We humans tend to trust what goes on between our ears. After all, its us, its our brain. If we can’t trust our own brains, whom can we trust?
We’re wired so that our brains can alert us to danger, find solutions to problems, and so much more. Yet sometimes the brain leaps to conclusions that aren’t super helpful. The brain doesn’t lie to us, but because the brain is predisposed to making connections between ideas, actions, thoughts, and consequences, it will sometimes make connections between things that aren’t absolutely accurate.
This is where therapists get the term “cognitive distortion”. Cognitive distortions are exactly what the name implies; distortions in our thinking patterns. They are biased views or perspectives that we develop through environment and experience. Cognitive distortions aren’t our thoughts but are our way of having thoughts. These patterns are deeply ingrained and are so much a part of us that sometimes we don’t really even know they’re there.
Cognitive distortions come in different basic types, which we’ll go into in the list below, but there are three commonalities. All cognitive distortions are:
- Patterns of thinking or believing
- Which are false or inaccurate
- Have potential to cause damage to the person and their relationships
A lot of people are hesitant to look at their own thinking patterns to determine where their cognitive distortions may lie. Its scary to admit we may not be aware of how we think, and sometimes scary to admit that how we’re thinking may be to blame (at least in part) for problems we have. The statistics are simple on this, and they can be comforting – if you’re human you’ve likely had numerous cognitive distortions at some points in life. Everyone does!
Cognitive distortions are in play around depression, anxiety, and numerous other mental health issues. Understanding them and seeing how they may affect your emotional state, and how they may affect your interactions with others gives you power to challenge and even change them so that your thinking is helpful at promoting the feelings, interactions, and relationships you want to have.
Common Cognitive Distortions
Overgeneralization. This distortion takes one example and generalizes it as an overall pattern. For example, someone searching for work may be interviewed and passed over by a potential employer to come away thinking that he is stupid, undeserving, or a failure. Overgeneralization leads to negative thinking about ourselves and our environment on the whole, all on the basis of just a few examples or experiences.
All or Nothing Thinking. This type of thinking, also called black and white thinking, is an inability to see shades of gray where they may exist. Instead of seeing that something is just “ok” a person might think things are wonderful or terrible, or view themselves as either perfect or a complete failure.
Mental Filter. This distortion focuses on a single happening and excludes all other information. For example, a single comment by a romantic partner that is negative may become the focus even though that same partner has made thousands of positive comments; this perception may have the offended party as viewing the relationship mostly negatively while ignoring all of the positive experiences in the relationship.
Downplaying the Positive. When we downplay the positive we automatically believe that positive comments or positive treatment are a fluke rather than deserved or earned. For example, someone who gets a very good grade on a speech in class may decide this grade was because everyone else was so awful comparatively, or because the professor feels sorry for them, rather than that the grade is earned or that they are deserving.
Mind Reading. This distortion is very common and it assumes that we know what another person is thinking, feeling, and even what motivates them. Its entirely possible to have an idea what others may be thinking and feeling, but with mind reading we immediately jump to negative interpretations of the information we have. For example, seeing someone staring at you in public and assuming that they are thinking poorly of you is mind reading.
Fortune Telling. This is similar to mind reading but about our future as opposed to people or events in present. Someone who is unmarried and wanting to marry and have a family may think that it will never happen for them because it hasn’t happened yet. There isn’t anyway to know if this person will remain single forever; but the fortune-teller sees this prediction as fact rather than one of many potential outcomes.
Personalization. Like its name implies personalization occurs when someone takes everything personally and assigns blame to themselves with no factual information to support that blame. For example, attending a dinner party with friends who seem to be irritated and upset and believing that you are the reason your friends were irritated. In some cases where personalization is very ingrained it can lead people to believe that they’re responsible for all the moods and irritations of those around them.
Heaven’s Reward. This distortion is the belief that our struggles, suffering, or hard work will result in an equal reward for our troubles. There are lots of times in life where we and those we know will work hard or suffer through much without an apparent reward. The idea that there’s an amount that we can work or sacrifice to achieve a reward can be damaging as it often results in anger, disappointment, and even depression if the reward doesn’t happen.
Shoulds. We tend to make “should” statements. They’re statements that we make to ourselves about what we should do, and we even apply them to others. We decide what others should do and set expectations that have no guarantee of being met. When we won’t budge on these we frequently end up feeling guilty when we don’t meet our “should” expectations and when others don’t live up to them we are disappointed and can become resentful.
Fact Feelings. When we reason from an emotional place we accept our feelings as fact. We think if we feel something it must be true. Accepting our emotional reactions and states as facts can cause misunderstanding, poor communication, a hotbed for poor decision making, and resentment in relationships. Emotions are temporary and are based in our thoughts.
Fairness Fallacy. Operating in a world that is completely fair is something most of us would enjoy, but it isn’t based in reality. Frequently we’ll encounter life’s unfairness and judging experiences and actions of others in a way that compares them to what our personal idea of “fair” is will often result in hopelessness and anger when we’re forced to deal with a situation that isn’t fair.
These are just a few examples of commonly experienced thinking patterns that can harm us and our relationships or interactions with others. As most people read through lists of these there are a few that jump out as being relatable – so now that you have an idea that some of your brain’s patterns for thinking aren’t helpful, what do you do?
Working Through Distortions
- Identify distortions that you believe are most commonly occurring for you. Journal them down and jot down a few times that the ones you’ve recognized you can relate to have intruded on your emotions, interactions, or decision making.
- Use this awesome worksheet I made called a Thought Record. In it you’ll describe the situation in which a negative thought arose (very likely due to a cognitive distortion), then you can identify context information about what you were doing and where you were. Next you’ll rate the strength of the emotion that the situation brought on, and then you’ll identify the negative thought and feelings that came with it. Next you’ll examine the evidence that supports the thought or doesn’t. You’ll create an alternative thought that can be used to argue against the negative thought. As a last step you’ll reevaluate the situation with the new thought in place and record the intensity of the emotion after this process. The goal is that the intensity goes down a bit after this process!
- Practice differentiating between facts and opinions with this handy worksheet I made.
- Journal frequently using the format from the Thought Record and make a habit of asking yourself if you’re viewing your thoughts and or feelings as facts.
- Recognize that this is challenging work. Undoing thinking patterns that have been with you for years (and years and years!) isn’t easy. It can really help to have a professional keep you motivated and on track. Be compassionate with yourself as you do the work.
- Locate a licensed counselor in your area to work with you on your distortions. Therapists that say they do “CBT” or cognitive behavior therapy will be the bees knees for this type of work; and if you’re in Texas, give me a shout! I provide counseling online via video and also via phone!
BONUS! Check out this list of questions designed to help you challenge your thinking patterns!