Have you ever found yourself in a situation where you were afraid of some event that might happen in the future? Or did you have a feeling that something terrible would happen if you didn’t do some task in the best possible way? Maybe you blamed yourself for something that was completely out of your control or you allowed your feelings to overly influence some important decisions. This way of thinking is actually present in most people, and we call it cognitive distortion.
What exactly are cognitive distortions?
Cognitive distortions are, to put it simply, irrational patterns of thinking. These are thoughts that we often do not even register as irrational, we take them completely seriously, although if we looked at them more closely, we would realize that they do not make too much sense. Cognitive distortions actually deceive us, they are errors in the way of thinking that occur automatically. They affect the way we see the world and are mostly negative. If they occur relatively often, they can negatively affect our quality of life by causing or increasing anxiety and depression and by disrupting our relationships with other people. In addition to that, they can also create some other problems in our lives.
What types of cognitive distortions exist?
There are a lot of cognitive distortions, but some of them are still more common. Aaron Beck categorized cognitive distortions as:
- Absolute and dichotomous thinking: This implies the habit of putting all life experiences into one of two categories, e.g., something is either great or a disaster.
- Personalization: We often perceive some events that have nothing to do with us as something that happened because of us or are in some way related to us, even though there is no evidence for that connection.
- Inexact labeling: We put labels on people, events and things depending on our limited experience with them, we tend to create extreme interpretations of some events.
- Magnification and minimization: We tend to attach too much or too little importance to some events. Eg. a small mistake at work makes us think that we will get fired or we think that the large number of negative evaluations we received from colleagues at work is nothing terrible.
- Overgeneralization: We draw conclusions about our own abilities, successes, or values based on a single event or case.
- Selective abstraction: We have a tendency to focus on one detail that we look outside the context of the situation, while ignoring all other elements of that situation, and experience the whole situation based on that one detail, instead of looking at the whole situation.
- Arbitrary interpretations and inference: Sometimes we interpret certain events, experiences and situations in a certain way, even though there is no evidence that we should draw such interpretations and conclusions, and often we actually draw conclusions contrary to what the evidence suggests.
Beck’s successor and student, David Burns, adds several negative and counterproductive ways of thinking to Beck’s cognitive distortions:
- Personalization and blame: This implies the habit of taking the blame for various events even if there is no evidence that we are actually to blame for something. This way of thinking leads to feelings of guilt and shame.
- Labeling and mislabeling: This is actually an extreme form of generalization in which, based on a situation or event, we negatively attach labels that describe us in black and white, such as “I’m stupid” or “I’m incompetent.”
- “I should” statements: Attempts to motivate ourselves with statements of this type often have the exact opposite effect, and actually hinder our progress because they cause frustration that leads to feelings of shame and guilt.
- Emotional reasoning: In various situations we tend to see our own emotions as facts, eg when we feel hopeless we conclude that a problem in front of us is unsolvable.
- Magnification and minimization: We tend to downplay and ignore everything positive in life, while we zoom in on everything that is negative and focus almost exclusively on it.
- Mind reading and fortune teller error: We often assume that others have a bad opinion of us or predict that bad things will happen to us, even if we have no evidence of such a thing.
- Disqualifying the positive: Not only do we often ignore the positive elements of life situations, but we actively try to prove that these positive elements of the situation are the exception, not the rule in our lives.
- Mental filters: This implies our tendency to always pay attention to the negative in every situation and to just think about those negative elements of every situation.
- Overgeneralization: Our tendency to draw lasting conclusions based on a few events, if something happens immediately we think it will always happen that way.
- All or nothing thinking: We often value human characteristics and situations in life in extremes, (someone is either good or bad, or we are happy or sad) and we have a habit of ignoring the nuances in life.
Now that we know what cognitive distortions are, what all kinds of cognitive distortions exist and how they can affect us, the question arises how to deal with them? How to both recognize and remove them from our way of thinking?
Casabianca, S. S. (2021, May 6). 15 cognitive distortions to blame for your negative thinking. Psych Central. https://psychcentral.com/lib/cognitive-distortions-negative-thinking#definition.
Cognitive distortions: Unhelpful thinking habits. Psychology Tools. (2021, May 30). https://www.psychologytools.com/articles/unhelpful-thinking-styles-cognitive-distortions-in-cbt/.
Stanborough, R. J. (2019, December 18). Cognitive distortions: 10 examples of distorted thinking. Healthline. https://www.healthline.com/health/cognitive-distortions.
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