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Understanding COGNITIVE DISTORTIONS
Sarah got a promotion at work. Her colleague compliments her saying, “Congratulations, Sarah! All of your hard work paid off!” Sarah responds, “Thanks, but I must have just been the next in line.”
Tina notices her husband’s shoes in the hallway. When he comes into the room she tells him, “You always leave your shoes where I can trip over them! I am going to break my leg one day!”
Bob drops his cup of water and glass shatters over the floor. He immediately whispers to himself, “I can’t believe I just did that! I’m such a stupid clutz.”
Do any of these scenarios sound familiar to you? Do you recognize your own responses to be similar to Sarah, Tina or Bob?
These errors in thinking are common examples of COGNITIVE DISTORTION.
COGNITIVE DISTORTIONS are biased ways of thinking about oneself, others and your surrounding world. They are irrational thoughts and beliefs. Cognitive distortions are a self-defeating way of responding to situations and, if left unchecked, can lead to psychological damage. Often brought about by insecurities and low self-esteem, this false or inaccurate way of thinking can cause stress, anger, anxiety and depression. A cognitive distortion is an attempt for the brain to connect two unrelated thoughts. Over time, these faulty ways of thinking are reinforced and develop into negative patterns of response. Because they are irrational and not objective, they skew our overall view of life.
All humans use these cognitive distortions at one time or another. Sometimes because of circumstances or our current emotional state, we may momentarily believe a lie that our brain is trying to feed us. However, it is important to be aware of these unhealthy responses so we can intercept and correct them before they become a destructive pattern. The goal is to promote rational and objective thoughts instead of irrational and negative ones.
Let’s take a look at the most common types of COGNITIVE DISTORTIONS…
ALL OR NOTHING THINKING
This is a way of putting things into categories that are all black or all white, all good or all bad and have an inability to see the gray. For example, one mistake might mean you are a total failure. Words like “always” or “never” are often used.
One thought or situation is exaggerated and generalized to encompass all things. For example, forgetting to pay a bill on time means that you cannot be trusted to pay any of the bills.
This is a focus on a particular negative detail that clouds[CB1] the rest of your thinking by excluding the positive aspects. For example, if your spouse leaves without kissing you good-bye then he must not love you, even though he kisses you often and affirms his love for you in other ways.
DISQUALIFY THE POSITIVE
A negative mindset is reinforced by rejecting positive experiences even though there is an awareness of them. For example, you made a perfectly delicious turkey for Thanksgiving, but you tell yourself that it must have just been a fluke.
JUMPING TO CONCLUSIONS
Mindreading is a way of arbitrarily concluding that someone is reacting negatively towards you even though there is no evidence. It is the belief that you know what the other person is thinking.
Fortune Telling is a way of predicting negative future events and accepting them as fact even though there is no evidence. For example, you believe you will never find a job because you did not get called back for a second interview.
MAGNIFICATION (CATASTROPHIZING)/ MINIMIZATION
The importance of something or a situation is exaggerated to be a much bigger issue or problem than it is. OR Something or a situation is inappropriately shrunk until it disappears, such as an accomplishment.
Emotions are accepted as fact. You assume your negative emotions reflect reality because if that is how it makes you feel then it must be real. For example, seeing your partner talk to another female makes you feel jealous so he must be cheating on you.
You believe or tell yourself or others that they should/shouldn’t, must/ought. This sets unrealistic expectations and causes guilt, resentment and frustration.
This is an extreme form of overgeneralization by attaching labels to yourself or others instead of attributing them to the behavior. For example, you call yourself a “loser” for leaving your wallet at home.
You take things personally and believe you are the cause of negative external events which you are not primarily responsible for. You feel you are intentionally excluded or targeted. For example, you are the reason your spouse is in a bad mood.
Can you identify the cognitive distortions used by Sarah, Tina and Bob in the examples above?
Can you identify which cognitive distortions you have used and when?
We all resort to some of these ways of thinking sometimes.But when the use of cognitive distortions becomes frequent or a pattern of negative behaviors, it is important to actively work to correct these errors in thinking before they lead to anxiety, depression or other psychologically damaging responses.
Make a list of your feelings. Associate a thought with each of these feelings. Analyze these thoughts for any cognitive distortions.
Make a decision to stop feeding these distortions and let them go!
Now replace the cognitive distortions with positive, truthful and more rational thoughts. Write these down. Study and practice these new realities until they become a pattern of positive behavior.