As we grow up we develop thought patterns, or ways to synthesis information, to make sense of the world. Unfortunately, this can lead to cognitive distortion, or ways we twist information (mental gymnastics) to fit into these preferred ways of thinking. This results can lead to depression, anxiety, and relationship issues.
Common Cognitive Distortions
Cognitive distortions happen automatically – we don’t mean to think inaccurately – but unless we learn to notice them, they can have powerful yet invisible effects upon our moods and our lives. Most of us have used cognitive distortions at one point or another. To avoid negative feelings caused by these thinking errors, it is important that we learn to identify and modify or correct these faulty patterns of thinking.
The term, “cognitive distortions” is used to describe irrational, inflated thoughts or beliefs that distort a person’s perception of reality, usually in a negative way.
The terms below were conceptualized by Dr. David Burns. Much of his work is based on Dr. Aaron Beck’s research who was the first to reveal the potential impacts of distorted thinking.
A person engaging in filter (or “mental filtering) takes the negative details and magnifies
those details while filtering out all positive aspects of a situation. For instance, a person may pick out a single, unpleasant detail and dwell on it exclusively so that their vision of reality becomes darkened or distorted. When a cognitive filter is applied, the person sees only the negative and ignores anything positive.
Polarized Thinking (or “Black and White” Thinking)
In polarized thinking, things are either “black-or-white” — all or nothing. We must be perfect or we are a complete and abject failure — there is no middle ground. A person with polarized thinking places people or situations in “either/or” categories, with no shades of gray or allowing for the complexity of most people and most situations.
In this cognitive distortion, a person comes to a general conclusion based on a single incident or a single piece of evidence. If something bad happens just once, they expect it to happen repeatedly.
When a person engages in catastrophizing, they expect disaster to strike, no matter what. This is also referred to as magnifying, and can also come out in its opposite behavior, minimizing. In this distortion, a person hears about a problem and uses what if questions (e.g., “What if tragedy strikes?” “What if it happens to me?”) to imagine the absolute worst occurring.
Personalization is a distortion where a person believes that everything others do or say is direct, personal reaction to them. They literally take virtually everything personally, even when something is not meant in that way.
When a person engages in blaming, they hold other people responsible for their emotional pain. They may also take the opposite track and instead blame themselves for every problem — even those clearly outside their own control.
Thoughts that include “should,” “ought,” or “must” are almost always related to a cognitive distortion. For example: “I should have arrived at the meeting earlier,” or, “I must lose weight to be more attractive.” This type of thinking may induce feelings of guilt or shame.
Here are some ways to begin challenging cognitive distortions.
1.Identify Our Cognitive Distortion: We need to create a list of our troublesome thoughts and examine them later for matches with a list of cognitive distortions. An examination of our cognitive distortions allows us to see which distortions we prefer. Additionally, this process will allow us to think about our problem or predicament in more natural and realistic ways.
- Examine the Evidence: A thorough examination of an experience allows us to identify the basis for our distorted thoughts. If we are quite self-critical, then, we should identify several experiences and situations where we had success.
- Double Standard Method: An alternative to “self-talk” that is harsh, and demeaning is to talk to ourselves in the same compassionate and caring way that we would talk with a friend in a similar situation.
- Thinking in Shades of Gray: Instead of thinking about our problem or predicament in an either-or polarity, evaluate things on a scale of 0-100. When a plan or goal is not fully realized, think about, and evaluate the experience as a partial success, again, on a scale of 0-100.
Here are some questions to ask yourself if you think you might be engaging in cognitive distortions.
Am I confusing a thought with a fact?
Am I jumping to conclusions?
Am I assuming my view of things is the only one possible?
What are the advantages and disadvantages of thinking this way?
Am I thinking in all-or-nothing terms?
Am I condemning myself as a total person based on a single event?
Am I concentrating on my weakness and forgetting my strengths?
Am I taking something personally which has little or nothing to do with me?
Am I expecting myself to be perfect?
Am I assuming I can do nothing to change my situation?
If you feel that one or more of the above cognitive distortions are contributing to feelings of anxiety, depression, or other mental health issues, consider finding a qualified therapist you trust who can help transform your negative thoughts and beliefs into empowering, realistic thoughts that inspire and uplift you.
Carol Van Kampen, LMSW
Carol Van Kampen, LMSW is an individual private practice psychotherapist who specializes in anxiety, depression, grief, and trauma treatment at Marsh Psychology Group. Carol is EMDR trained. Contact her at marshpsychologygroup.com