It was 97 degrees and the humidity must have been sitting above 90% the entire week. It was the middle of North Carolina in the middle of July 2007, just about six months after the troop surge in Iraq began. I was knee-deep in training for my first combat deployment, and this week’s training had my teammates and I working with elite former special forces operators on skills and marksmanship with our M4 carbine assault rifles and M9 service pistols. 

As a then-22-year-old Sergeant in the Marine Corps, I was THRILLED to be there, firing ammunition until our barrels were red hot, learning from elite warfighters, basking in the bravado that we all carried as young alpha males. October’s deployment could not come soon enough… 

My grandmother didn’t share that same perspective though - and you can rightly imagine that her mind was riddled with fear and anxiety about the same deployment that I was excited about. She was regularly confronted by news headlines like:

  • Suicide Bomber Kills 150 in Iraq
  • Dozens Die in Attack in Kirkuk, Iraq
  • Intelligence Report Shows al-Qaeda Remains Strong

For her, October’s deployment for her grandson, just one of 10 grandchildren she had, was coming too soon and too quickly…

How could my grandmother and I have felt so differently about my deployment to Iraq at the same time?

The obvious response might be: age.

Sure, but age by itself doesn’t inherently mean there will be any change in one’s mindset. Maybe my grandmother always felt that way about war. I surely did not have my heart set on going to Iraq after becoming an adult - actually, I never had any intentions to join the military. 

Digging deeper than age, it’s obvious that, up to that point, my grandmother had lived a life where she was exposed to the news not only of multiple wars / combat engagements over many decades, but she was exposed to all news regarding anything over many decades. Not me, though - at that stage, I didn’t care to read any of the same news that she read. 

My job in the Marine Corps was as an intelligence analyst. I read PLENTY of “news.” My information didn’t come from the major news networks with overhyped headlines, but rather from verified intelligence reports from US and foreign intelligence sources throughout the world. 

I was prepared for Iraq, and was confident that I would come home safely after that deployment. Maybe because I knew the real situation on the ground, specifically in Fallujah, where I would spend those seven months.

My grandmother’s brain ran different scenarios through her mind - likely not dissimilar to the headlines she had been exposed to since the war in Iraq began. 

Cognitive distortion might be a way to explain the disparity in my mindset versus my grandmothers. It's a psychological process that involves negative patterns of thought that aren’t based in fact or reality and can influence your emotions. Cognitive distortions affect everyone to some degree. 

Here are some examples:

  • Catastrophizing: making broad interpretations from single/few events
  • Disqualifying the Positive: only seeing the negative aspects, ignoring the positives
  • Fortune Telling: expecting a situation to only worsen without having supporting evidence

The only thing my grandmother saw was terrible headlines, though this wasn’t the case all over Iraq, nor was it the only thing happening (catastrophizing). All the things she saw in the news were negative - there was no talk of anything positive happening (disqualifying the positive). She seemed to assume the worst outcome - or at least a bad outcome - for me, “fortune telling” around potential negative outcomes from a deployment to Iraq.

Cognitive distortion allows our brains to make shortcuts to thought processes, attempting to make our decisions more efficient to save us time and energy, seemingly in an attempt to steer us away from danger. 

It doesn’t apply only to physical danger, though - our brains do this with everything. 

In looking at the stock markets or real estate markets, cognitive distortion seems to be the only thing running news headlines at times. Here are today’s headlines:

  • Wall St loses over $200 billion in value after report from Amazon
  • The S&P 500 shed over 9% in September as recession fears intensify
  • When will the housing market crash in Florida?

Where do your thoughts go when reading those headlines?

Those three types of cognitive distortions above might materialize mentally as: 

  • “My portfolio is down 22% this year - I’m going to run out of money in 3 years at this rate!” (catastrophizing)
  • “I just got a new promotion, but house prices have been extremely elevated for two years now - I’ll never be able to afford a home!” (disqualifying the positive)
  • “I lost $65,000 in value in my 401k. Now I’ll have to delay my retirement by 6-7 years!” (fortune telling)

It’s important to understand which of our thoughts are based on cognitive distortion, and which are more realistic and reasonable. Realistic and reasonable thoughts on those same examples might sound like:

  • “My portfolio is down 22% this year, but I wasn’t planning to touch it for another 12 years. My advisor reminded me that every downturn in the history of the markets has been followed by new all-time high levels eventually.” 
  • “I just got a new promotion, and my advisor just shared with me an article about home home sales are slowing. I can use this new promotion to ensure I’m ready financially to buy a home when the time comes eventually.”
  • “I lost $65,000 in value in my 401k, but my advisor highlighted that since I’m over age 50, new IRA guidelines will let me contribute $2,000 extra each year, so I will be able to catch up faster than I thought.”

The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence, or so it seems, but it’s quite possible that the grass on your side of the fence isn’t as bad as your brain wants us to think. Are you viewing your financial picture through a lens of cognitive distortion? How reasonable are your thoughts? How realistic are they?

Almost never is it as bad as we think it is, but almost always we have a hard time really understanding that. If you don’t know HOW to think about things, you can work towards clarity with an advisor to define the facts, and assess reasonable and realistic outcomes. 

Your grass is greener than you think, and the grass on the other side of the fence might not be as green as you first thought.