Identifying Cognitive Distortions

Shane Aldendorff unspalsh

Distressing thoughts occur from time to time. When people get stuck in the same thought patterns, these thought patterns can lead to distressing feelings. These thinking patterns can then lead to negative beliefs about themselves and others. These thinking patterns are considered cognitive distortions.

If you are familiar with Cognitive Behavioral Therapy you may have heard the terms cognitive distortions or negative thought patterns. These two terms are typically used interchangeably. For the rest of this article I will use the term cognitive distortions to refer to this phenomena in CBT from now on.

So what are cognitive distortions or negative thought patterns? Cognitive distortions are consistent patterns of thinking. These patterns of thinking are most likely to be the cause of anxious or depressed feelings. Emotional problems come from these cognitive distortions.

What are the types of cognitive distortions?

Knowing they types of cognitive distortions are the first step to recognizing when your thoughts are distorted.

  1. All or Nothing thinking
  2. Catastrophizing/ magnification
  3. Mind Reading
  4. Should Statements
  5. Comparisons
  6. Discounting the positive
  7. Overgeneralization
  8. Emotional Reasoning/ Rationalization
  9. Fortune telling
  10. Personalization
  11. Rationalization

All or Nothing Thinking

cognitive distortions
Luiza Sayfullina Unsplash

This cognitive distortion is also considered black and white thinking. A person might have this cognitive distortion when they think of others, themselves, and things as all negative or positive. They will have a perspective that is more extreme and less neutral. When asked how their night was, the person would likely respond that the night was: “Just terrible! Everything was awful. The food was bad, the company was worse.” However, an example of a balanced point of view might say: “The food was not very good and I could not find anyone to talk to but the weather was nice and nothing terrible happened.” Instead of saying everything was horrible they typically give a little more detail and they pay attention to both positive and negative aspects of their experiences. They might say the food was “Just okay” or “Not what I like”.

Catastrophizing/ Magnification

Catastrophizing is a distortion where the person thinks that the worst thing will happen during a certain situation. “If I don’t get an A I am never going to get a job.” And magnification is when you think something will be worse than it is. “I totally got nervous during that presentation. Everyone zoned out. I totally blew it!”

Mind Reading

cognitive distortions mind reading
Rhett Wesley Unsplash

“They will hate me if I show up like that.” Whenever you decide what someone else is thinking you are guilty of the is cognitive distortion. “She clearly doesn’t like me. She never asks me to hang out.” Occasionally, mind-reading can be useful. For instance, using body language cues to figure out someone is upset can be helpful. However, when the process of mindreading leads you to believe a person is mad at you and you start to bee feel with dread that can be pretty unhelpful.

Should Statements

Basically, anything with should in the statement. These typically appear as inflexible rules as to how people should be. This one is pretty easy. These thoughts can cause you to feel way too much pressure to be perfect. Perfectionists often are troubled by these thoughts.

“I should be good at this.” “I shouldn’t have spoken up about that.” “I should have a house by now.” ” I should be a lot further along.” “She should open the door for me.” “You should text me more often.” “I should want to spend more time with them.” Or “I should want to go to that party.”

Comparisons

These shoes are not as good as. I am not as loveable as. No one likes me as much as other people. Her life seems so much better than mine. I wish my skin was as clear as his. I wish my body looked like that.

Getting caught up in comparing your life and body to others can really damage your self-esteem. Comparting people can also hurt their self-esteem. And this can damage your relationships with other people.

Disqualifying/ discounting the positive

cognitive distortion this dog may look sad but he just got all the treats but he's sad because he wasn't given one more. He's disqualifying all the treats before because he had to sit for them.
Michael Kilcoyne

They typically represent disqualifying your good work, your progress, et cetera. Thoughts like: I do not do anything meaningful in my job, discounts all the times you trained someone. Disqualifying the positive means that you might have positive experiences. However, in order to keep your negative belief, you will ignore those experiences. Your focus would be on the experiences that support your negative belief. For instance for someone who believes they are unloveable they might ignore facts. Such as family loving them, boss showing they care, or a partner. If you point out this evidence contradicting the belief the person might say “Well it doesn’t count because…”. A person holding a cognitive distortion as fact will look for reasons that evidence against the distorted thought does not count.

Overgeneralization

Men are cheaters. All people suck. All cats are evil. I’m always a loser. With this cognitive distortion, you are labeling or categorizing based on your experiences with that person’s thing or situation. So for instance if you had experiences with cats who have clawed you. You might make meaning out of that situation by deciding all cats are evil.

Emotional Reasoning

Emotional reasoning is when a person feels something and believes it is true based on the feeling. “I feel like he is ignoring me.” might lead to believing your partner is ignoring you. However, your partner might have a completely valid reason that they could be unresponsive.

Fortune Telling

cognitive distortion fortune telling
Nigel Tadyanehond Unsplash

I am totally guilty of this all the time. And it takes real effort to try to stop. Essentially fortune-telling is where a person believes a consequence will occur based on past experiences. You will likely feel convinced these consequences will happen. Typically the consequence will be a negative outcome and the person will attempt to avoid the outcome or become distressed that there is nothing they can do to avoid the outcome.

Personalization

This cognitive distortion is when you take fault for things that were not your control or your fault. “My partner got injured while drinking because I wasn’t there to make sure he was safe.” These thoughts can feel you with feelings of guilt and regret.

Rationalization

Rationalization is when you do something unhealthy but rationalize that it’s okay because something else happened. People have this distortion when they smoke a cigarette after a stressful day of work. A person who has this distorted thought pattern might blame their behaviors on others or situations. “I can’t help it because…”

Match the cognitive distortions:

Instructions: match the distortion with the thought.

Thoughts:

“I’m always a failure.”

“I’m going to loose my job.”

“Oh my god my life is so awful.”

“All men suck.”

“Well, I got yelled because my partner was annoying me.”

Let me know your answers in the comments!

Steps to reducing cognitive distortions

Understanding cognitive distortions and which one’s your brain uses the most is a great step in reducing the thought patterns and the emotional distress they create.

The first task in any problem solving is to recognize that there is a problem. So over the next week recognize your automatic reactions to situations. What are your first thoughts. These will typically be distorted thoughts.

Once you start recognizing certain patterns or certain types of distorted thoughts you have, then you can start managing them.

Recognizing emotions

Starting to name and recognize your emotions will help you recognize when you are starting to engage in cognitive distortions. Your emotions are these flags letting you know you should be paying attention. when you feel joy you should engage in that moment. When you feel anger you should pay attention to what you are thinking about a situation.

Journaling and cognitive distortions

Brad Neathery Unsplash

It is important to remember that cognitive distortions are thoughts that are untrue but you believe them to be true.

Writing down your thoughts will help you to identify some thoughts that might not be helping you.

Getting to know yourself takes time. One excellent way to get to know yourself is to write about your thoughts and feelings. I would start by asking yourself questions. What do you want what do you need etc. if you come to a stopping point or come up with “I Don’t know” ask yourself how would you know? What steps can you take to figure it out? If you do not know right away give yourself time to breathe take a break and come back to the question. Perhaps chat with someone about how they decide what they want.

In a past blog I wrote about how to become more self-aware. Becoming more self-aware will help you get more comfortable identifying cognitive distortions.

Thought records and cognitive distortions

A thought record is a very common tool widely used during therapy. The thought record is designed to help people separated situations from thoughts feelings and behaviors. They will help teach the interactions between thoughts feelings and behaviors. This tool is the bread and butter of cognitive-behavioral therapy. You can find some examples here.

Working with a therapist or mental health professional

therapy can help you identify cognitive distortions
Priscilla Du Preez Unsplash

I found that working with a therapist helped. However, finding a therapist is sometimes very difficult. It takes time to find a therapist that works for you. Not every therapist is one size fits all. We all have unique personalities. However, taking the time to find a good therapist is 100 percent worth it.

However, therapy can be expensive. There are plenty of texting hotlines that are free, and online guides to help you. I have even borrowed books from the library to help me.

A word about toxic positivity

“Just think happy thoughts.” “Just don’t think about it.” These are some common examples of toxic positivity. Toxic positivity occurs when a person invalidates your feelings and your thoughts and blames you for how you feel. Many people believe you can make yourself happy simply by forcing yourself to think happy thoughts. However, you cannot in fact make yourself feel better simply by thinking of more positive thoughts. Forcing yourself to be positive will only inhibit growth and healing.

Here’s proof: I can think the sky is green all day but that will not make me believe the sky is green. I have evidence, (my eyes) telling me that the sky is in fact pitch black right now.

Telling people to just think happy thoughts, implies that they are to blame for their suffering. This blame leads to shame and guilt. Therefore, telling people to be positive leads to more suffering.

Just as I can think the sky is maroon and not believe it. You can also think that you are beautiful and not believe it. Belief occurs over time. It takes practice, evidence, and concentration. And if your life is pretty shitty right now, then your feelings are valid!

Cognitive distortions concluded

Cognitive distortions are super common. These thinking patterns happen to everyone and it will take time to break the cycle. However, every day you spend challenging your own thoughts and working to have more balance thought patterns you will begin to improve. Getting even one percent better than you were before is infinitely more improvement than where you started.

Cognitive distortions protected us from feeling painful feelings or other physical or psychological harm. However, once these distortions become pervasive they become harmful and maladaptive. Circumstances lead you to have beliefs about yourself and others. Remember what once served you may no longer serve you as you grow.

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