of that event in all other circumstances. For instance, you have a negative experience with another person and develop the thought pattern that you are no good at relationships.

Personalization. In this distorted thinking, you may take events personally when, in reality, they have nothing to do with you. Blaming yourself for circumstances that are not your fault is one example of personalization.

As we shall see, cognitive distortions play a vital role in how we perceive our world and we can change them by acceptance of the past. In this way, we allow ourselves room to make new and wonderful memories.

The Danger of Dwelling in a Traumatic Past

We are all the culmination of our memories as they steer how we react to our present and the future. Humans build their lives on their experiences and those of us who have had traumatic histories are no different. The differences are that those who build on splendid memories do not experience the problems that those who build their lives on traumatic memories do.


There are many dangers to dwelling on a trauma-filled past, as it is incredibly difficult to make a better future if one is a prisoner of terrible memories.

One of the dangers of dwelling on a traumatic past is that we tend to “should” on ourselves. We spend much time and energy thinking of all the things we should have said or done. We say to ourselves we should have said that or done this when we were doing the best we could at the time with what we knew.

Constantly living in the memories of the past and allowing them to control how we feel and behave is a tragic thing to do to ourselves. This trap of the mind can only be escaped if we learn that the trap exists and then find ways to get out of dwelling on old events.

Building a Better Future and Making Good Memories

Now that we have discussed what distorted thinking is and the dangers of living in the past, we can begin a new discourse on building a quality present and future by making happy memories.

There are many things one can do to improve their lives and make good memories and one of them is to build a positive mindset. This mindset means meeting the challenges of living in today by purposefully approaching them with a positive outlook. Positive thinking doesn’t mean you forget the pain of the past; indeed, it honors it. Thinking positively helps you cope better with stress and sets you up for making new memories that overshadow the bad ones.

When I say positive thoughts, I am not saying to go through life faking positivity. False positivity is harmful and hides the pain you are feeling behind a façade of smiles when you feel rotten. True positivity builds up it does not tear down. Below are a few tips you might use to increase your positivity.

  • Focus on the present moment and do not allow yourself to be dragged down by cognitive distortions, worries, and overthinking
  • Begin each day with positive affirmations. Find some affirmations on the internet and repeat them 3-5 times as you go through your day. Some examples might be as follows.

“I am positive”

“I am going to have a positive day”

“I am grateful for all that I have”

“I am calm, patient, and at peace

  • Reframe your experiences as strength-building experiences. Although some will be triggered by this statement because they do not want to make the bad that happened to them have any credit or be called good. I get that, I understand. But I have found in my own life that reframing what occurred in my traumatic past is something that didn’t break me but made me stronger extremely helpful when moving into the future.

The simple act of savoring today can help you build new memories. Enjoy and luxuriate in the small things in life that make you feel good. Marvel at the feeling of awe you have at the life around you. Bask in the pride you feel for how far you have come and for having survived.

Once you are in the mood, to make new memories start by doing things that you enjoy either alone or with a friend or family member that stimulate all five senses. For instance, bake cookies and pay attention to how they smell, the sounds of laughter about you, and how they taste when they are done. Once you do this, your brain has made an episodic memory that will return every time you smell cookies or eat one. When those memories do return they will be vivid and make you feel you are back there again.

Another thing to do to build and remember good memories is to add emotion into the mix so that, following the scenario above, you can remember how good it felt to be with family or friends.

In essence, to build better memories today that will last and make you feel good in the future, build into your events of the present as many triggers as you can so they will pop up at a later date and make you smile.

Ending Our Time Together

We have learned in this article about cognitive distortions and how they can hamper our making good memories today and affect our behaviors tomorrow. We have also touched briefly on how destructive dwelling on the past can be to our future.

However, I would like to leave you with the following takeaway thought.

I wish you to understand that it is okay to attend to bad memories, it is healthy and normal. However, living forever in the past traps you in a life that no one would want to live. Breaking free from stinking thinking takes effort. One must recognize it when it occurs and take steps, such as repeating positive affirmations, to escape.

I wish to add a personal note to the end of this post.

Christmas and other holidays are difficult for many of us because we are labored by the occurrences in our histories. I too have had difficulties but these past few years I have broken free from the negativity that haunted me. I finally realized that Christmas and other holidays are what I make them. Just as Abraham Lincoln once quipped, “Most folks are about as happy as they make up their minds to be.”

I wish to invite you to join me in making a Christmas full of new memories of peace and love if not for others, then for ourselves.

Merry Christmas! Shirley

“I have a simple philosophy: Fill what’s empty. Empty what’s full. Scratch where it itches.” – Alice Roosevelt Longworth

“We must each lead a way of life with self-awareness and compassion, to do as much as we can. Then, whatever happens, we will have no regrets.” – Dalai Lama


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