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Fortune telling as a cognitive distortion is very different to when a fortune teller tries to predict the future using astrology or by reading your palms. Instead, fortune telling as a cognitive distortion involves distorted patterns of thought that cause you to predict negative outcomes and fixate on the perceived likelihood that this negative outcome is likely to occur.
Although many people negatively predict future outcomes on an occasional basis, fortune telling as a cognitive distortion involves regularly predicted negative outcomes. This type of thinking can have a significant impact on your life and your mental and emotional well-being.
What is fortune telling as a cognitive distortion?
Fortune telling is a type of cognitive distortion where a person predicts negative outcomes and catastrophes without actually considering the likelihood of that outcome occurring. Many people with this type of cognitive distortion will focus on the worst-case scenario and the what-ifs. Constantly anticipating the worst-case scenario can lead to anxiety, stress and a distorted perception of reality.
A cognitive distortion is a negative pattern of thought that gives you an inaccurate perception of reality. Cognitive distortions can develop as a coping mechanism and usually develop over time until they become interconnected with your beliefs, thoughts, emotions and behaviours. Fortune telling is one of the most common types of cognitive distortions.
To function in day-to-day life, everyone has to make predictions. For example, you may predict that if you don’t hurry up, you are going to miss the train, or if you eat yoghurt after its ‘use by’ date, you will get sick. Being able to predict the future and think about consequences is a necessary skill. However, if every future scenario or prediction has a negative outcome in your mind, this becomes problematic.
Being able to predict the future becomes a cognitive distortion when we begin to consistently predict negative outcomes with no sound reasoning. Although some level of negative bias is normal – where your brain focuses on the negative rather than the positive – someone who engages in fortune telling will consistently focus on negative future predictions.
When negative thoughts become your default pattern of thinking, cognitive distortions can be damaging. They become a habitual way of thinking and coping with difficult situations. Habitual negative thinking causes your mind to adapt to these negative patterns of thought and adopt them as an accepted part of your life.
Examples of fortune telling cognitive distortions include:
- Presuming something will end badly for you.
- Thinking you are in danger.
- Thinking you will fail.
- Catastrophising possibilities.
- Predicting you will feel a specific way (e.g. stressed or anxious) without really knowing how you will feel.
Fortune telling is often not based on educated guesses, knowledge or evidence; instead, it is an assumption that the future outcome will be negative with no real evidence. In many cases, there is some possibility that a negative outcome could occur. However, the odds of this negative outcome will be significantly lower than you believe – you are catastrophising the likelihood of a negative outcome.
When you focus on negative outcomes, this is your brain’s way of trying to protect you, either by giving you the opportunity to prevent them from happening or by preventing you from experiencing negative emotions if they do occur. Someone who engages in fortune telling will be convinced they know what the outcome of a situation will be without having all of the information.
Examples of fortune telling as a cognitive distortion
Fortune telling as a cognitive distortion can take many forms, including:
This involves thinking negative outcomes will be much worse than they actually will be. People who catastrophise usually jump to the worst possible conclusion. They will fixate on the worst possible outcome and believe that is very likely or definitely going to happen. Examples of catastrophising include:
- I have a headache so I must have a brain tumour.
- My partner is late home, they were in a car crash.
- I have a missed call from work, I’m going to be sacked and I’ll have to give up my house and I’ll end up homeless.
This type of fortune telling causes you to generalise one outcome to every similar situation. One or two events or outcomes will cause you to assume that every situation will end with the same negative result. For example, if a past friend decided they didn’t want to be part of your life anymore, you will then believe that every friend will do the same. You will then search for signs and evidence that the same thing is happening again. You may not feel secure in your relationships because you have generalised your past experience with one friend to all your other relationships.
Other examples of overgeneralising include:
- A baby cries when you hold them, so you aren’t good with babies and all babies dislike you.
- You fell over wearing high heels and embarrassed yourself so you can never wear them again or the same thing will happen.
- Your parents were divorced so there’s no point getting married because it will end in divorce.
Emotional reasoning is when you assume a negative outcome based on the emotions you are feeling. For example, if you are feeling nervous about something, you assume your nerves mean something bad is going to happen. You may then change your behaviour and avoid situations because of the emotions you are feeling.
Examples of emotional reasoning include:
- I feel nervous before my flight so the plane will crash.
- I feel stressed about the meeting with my boss which means they’re going to fire me.
- I am worried about the weather on my birthday so that means it’s going to rain.
- I feel nervous about catching Covid-19 so I won’t leave the house otherwise I will catch it.
Mind reading is when you assume other people have negative thoughts and intentions with no real evidence. Mindreading can lead to misunderstandings and miscommunications and can result in actual negative outcomes.
Examples of mind reading include:
- Your partner is quieter than usual, so you instantly think they are unhappy and predict they are going to end your relationship.
- Somebody is angry on the train, so they’re going to start attacking people.
- Your boss looks at you, so they must be thinking of the best way to tell you that you’re demoted.
This involves thinking that anything but perfection is a failure. People who are perfectionists may then consistently think they are going to fail, or an outcome will be negative because they have set unrealistic expectations for themselves.
Examples of perfectionism include:
- I’m not going to get an A in the exam so there’s no point doing it.
- I want to do a marathon, but I won’t run it fast enough so I’m not going to do it.
- I won’t be able to be the perfect parent so my children will hate me.
This occurs when a situation or prediction is over-simplified, which results in negative predictions and distorted patterns of thought.
Examples of binary thinking include:
- If I go on this date and it doesn’t work out, I’ll be alone forever.
- If I don’t get this promotion, I’ll be stuck in this job for the rest of my life and I’ll always be unhappy.
Exaggerating the consequences of a behaviour or decision and presuming a significantly worse outcome than is realistic is another form of fortune telling.
Examples of exaggerating consequences include:
- If I miss a session with my personal trainer, they’ll fire me as a client, I’ll lose my membership at the gym, and I’ll put on a lot of weight.
- If I slip on the ice, I might break my neck and end up paralysed.
What are the impacts of fortune telling as a cognitive distortion?
Consistently focusing on negative outcomes can have multiple implications on many aspects of your life, including:
Believing that something bad is going to happen can change your behaviour, causing you to act in a way that you wouldn’t have without the negative thoughts and beliefs. These behavioural changes can cause the predicted outcome to become a reality. For example, thinking you are going to fail an exam can cause you to be stressed and anxious, you may find it overwhelming to look at your revision material and may lose sleep. You may then be unable to concentrate on your exam and may subsequently fail. Your negative prediction and the associated thoughts, emotions and behaviour caused your prediction to come true. Self-fulfilling prophecies can be a major consequence of fortune telling.
Mental health implications
Experiencing negative emotions, such as stress, anxiety and feelings of hopelessness or despair based on something that hasn’t happened yet, can have a negative effect on your mental health. Fortune telling can result in you experiencing negative emotions unnecessarily and for a prolonged period of time. You may feel constantly on edge and may develop chronic stress or anxiety. Being in a state of heightened emotion can impact your mental well-being and your overall mental health.
Impact your decision-making
Fortune telling can also result in you avoiding situations or refusing to make decisions if there is any potential for a negative outcome occurring. You may make decisions based on your negative prediction, rather than on facts and rational thought. This can affect many areas of your life, for example you may never seek professional opportunities such as promotions and new jobs because you think you will fail.
Impact your relationships
Fortune telling can also impact your relationships. You may predict negative outcomes in your romantic relationships and friendships, such as thinking your partner will cheat on you or your friends will grow to hate you. You may begin to treat people in your life differently because of your distorted thinking and start to make choices based on your negative prediction, rather than actual events.
Lack of enjoyment in the present
Constantly worrying about the future and focusing on what might happen can stop you from enjoying the present situation. You may be constantly on high alert, worrying about what will happen next and focusing on what could possibly go wrong.
Factors that affect fortune telling as a cognitive distortion
There are multiple factors that can affect fortune telling and can cause you to develop irrational thoughts and beliefs about the future. These can include:
Confirmation bias occurs when you advertently or inadvertently look for and favour information that confirms your beliefs. This can cause you to remember times when things went badly for you or when your negative predictions came true. It can also cause you to ignore things that don’t support your predictions.
Past negative events
Previous negative events, including past failures or traumatic events, can cause you to dread experiencing something similar in the future. This can be particularly likely to happen if previous negative experiences occurred unexpectedly. You may begin practising fortune telling to help you anticipate and prepare for future negative events.
Existing mental health difficulties
Someone who has existing mental health difficulties, particularly anxiety, chronic stress or depression, may be more likely to catastrophise or predict negative outcomes. Getting into the habit of thinking about the future negatively can result in distorted thinking and chronic fortune telling. Although there is no evidence that mental health conditions directly cause distorted thinking, a relationship seems to exist between the two.
People with certain personality traits may be more susceptible to engaging in fortune telling. In particular, people with the perfectionist personality trait are driven to avoid failure and are quick to find fault in themselves and overlook their successes. Because someone with perfectionist tendencies is more likely to fear failure, they may anticipate and over-prepare for the potential failure as a form of self-protection. This can result in them constantly predicting negative outcomes.
Someone with low self-esteem is more susceptible to fortune telling as a cognitive distortion because they are likely to focus on their perceived lack of skill or knowledge and think of themselves as a failure. They may think people are more likely to reject them, they aren’t going to succeed, or something is going to end badly for them. Prolonged negative thinking can develop into chronic fortune telling.
Ways to manage and overcome fortune telling as a cognitive distortion
There are many different strategies you can implement to help you overcome fortune telling as a cognitive distortion. Some strategies are most effective when you implement them long term, meaning you engage in them regularly on a long-term basis, for example you can incorporate them into your daily or weekly routine. Other strategies will be most effective when you engage in them when faced with distorted thinking or a situation that is likely to trigger negative predictions.
Some strategies to help you overcome fortune telling as a cognitive distortion include:
Identifying and acknowledging your ‘fortune telling’ thoughts can help you to recognise patterns in your thinking. It can be helpful to write down these thoughts, what you think is causing them and how it makes you feel. Consider what it is about these situations that triggers your distorted thinking and try and identify the thoughts, feelings and beliefs that are causing you to think about the future in a negative way.
Focus on improving your thought processes
If you experience cognitive distortion and your future predictions are predominantly negative, focus on ways to improve your thought processes.
Some things you can think about include:
- What knowledge or evidence underpins your thinking?
- Would this evidence be convincing if you told it to someone else?
- Is there a benefit to your negative prediction? What is the function of your thinking? For example, will thinking you are going to fail your exam actually stop that from happening?
- If you asked someone else, would they agree with your thinking?
- What is your accuracy record with previous negative predictions? Have there been times when your predictions have been wrong?
- What are the possible positive outcomes?
- How can you turn your negative prediction into a positive outcome?
Starting to think of failure as an opportunity to learn and not something to be anticipated or feared can be beneficial in helping you avoid negative predictions.
Build your self-esteem
Building your self-confidence and self-esteem can help to reduce the likelihood of you thinking of the future in a negative way. Improved self-confidence and self-esteem can help you stop thinking of yourself as a failure and stop thinking that something is going to go wrong.
Some ways you can build your self-esteem include:
- Practise self-acceptance.
- Challenge negative thoughts.
- Recognise what you are good at.
- Build positive relationships.
- Celebrate your achievements.
- Avoid comparing yourself with others.
Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT)
Cognitive behaviour therapy can help you to adjust your negative thinking. It can help you to recognise harmful thoughts and to create healthier thought patterns. Someone who engages in fortune telling as a cognitive distortion may automatically experience negative thoughts, feelings and associated behaviours when thinking about a future event. CBT can teach you how to identify your negative beliefs and patterns of thought and unlearn distorted thinking patterns and replace them with more positive thoughts, feelings and predictions. CBT can also help you to identify the root cause of your distorted thinking and learn coping and calming strategies.
Implement relaxation techniques
Stress reduction and relaxation techniques can be beneficial for alleviating stress and anxiety. They can be helpful for people who already experience chronic stress or anxiety and for those whose distorted patterns of thinking are causing them to experience stress and anxiety. Relaxation techniques can reduce the occurrence of negative thoughts, feelings and beliefs.
Some recommended relaxation techniques include:
- Deep breathing exercises: Deep breathing can reduce your stress levels and feelings of anxiety. Deep breathing encourages your brain to relax, which can effectively reduce your stress levels, relieve tension in your body, and reduce your anxiety on both a short-term and long-term basis. If you experience negative thoughts and feelings, practise deep breathing for at least 10 minutes, or until your negative thoughts dissipate. Deep breathing exercises can also be incorporated into your daily routine.
- Practise mindfulness: Mindfulness helps you learn how to accept your negative thoughts and feelings and overcome your fear and anxiety. Mindfulness helps you focus on your breathing and attention, which can reduce your stress and anxiety. It also teaches you how to be more in control of the connection between your mind and body.
- Practise meditation: Meditation can be helpful in teaching you how to control your breathing and manage your body’s responses to stress and anxiety. It can also help you to direct your attention away from any disruptive thoughts and negative predictions. Meditation can help your physical and mental relaxation and reduce your cortisol levels, which are associated with heightened stress.
How does fortune telling as a cognitive distortion differ from fortune telling?
When many people think of fortune telling they think of the art of divination where a fortune teller makes predictions about your life. Fortune telling as a practice of predicting future events has been practised for thousands of years.
Traditional fortune telling can include:
- Tarot Card Reading: Tarot reading is a type of fortune telling that uses a special pack of cards, known as tarot cards. The fortune teller can perform a tarot reading for themself or for other people to gain insight into the past, present and future. The specific layout of the tarot cards, the cards’ relationships with each other and the question that is posed can all impact the meaning of the reading.
- Palmistry: Palmistry, commonly referred to as palm reading, is a type of fortune telling that involves analysing the physical features of the palm of the hand (usually on the dominant hand), including the lines, the mounts and any shapes or markings. It allows the reader to learn more about the seeker’s personality, emotions and potential future events. Palmistry is an ancient practice that is rooted in many different cultures and civilisations.
- Astrology: The practice of astrology studies the positions and movements of the celestial bodies, including planets and stars, at the time of your birth. This information is used to look at your life and personality traits. An astrologer creates a birth chart (sometimes called a horoscope) that looks at the precise time, date and place of your birth and the positions and movements of the planets, the sun, the moon and other celestial bodies at that time. Astrology has been practised for thousands of years by ancient civilisations.
- Numerology: Numerology concerns the divine relationship between numbers and specific events or things. Numerologists believe that numbers exert an energetic influence on aspects of your life and have intrinsic qualities and vibrations that can reveal information about the seeker and their life and can influence life events. A numerologist can create a numerology chart using the seeker’s date of birth and birth name and assign numbers to letters, allowing them to discover personality traits, life paths and future predictions.
However, fortune telling as a cognitive distortion doesn’t involve any of the above practices and isn’t rooted in cultural or spiritual beliefs. Instead, it involves irrational patterns of thought and cognitive distortions that are negative and can have a negative impact on your life.