Cognitive Distortions

Types of Cognitive Distortions

DenaOctober 5, 2022

Cognitive Distortions

In my last post about anxiety, I shared a cognitive behavior therapy Thought Tracking Sheet. If you suffer from anxiety, this sheet can change your life. By tracking our thoughts and learning how to observe them and change them with the sheet, we can develop a habit that will eventually lead to automatic thought changes and less anxiety. Today we are going to talk about cognitive distortions.

What are cognitive distortions?

In the previous post, I talked about the two types of thoughts: Negative, Irrational Thoughts (which are the ones that cause anxiety) and Positive, Rational Thoughts (which are the ones that we are aiming for, and which lessen anxiety). Ideally, most of our thoughts would be positive and rational. If this were the case, anxiety wouldn’t be a problem. Unfortunately, for those of us who live with anxiety, that isn’t the case. So how can we change that?

Aside from tracking thoughts, another way to combat negative, irrational thoughts is to learn more about them. If we understand these thoughts, we have power over them. Then, it becomes easier to transform them. So today, we are going to dive into negative, irrational thoughts which are also called cognitive distortions.

Cognitive distortions are thought patterns that cause people to view reality in inaccurate and negative ways. Most people experience cognitive distortions from time to time. However certain situations can cause cognitive distortion patterns to run rampant and this can lead to mental illness. When left unchecked cognitive distortions cause low motivation, low self-esteem, anxiety, depression, relationship trouble, behavior problems, substance abuse, and the list goes on.

Types of Cognitive Distortions

There are many types of cognitive distortions. Today, I will share 10 of the most common ones.

Polarized or “black and white” thinking
This distortion manifests as an inability or unwillingness to see shades of gray. In other words, there is no middle ground, something is either wonderful or terrible.

An example of polarized thinking is one day believing that you are completely perfect and the next day believing that you are an absolute failure. Black or white, one extreme or the other. A more positive, rational way to view things is always to acknowledge the gray area: I am not perfect, nor am I a failure. I am a human being, I have flaws and I have strengths, just like all other human beings.

Overgeneralization takes one instance and generalizes it to an overall pattern. For example, if a friend is dishonest with you one time about something small, you may then chalk that person up to being a liar. Overgeneralizing: That person lied to me, she is a liar and a horrible person, she can never be trusted. A more positive, rational way to view this situation is to consider the entire length of the friendship. Has the friend been generally good and truthful? Did she tell a small lie to spare your feelings? In this case, perhaps she is not a liar. She is just a flawed human who made an error in judgment.

Catastrophizing or catastrophic thinking occurs when a person always focuses on the worst case scenario. They usually predict the most unfavorable outcome to an event and decide that if this outcome does happen, the result will be an epic disaster, failure or tragedy.

Here are some examples of catastrophizing:

“I just failed this test. I will never graduate high school. I will be a complete failure for the rest of my life.”
“I have a headache. I think I have a brain tumor. I probably don’t have long to live.”
“My wife is going to leave me for another man. I will never find anyone else. I am going to be alone and miserable forever.”

Catastrophizing causes a person to make situations seem much worse, dire, or severe than they really are.

This distortion involves taking everything personally or believing that everything is somehow your fault without any logical reason to believe this. For example, if you blame yourself every time your spouse gets moody or irritated, this is personalization. The more positive and rational thought is, yes, my partner is moody right now. Likely it has nothing to do with me. Her thoughts are her own and she will soon feel better. It will pass.

Another common example of personalization is children who blame themselves for their parents problems. Tragically, many anxious, depressed children believe that their family would be better off if they had never been born.

Jumping to Conclusions
This distortion takes several forms, one is mind reading. Here, we hold the false belief that we know what another person is thinking. We jump to negative and irrational conclusions about another person’s thoughts. When in reality, we cannot know another person’s thoughts. Seeing a friend with a pained expression and jumping to the conclusion that she is upset with you would be an example of this.

Another example of jumping to conclusions is fortune telling. This refers to the habit of drawing conclusions and predictions with no evidence to base them on. For example a young man who is single might predict that he will never find love and will be alone forever. He is forecasting a future of loneliness simply because he has not yet found love, rather than acknowledging the potential of love that life might have in store for him.

Mental filtering
The mental filter distortion focuses on a single negative piece of information and excludes all of the positive ones. An example of this distortion is if a child gets in trouble at school and the parent dwells on that experience, viewing the child as bad and hopelessly misbehaved. All the while ignoring the years of positive behavior and achievements that the child showed previously. This mental filter can lead to an extreme pessimistic view of life, by refusing to see anything but the negative.

Discounting the positive
Conversely, the “Discounting the Positive” distortion acknowledges positive experiences, but rejects them instead of embracing them. For example, a person may be unable to handle compliments. If someone tells her that she looks beautiful today she might believe that she actually looks awful and the person is only complimenting her out of pity. This is a very damaging distortion as it continually strengthens negative thought patterns even when there is abundant proof of positivity.

“Should” statements
This distortion is the habit of making “should” statements. These are statements that you make about what you “should” do, what you “ought” to do, or what you “must” do. They can also be applied to others. These “should” expectations are often unrealistic and can not be met. As a result, guilt occurs when the expectations are not met. This leads to ongoing disappointment, anger and resentment. It can destroy one’s self-esteem and it can destroy interpersonal relationships.

Emotional reasoning
This distortion is one that virtually all people have experiences at one time or another. Emotional reasoning occurs when one accepts their thoughts and emotions as fact. “I feel it, therefore it must be true.” However, it is not always true. Just because we feel something doesn’t make it real. For example, if your spouse has a close friend that she enjoys spending time with, you may become jealous and think that your spouse has feelings for the friend. That, however, does not make it true.

Reasonably, we know that we should not take our feeling as facts, but it is a common and damaging habit nonetheless.

Always being right
Perfectionists will recognize this distortion. It is the belief that one must always be right. Those struggling with this distortion simply cannot accept the idea that they could be wrong. They will “fight to the death” to prove that they are right. These people will not settle at “agreeing to disagree” or accepting a difference of opinion. To them, disagreements are an intellectual and emotional battle that must be won at any cost. This distortion is particularly devastating to interpersonal relationships.

Cognitive distortions are the mind’s way of playing tricks on us and convincing us of things that simply aren’t true. While many cognitive distortions are common, and while they may be manageable in small doses, when these distortions occur with intensity and frequency, it takes a serious toll on one’s mental health. Intense, frequent, out-of-control cognitive distortion leads to mental illness.

Using a thought tracking sheet like the one I shared last week can be a valuable tool for addressing cognitive distortions. Once you start to write down your thoughts, you can more easily identify the ones that are negative, irrational distortions. You will begin to notice patterns in your ways of thinking. From there, you can determine which distortions are causing trouble for you. You can begin to overturn those distortions and re-frame them into positive, rational thoughts. With time and consistent practice, you will be able to do this automatically and you will be on the road to overcoming your anxiety.

If you find that your distortions are simply too strong and you cannot make progress on your own, or if you feel hopeless at any time, reach out to a trusted professional. The effects of debilitating anxiety are not a life sentence. They can be overcome and there is help out there for you. I am living proof of this!

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