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The Stinkin’ Thinkin’ of Cognitive Distortions

One of the basic concepts of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is the concept that you can change your feelings by changing your thoughts and your behaviors. This means that you have direct control over your feelings through your thoughts. What a powerful idea!

Distorted Thinking

However, this also means that your thinking can cause your emotional upset as well. We all tend to have patterns of negative self-talk which can cause feelings of anger, anxiety, guilt, hopelessness, or inadequacy. These thoughts tend to fall into 10 basic cognitive distortions which I have listed below. We all have at least some of these thoughts, so don’t be shocked if you recognize yourself in the list.

The Benefits of Learning the Cognitive Distortions

In my experience, just being able to label a thought as a distortion can often bring about relief from negative thoughts. If you knew that what you are thinking was not true, then you wouldn’t have to believe it and it begins to lose its power over you. Plus, knowing what the distortions are will make it easier to recognize them when you have them.

Cognitive Distortions

So here is the list of the 10 most common cognitive distortions:

1. All or Nothing Thinking- This can also be known as Black or White Thinking. It is when you see things either all one way or the other, with no grey in the middle. So, if for example, you make a mistake, then you would think of yourself as being a complete and total failure.

2. Overgeneralization- With overgeneralization, you take a small thing and use it to make a conclusion about everything in that category. So, for example, if you were to fail a math test, you might think, “I am absolutely the worst at math! I can never understand any of this!”

3. Mental Filter- Mental filter is similar, but in this instance, you focus so intently on the one negative thing, and allow it to poison your view of everything else. It is compared to dropping a single drop of dark ink into a glass of water and watching the darkness spread throughout the entire glass. An example is when your partner is in a bad mood and criticizes your cooking. Instead of remembering all the nice things they’ve said about your cooking in the past, you allow this one criticism to darken your view until this is all you can think of.

4. Disqualifying the Positive- With this type of thought, you ignore all the positive things or instances in your life and instead focus on the one negative. So, for example, if you meet with your boss for your yearly review and she says all kinds of nice things about how well you work and that you are doing a great job, but then she notes one area that you still need to work on. When you use this type of distortion, you focus on this 1 thing and all the positive things that she said are ignored.

5. Jumping to Conclusions- This pretty much is what you think it is- it’s when you make conclusions that aren’t based on known facts. There are 2 types:

a. Mind Reading- This is when you think you know what someone is thinking about you, and that they are thinking something negative. An example is when you walk into a room and think everyone is talking about you and saying that you are stupid.

b. Fortune Telling- And this is when you believe you know how things are going to turn out, and you believe it will be a negative outlook. An example of fortune telling is when you walk into a test and just know without any proof to back you up that you are going to fail the test.

6. Magnification or Minimization- You exaggerate the importance of things such as your mistake, or, with minimization, you shrink things (your good qualities) until they are no longer noticeable.

7. Emotional Reasoning-you assume that your feelings reflect the facts of how things really are. An example of this is you have a fear of spiders, so this fear leads you to believe that spiders really are dangerous.

8. “Should” statements- You tell yourself things should be how you hoped or expected them to be. Should statements are a way you judge yourself as lacking in some way and are often used as a way to motivate yourself. However, they bring up feelings of guilt and shame. Should statements can also be directed toward others as in “Mary should have been able to do that”.

9. Labeling or Mislabeling- Labeling is essentially making a negative judgment about yourself or someone else based on one single instance. So, if someone cuts in front of you in traffic, you might label him an idiot. If you lose your keys, you might label yourself ditzy. The distortion in thinking is in assuming that you are your mistake.

10. Personalization is when you take responsibility for something that is in fact outside of your control. An example of this is if your daughter does poorly on a school project, and instead of thinking that maybe she hadn’t put in enough time or didn’t understand the assignment, you blame yourself and say, “That just proves what a terrible mother I am!”.

Closing Thoughts

Once you familiarize yourself with the list of cognitive distortions, you can start to notice which one you are using. And once you do that, you can start to change your thoughts. Don’t worry too much about identifying exactly which type of thought you are having. As you can see, there are several of them that are very similar.

If you are interested in starting CBT therapy, please follow the link for more information.


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