In this article I discuss faulty thought patterns that keep people trapped in negative emotions, exacerbate stress, and hinder building and maintaining positive relationships with self and others. If you work in the mental health field or have taken Psych 101 in college, then you are most likely familiar with the term “cognitive distortions”. This article is a refresher to those of you already familiar with the terminology. If this is new to you, read on to learn more. If you recognize some of these in yourself, please know that you are not alone.
What Are Cognitive Distortions?
Cognitive distortions are defined as faulty thinking patterns or irrational beliefs we hold about ourselves, others, and the world around us. They are exaggerated, negative, and not based on facts which leads us to feel distress and disrupts our relationships with others. These thought patterns are very common, and many people experience them.
There is not a single root cause for why cognitive distortions exist. They tend to develop overtime, are exaggerated, and not grounded in evidence. People with a mental health condition such as anxiety or depression are prone to having these kind of thoughts and beliefs. A person’s childhood experiences can influence which cognitive distortions they might develop in adulthood. Cognitive distortions are a product of core beliefs. Unhooking from these unhelpful and untrue thoughts and beliefs is possible with effort, patience, and a desire to learn, change, and improve.
In this article I will discuss each of the cognitive distortions, provide examples, and offer possible alternatives or ways to reframe the thought. Make sure to check out the resource section at the end of this article which includes helpful videos on cognitive distortions and cognitive reframing. If therapy is an option for you, I recommend someone who specializes in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy.
How to Respond to Cognitive Distortions
The first step is to become familiar with the different types of cognitive distortions so you can recognize in the moment when you are having one. Once you become aware of what is happening, you can distract yourself until you are able to challenge or reframe the thought. This takes a lot of practice, but eventually you can go through these steps faster. With effort and time you will experience fewer of these cognitive distortions and be able to stop them in their tracks.
11 Cognitive Distortions with examples and suggestions to reframe the thought.
All-or-nothing thinking (black and white thinking)
Situations or people are viewed in terms of absolutes. Thinking is extreme and there is no middle ground, gray area, or nuance. We view someone as all good or all bad. We view ourselves as failures if we don’t do everything right. Someone who is a perfectionist often engages in this type of thought.
My husband never helps around the house. My wife is always spending money on frivolous stuff. I was late to pick up my kid from school. So, I am a horrible mother. In these scenarios it is important to look for exceptions. We can ask ourselves if these statements are always true or just sometimes occur. We can also remind ourselves that our behavior does not define us.
This usually starts with thinking “what if” questions and assuming the worst possible outcome. We can quickly become overwhelmed and fearful.
If I don’t pass the test, then I will fail the class, not get into college, and not have a career. My boyfriend isn’t answering my call. What if he got in a car accident? What if he is cheating on me? What if he doesn’t love me anymore?
We can recognize how thinking like this only stresses ourselves out and we can’t predict the outcome. We can think of how we might cope with the worst-case scenario making sure to focus on our strengths and existing support system. We can also consider a more likely outcome. For example, we fail a test and ask the teacher if we can get extra credit to keep from failing the class. Or we retake the class. In the other example, we remind ourselves that there are several reasons our boyfriend isn’t answering the phone. He could have it on silent or maybe he is busy.
This is when we attribute one negative event to an inescapable pattern of defeat. For example a person is running late for work, gets stuck at a red light, and thinks “This always happens to me”. This is another cognitive distortion when looking for exceptions is one remedy.
This is our mind being bias toward negativity. It can be so extreme that we don't acknowledge the good things that happen to us. An example of this is when we get mostly positive feedback and one suggestion on how to improve. Or we get 100 encouraging comments on a social media post and 5 negative comments. We focus only on the negative without leaving room to feel good about the positive. It’s as if the positive does not exist.
The first step to reframing this distortion is to become aware it is happening. Next is to try to think of as many positive things that happened that day in relation to the negative. Journaling positive, neutral, and negative events that happen throughout the day might help.
Discounting the Positive
We are aware of the positive but dismiss it. For example, an acquaintance compliments us, and we tell ourselves they are just being nice. Our professor tells we did a great job on the final exam, and we tell ourselves it doesn’t matter because we just got lucky.
After realizing this is happening, one idea is to ask what a friend might say to you or what you would tell a friend who dismissed their own accomplishments. Learning to talk to ourselves like we would a friend can help us stop the negative self-talk.
Magnification and Minimization
This is when we magnify qualities in ourselves that we don’t like or mistakes we have made while minimizing our positive attributes or things we have done well. We are giving a presentation at a work meeting and falter over a few words. Despite our coworkers and supervisors telling us we did a great job; we go home embarrassed and ruminate on the slip ups.
Try taking a more realistic approach. For example, over all my presentation went well and I received positive feedback. Sure, I didn’t say everything exactly how I planned, and that is okay. Nobody is perfect.
Jumping to conclusions
a. Fortune telling
Without having the facts, we assume how a situation will go or what someone else might think about us. I just know a fight will break out during the family reunion. It's going to be a disaster!
We can challenge this thought by asking ourselves why we assume this will be the outcome. If family feuds are common we can discuss how we might prevent or react to it with someone we trust. We should also remind ourselves that getting worked up about a potential threat in the future that might never happen only harms us.
b. Mind reading
We assume we know what another person is thinking or feeling without having all the facts. I just know the people at the memory care community think I am awful for not visiting my mother this month.
We can reframe this thought by being kind to ourselves. It is more likely that they understand you need to take time for yourself so when you do visit your mother you will be able to act with patience and compassion.
In both fortune telling and mind reading it is important to accept it is impossible to predict the future and read someone’s mind. This can be a difficult habit to break. Especially if it served us well in the past. For example, someone growing up in a toxic family environment might have become attuned to the facial expressions and body language of others as a method of protecting themselves. So, when they see someone else exhibiting those same behaviors, they might assume they know what that person is thinking.
This is when we make judgements about ourselves, others, and a situation because of how we feel in that moment. We place to much emphasize on our emotions and are unable to view things objectively. I feel like something bad is going to happen, therefore it must be true. I feel angry, therefore I have been wronged. Feelings are not facts, and our minds can lie to us.
We tell ourselves I should, and I must do this. Thinking like this will lead to feelings of guilt and self-judgement. We can reframe this thought by telling ourselves it would be beneficial to us to do said thing instead of saying we should do that.
We fail a class and label ourselves as stupid and incompetent. Our friends can’t spend the holidays with us, and we label ourselves a loser.
We negatively label someone else based on something they said or did that we do not like. The job recruiter doesn’t return our call and we label him a jerk. We continue to view the other as a jerk even after the moment has passed leaving no room for redemption. People can do both good and bad. People make poor choices sometimes. Mistakes occur. None of these actions define who a person is.
Blame (fault-finding instead of problem solving)
a. Self-blame or personalization
This is when we take a situation and makes it about ourselves without having sufficient evidence. We take responsibility for something that happened without considering other factors. She isn’t returning my call. I must have done something wrong. My son got a C on his report card, and it is all my fault.
Consider other possibilities and treat yourself with compassion. There are likely other factors at play. Seek for what evidence there is that your friend didn’t return your call because of something you did wrong. Is it possible she is feeling overwhelmed at work, or her phone died. If she is upset with you, then it is her responsibility to say something. It is not your job to guess when someone is unhappy with you. In the second example, maybe you letting your son hang out with his friends on school nights contributed to his poor grades, but you are not solely to blame.
b. Other Blame
This is when we blame other people without considering our part in it. A woman broke up with her boyfriend and focuses on all the things her boyfriend did wrong. He was always working and didn’t make time for me. He just came home and watched T.V. I’ll make sure the next guy treats me like a queen.
Yes, it is true that the boyfriend worked long hours and often watched T.V. instead of spending time with his girlfriend. Also, the woman cut her hours at work and instead of directly telling her boyfriend she would appreciate spending more time together she acted passive aggressively hoping he would take the hint. Another example is a man tells his wife "If you didn’t let yourself go after pregnancy, I wouldn’t have had to cheat on you." People who chronically blame others for challenging situations that occur often lack self-awareness and struggle to take responsibility for their actions. Owning up to your part in how things went is good first step.
When we learn to acknowledge our cognitive distortions, we can work toward challenging those thoughts and replacing them with a more objective and realistic thought. At first the realizations will come after we had the thought. With practice we can catch ourselves before we form the complete thought in our minds. For more information and practical advice check out the links below. If this article was helpful leave a like and share. Write your thoughts on this topic and any resources you would like to share in the comments.
Therapy in a Nutshell: Cognitive Distortions Playlist
Self-Help Toons: Cognitive Distortions and Negative Thinking in CBT
Self-Help Toons: CBT and Reframing Thoughts with Cognitive Restructuring
Steph Anya, LMFT: Therapist Shares 6 Cognitive Distortions Can Ruin Your Life!
Doc Snipes: Identifying and Addressing Cognitive Distortions- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy