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What Are Cognitive Distortions?

What are Irrational Thoughts or Cognitive Distortions?

Individuals' perceptions are often distorted and unhelpful, particularly when distressed. Our minds can sometimes play tricks on us depending on how we interpret events. For example, they can convince us of things that aren't true, even though they feel true. This can be because we have several negative beliefs about ourselves and our world. These are often learned from our family of origin. Remember that thoughts are NOT always true; sometimes, they are inaccurate or exaggerated.

When these inaccurate beliefs influence our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. We can feel many intense negative feelings, such as anxiety, worry, stress, anger, or despair about ourselves or the world around us. These faulty beliefs are known as cognitive distortions.

What Are Cognitive Distortions?

Unfortunately, it's easy to experience this type of faulty or inaccurate thinking, perception and belief because it can happen to anyone at any time without warning!

Anyone can experience cognitive distortion, which the American Psychological Association defines as "faulty or inaccurate thinking, perception or belief." These are usually negative perceptions. 

For some of us, distorted thinking is fleeting. For example, we get upset when we fail a science test. We briefly reason that we're bad at science instead of recognizing we need to study more. Typically we move on and try again and don't make that one test a reflection of our overall intelligence.

glass jars with plants and blackboard with the word thoughts written on it

For others, cognitive distortions are thinking patterns that interfere more frequently and more intensely. These negative thoughts will interfere with their lives and relationships. In these cases, distorted thinking can lead to chronic anxiety, depression, and behavioral problems such as misuse of substances.

The 10 Most Common Cognitive Distortions

Here are the most common cognitive distortion examples. Again, you might see your own thought patterns reflected here.

Catastrophic thinking

This is where you think of the worst-case scenario in any situation. You often find yourself thinking, "What if…?" 

If your boss schedules a meeting, you worry you'll be fired. And your thinking spirals from there: Losing your job will mean you will go broke, and then next, you will become homeless.

Discounting the positive

You don't see the good when it is there. You may think it is about luck or someone else's doing. 

  • When something goes right — say you get a good grade or a promotion — you acknowledge it but refuse to take credit. Instead, you chalk it up to dumb luck.  
  • You receive many positive comments on an evaluation. But, instead of taking in the positive, you choose to focus on a single piece of negative feedback.

Emotional reasoning

You rely on your feelings over objective evidence to judge yourself and the world.  

  • "I feel like a bad mother; therefore, I must be a bad mother."
  • "I felt awkward when meeting the boss; therefore, I am shy, awkward. Despite the possibility that this might be a unique situation or that your new boss is intimidating.

Labeling/mislabeling

You define yourself and others with negative labels. In assigning labels, you focus on one past behavior or event. These labels give you a big emotional reaction without any real information to improve upon. Taking the below examples. If you are an A-hole, what can you do about it? Nothing. The label just makes you feel bad. If you zero in more on the specifics, you can figure out what to do. Maybe you were hangry and moving forward; you know you can't talk about something serious if you have not eaten dinner.

  • You call a co-worker "lazy" because they came to work late.  
  • You're an "A-hole" because you were rude to a loved one.

Mental filtering

This is when you see your life through a negative lens. You ignore anything positive. Filtering can increase feelings of hopelessness and helplessness.

Jumping to conclusions

You base your decisions on what you think someone will do, not on what actually happens. For example, you may not go to a party because you think a person will be rude or assume it will not be fun. This limits you and shrinks your life and potential for happiness and connection.  

Mindreading

You believe you can read minds or anticipate reactions. So you don't ask what the other person thinks or feels. Instead, you make a guess because they have responded negatively in the past. They will react negatively again. This prevents you from communicating what you want or need.

Fortune-telling

Fortune-telling is another form of cognitive distortion. It is related to jumping to conclusions.   

  • No matter what I do, I will not find a partner. If I haven't found one yet, that means I never will.  

The reality might be that circumstances change, you change, and what you're looking for will change. You may need to try new ways to find a partner. Your past does not dictate your future, especially if you start doing different actions.

Overgeneralization

People who overgeneralize apply their experience from one event to another.  

  • If your marriage ended in divorce, you think you're not worthy of love. As a result, you might conclude you should never date again.

Personalization

You blame yourself for things outside of your control. You believe you have responsibility for events that you don't actually have control over. Personalization can convince you that you are being targeted or excluded.  

  • An employee is late and because you are the manager you have to talk with them about it. They start crying and yell at you. If you are personalizing it, you believe you caused them to feel that way. In reality, they were in charge of getting to work on time. You are upholding the rules. Another person might react totally differently to the conversation. You falsely believe that everything that someone says or does is a direct reaction to you.  

Black-and-white thinking

This is an extreme and rigid way of thinking. This can mean there is a right or wrong way to deal with something. You don't allow room for balanced perspectives or outcomes.

  • People and situations are either amazing or horrible.  
  • You believe you're either a winner or a loser.  

"Should" statements

Books are written about this one! This distortion is when you believe there are things you "should" do. You have a list of rules for how people should and shouldn't behave. Continually condemning yourself or others for what "should" have been said or done. It can be exhausting.

  • They should not have taken the day off for a mental health day.
  • I should exercise.
  • I shouldn't go to college because everyone says I should.

Challenging Cognitive Distortions

Now we know what they are, but what do we do to fix them? Cognitive-behavioral therapy is widely used to help break the cycle of distorted thinking. Our CBT therapist can work with you to retrain your brain to identify and challenge cognitive distortions using thought records, cognitive restructuring exercises, and behavioral exercises. Until then, ask yourself these questions:

Who says I should?  

Who made this rule?  

Would I say this to my friend?  

Is there evidence of this?  

How likely is this outcome?

These questions can start you on a path of challenging the distorted thoughts that we often have. Also, try not to feel bad about these thought patterns. Although they tend to create distress, most people have some of these thoughts. When they start interfering with your happiness, it is time to reach out for more support.

boy with mug saying see the good

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Laurie Groh

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