I cannot tell you how many opportunities I have missed out on because of faulty thinking that convinced me that I wasn’t smart enough, funny enough, or capable enough. I can be very negative about trying anything new and usually make more negative comments than positive ones. This drains other people’s energy and discourages them from asking your opinion, or if you want to do something.
What are Cognitive Distortions?
Cognitive distortions are exactly what the name implies: distortions in our cognition. They are irrational thoughts and beliefs that we unknowingly reinforce over time.
Cognitive distortions are basically your mind playing tricks on you: causing you to think that you’re at fault, convincing you that you are just not good enough, that no one likes you or other faulty beliefs. The problem with this is that these Cognitive Distortions feel like the truth.
Below is a list of the different types of cognitive distortions. You can find similar lists, based on the work of Aaron Beck, M.D., Albert Ellis, Ph.D, and David Burns, M.D.
Types of Cognitive Distortions
- Overgeneralizing- You see constant, negative patterns based on one event.
- Shoulds– You have a rigid code of conduct which dictates how you and others should behave. You criticize yourself harshly when you fail to follow these rules.
- All or Nothing Thinking- You see things as absolutes, with no areas for grey.
- Negativity bias– You notice all the negatives, but fail to notice the positives.
- Catastrophizing– You expect the worst.
- Magical Thinking– You think everything will be better when________ (you are thinner, smarter, richer, get a new job, etc).
- Over-personalizing– You make things personal, when they aren’t. You believe other people’s opinions are facts or you think what other people do/say is in reaction to you.
- Mind Reading– You make assumptions about what other people are thinking.
- Emotional Reasoning– You think that your feelings are reality.
- Blaming/Denying– You blame others for your problems or mistakes OR you blame yourself when it wasn’t your fault.
- Jumping to Conclusions-Mind Reading- The inaccurate belief that we know what another person is thinking.
- Personalization– This distortion involves taking everything personally or assigning yourself blame for no logical reason.
Everyone has likely fallen for a few of the numerous cognitive distortions at one time or another. The difference between those who occasionally have cognitive distortions and those, like myself, who struggle with them on a daily basis is the ability to identify and modify or correct these faulty patterns of thinking.
I know that believing these cognitive distortions are real, has contributed to my depression. According to Aaron Beck, errors in thinking are particularly effective at provoking or exacerbating symptoms of depression. They go hand in hand.
Experts in Cognitive Distortions: Aaron Beck and David Burns
When reading about cognitive distortions and their role in depression, anxiety, and other mental Health issues, these two psychologists literally wrote the book (s) on depression, cognitive distortions and the treatment of these problems. To hear David Burns Ted Talk on this subject click on the following link:
Changing Your Thinking: Examples of Techniques to Combat Cognitive Distortions
These distortions are not something that we must resign ourselves to live with. Beck, Burns, and other researchers in this area have developed many ways to identify, challenge, minimize, or erase these distortions from our own thinking.
In order to effectively challenge your thinking, you need to identify which ways of faulty thinking do you engage in.
1. Review the list of Cognitive distortions and write down in a notebook the one’s that affect you the most. Then rate the strength of emotion that type of thinking has evoked on a scale of 0% (weakest) to 100% (strongest).
For example, Overgeneralizing, seeing a constant negative pattern based on one event, affected my emotions around 90%. One staff member where I work had some negative things to say about me at my annual review. Based on that one person’s opinion, I assumed that everyone in the office felt the same way about me. So I had thought, “Everyone I work with doesn’t like me” and I was very hurt.
2. Then note the evidence, both for the accuracy of the thought and against the accuracy of the fault. ex. Evidence that everyone in the office did not like me. What I found was, that I was writing down all of the many positive interactions with my co workers and did not have any evidence that they thought negatively about me.
3. Create an alternative thought that can replace the negative thought. Using the evidence for and against the initial thought, you can come up with a thought that is more accurate. Ex. Based upon the evidence that I wrote down, my new thought was “The majority of the people that I work with think highly of me.”
4. Rate the strength of the emotion or feeling once again. The hope is that the intensity of the emotion will reduce due to the evidence-based evaluation of it’s accuracy.
I keep a journal and practice this exercise every time I find myself engaging in negative thoughts or beliefs about myself based on a cognitive distortion and it has helped me tremendously. I even taught this to my children.
Take Away Message
I hope that this blog has given you a better understanding of cognitive distortions and just how powerful they can be in determining how we view ourselves and our abilities. The sooner you catch a cognitive distortion, the less likely that it will have a negative impact on your life.
What do you think about cognitive distortions? Have you experienced any of these yourself? How have you conquered them? Let me know in the comments.
Thanks for reading!
- Good Therapy. (2015). Aaron Beck. Good Therapy LLC.
- Feeling Good. (n.d.). About, Feeling Good. Retrieved from https://feelinggood.com/about/
- Aaron T Beck Psychopathology Research Center (n.d.). Aaron Beck, M.D. Aaron Beck Center. Retrieved from https://aaronbeckcenter.org/beck/
- Burns, D. D. (1989) The Feeling Good Handbook. New York, NY, US: Morrow