Updated: Oct 6, 2020
Ever find yourself thinking something that makes you feel horrible? We all do it, but sometimes we allow those negative thoughts to seriously hurt us. Not every thought that we have is healthy or correct, sometimes our thinking is distorted by negative beliefs and past experiences. When these thoughts occur, they are called Cognitive Distortions. There are ten common distortions that we experience.
In this post, I will list each of the ten and an example of how to overcome them.
The first time that this concept was introduced for me was during college when I started seeing a school therapist. At that time I riddled with anxiety and having panic attacks almost daily. At that time I really didn't know that I was experiencing anxiety, so even just explaining it, was hard. In the first few sessions, my therapist gave me this list and we went over them. I was doing ALL of them! So I am pretty comfortable, at this point, talking about my experience with this. We tend to allow ourselves to get worked up and because our emotions are involved with behavior and experience, those patterns are set very strongly. It takes work, time, and patience to overcome this but it is possible and it gets easier. The first step is understanding what's going on. Lucky for us, this research has already been done, so all we have to do is be honest without ourselves and see if it fits. :)
Most of the information I will be sharing will be paraphrased from David Burns' The Feeling Good Handbook. I will try to share my own examples, where appropriate, and I will share examples I find online. Click on the links to read more :)
This distortion is pretty basic. You view life as all or nothing, black or white, yes or no. There is no in-between!
For example: "When a young woman on a diet ate a spoonful of ice cream, she told herself, “I’ve blown my diet completely.” This thought upset her so much that she gobbled down an entire quart of ice cream!"
I've personally experienced the example above (with chips and coke, of course) and so I understand how damaging this kind of thinking is. When we think this way we fail to see that, life, offers a level of error. Not every mistake is the end of the world and you don't have to treat it that way. This way of thinking can be very damaging in relationships as well. If your boyfriend telling you that, he doesn't like the way you criticize him leads you to think that he is telling that, he hates you, you're going to lash out and not want to listen and make appropriate behavioral changes in your relationship, and can end up alone. This can get in the way of making healthy changes in your life or setting appropriate goals. If you think because you didn't lose 20 pounds in one week it is impossible to lose any pounds and it will never happen, then you will choose the Nothing approach and give up.
This is probably the most common type of negative thinking and in my opinion it sort of fits all the categories. We all hyperbolize the world around us. This type of thinking has you believing that everything is "always" bad and that something good "never" happens.
Let's be real, we've probably felt this before (every time a bird poops on our car) but it doesn't ALWAYS happen. We are having an emotional reaction to a crappy (pun) experience. We have to stop and think rationally and realize that these things DO happen, but they don't happen ALL the time. Very little in our lives has that high of a consistency rate, most things don't happen the same way all the time, and if so, that's something you can address. It is rational to address something that is wrong, it is irrational to try and control things that are out of our control.
This is where you look at only the negative and totally discount the positive. Then you focus wayyy too much on that negative part.
For example: "You receive many positive comments about your presentation to a group of associates at work, but one of them says something mildly critical. You obsess about his reaction for days and ignore all the positive feedback."
I probably do this more than I should. I write a blog post and then my husband points out that I missed a punctuation or used the wrong word and suddenly my hours of work feel like they were for nothing! You can see how this could become an issue? We are NOT PERFECT. We will never be able to do anything with 100% perfection and so if we only ever focus on the bad, we will never see how amazing we are when we do a great job!
Discounting the Positive
This one is related to the Mental Filter distortion. Basically, you DO see the positive, but then you discount it as not actually being positive.
For example: "You cook a huge family dinner and everyone loves the food. When people tell you what a good job you did, you automatically tell yourself that they are just being nice and they could probably do the same thing and it's not a big deal so you shouldn't feel proud."
I think this distortion is a bit sadder because when we are focusing on the negative, we are usually trying to figure out how to make it better, but when we see the positive and still see it as a negative we are not allowing ourselves to reach a positive state.
Jumping to Conclusions
I'm sure you've heard someone being told that they are jumping to conclusions before (maybe it was you). Basically, it means that you reach a conclusion based on limited information. There are two ways that you would do this:
For example: "You smile at a friend walking down the hall at school. She doesn't smile back and you assume she is angry at you. Instead of asking her, you avoid her at lunch because you are sure she doesn't want to spend time with you. In reality, she just found out her parents are divorcing and her lack of smiling had nothing to do with you."
In both of these scenarios, YOU create a negative event for yourself. There is no real evidence or enough evidence to support your conclusion.
Sort of like with the Mental Filter, you magnify the bad and minimize the good. "This is also called the “binocular trick.”"
For example: "You are short and so you think that there is no way that a guy will find you attractive even though guys think that you are really pretty and have a good personality"
This relates to your self-esteem. There are many reasons behind why you choose to exaggerate the bad things in your life and overlook the good things. It can get in the way of happiness and opportunities.
When people come to me for help, this is the most common type of thinking that I come across. Basically, it means that you allow your emotions to tell you the way things are. Your feelings dictate the status of the situation.
That first example seems silly. If you are not afraid of airplanes, it is easy for you to see that the FEELING of fear is not related to the safety of an airplane. The second example is not as clear cut. How many times have you felt hurt by someone? Probably many times. How many times did you stop and ask yourself, "did they hurt me or did I just feel hurt?". Often we equate how we feel after an interaction with the intent of the person's words. How YOU feel is YOUR responsibility and no one can make you feel anyway. Living by this distortion can create havoc on relationships!!!
My personal weakness. This distortion relates to the way we use words like "should" "ought" "must" and "have to". Basically, we have a belief about how things "should" be and we allow that belief to cloud our experiences.
If we believe that things exist on a "should or shouldn't" spectrum, we will see ourselves as failures when we fall on the wrong end. I like this quote from Burn, "Many people try to motivate themselves with should and shouldn’ts, as if they were delinquents who had to be punished before they could be expected to do anything." because I have had my own personal journey with shoulds and shouldn't. Part of escaping this way of thinking required me to do a very extensive exploration into WHO I AM and WHO I WANT TO BE. A lot of the "shoulds" we believe come from what, OTHER PEOPLE, have told us we should or shouldn't do and not from what we actually want or is right for us.
Labeling means we put a name on things that don't need a name. "Labeling is quite irrational because you are not the same as what you do. Human beings exist, but “fools,” “losers,” and “jerks” do not"
For example: "When someone does something that rubs you the wrong way, you may tell yourself: “He’s an S.O.B.” Then you feel that the problem is with that person’s “character” or “essence” instead of with their thinking or behavior. You see them as totally bad."
Labeling just hurts people. Our actions are not US. We are not our mistakes.
Personalization and Blame
This thought distortion revolves around blaming yourself and attributing faults to yourself.
For example: "When a woman received a note that her child was having difficulties at school, she told herself, “This shows what a bad mother I am,” instead of trying to pinpoint the cause of the problem so that she could be helpful to her child."
NOT EVERYTHING IS ABOUT YOU. This one is hard to overcome and to be honest some people are the opposite, they don't think anything is about them. The rational approach to this is to actually allow yourself to assess the situation and try to understand what is the cause of the issue. Sometimes there is no person to blame, it's just a bad situation. Sometimes it is your fault or another person's fault and changes need to be made.
How To Overcome Cognitive Distortions
The first step to overcome these thinking patterns is to figure out what causes them. In each of the examples, an event triggered the thought. You have to try and figure out what the trigger was so that you know that when it comes up again, it may happen the same way.
Another step is to respond to the negative thought with a positive opposite thought. This creates a new pattern so that with time your brain automatically pops up with a positive response to your triggers instead of a negative one.
For some situations, it may be most helpful to completely avoid the trigger. If you are finding yourself in a dangerous environment then the best way to change your negative thoughts is to find a way out of that environment.
This is a great article on Fixing Cognitive Distortions.
This is a great article on Positive Thinking
Make sure to check out my blog post What is CBT for more in-depth information on Cognitive Behavioral Therapy can help you.
I hope that this gives you an understanding of cognitive distortions and how they may be affecting your life.