What are Cognitive Distortions?
According to PsychCentral, cognitive distortions are simply ways that our mind convinces us of something that is not really true. These thoughts are usually used to confirm negative thinking or emotions. Telling ourselves things that sound right, but really only keep us feeling bad about ourselves.
Cognitive distortions are the core cognitive behaviours that therapists try to help a person learn to change. By learning to correctly identify these thoughts, a person can then answer the negative thinking back and negate it. By negating the negative thinking, overtime it will diminish and be replaced with more rational thoughts.
Most Common Cognitive Distortions
Filtering – someone engaging in filter takes negative details and magnifies those details while filtering out the positive aspects of a situation. For example, someone may pick out one unpleasant detail and dwell on it so that their version of reality becomes darkened by those thoughts. When cognitive filter is applied, the person only sees the negative and ignores anything positive that is happening in a certain situation.
Polarized Thinking – someone with polarized thinking places people or situations in ‘either/or’ categories, with no in between to allow room for complexity of most people and situations. A person with polarized thinking only sees things in extremes.
Overgeneralization – someone who comes to general conclusion based on a single incident. If something bad happens once, they believe it will just happen again and again. A person could see an unpleasant situation as part of a never-ending cycle. For example, if a student gets a bad grade on one assignment in one semester, they may conclude that they are a horrible student and should drop out of school.
Jumping to Conclusions – without others are saying so, a person who jumps to conclusions knows what another person is feeling and thinking and why they act the way they do. Specifically, a person is able to conclude how others are feeling toward the person as if they can read their mind. For instance, someone may conclude that someone is holding a grudge against them but doesn’t actually bother to find out if they are correct.
Catastrophizing – when a person engages in catastrophizing, they expect a disaster to happen no matter what. This can also be referred to as magnifying and come out in its opposite behaviour, which is minimizing. In this case, a person hears about an issue and uses what if questions to imagine the worst outcome. For instance, a person may exaggerate the importance of an event or may minimize how significant it is.
Personalization – a distortion where one believes that everything people around them do or say is somewhat direct or personal reaction to them specifically. They take everything personally even when it is not meant that way. A person who experiences this kind of thinking will also compare themselves to others to see who is smarter, better, etc. One who engages in personalization may also see themselves as the reason of some unhealthy external factor that they are not responsible for.
Control Fallacies – this involves two different but related beliefs about being in complete control of every situation in a person’s life. First, if one believes and feels that they are externally controlled, they see themselves as a victim of fate. Second, the fallacy of internal control has one assuming responsibility for the pain and happiness of everyone around them.
Fallacy of Fairness – a person may feel resentful because they think they know what is fair and what is not. People who goes around measuring life with the fairness ruler in contradiction to every situation will often feel resentful, angry, and hopeless. If one believes that life is not fair, then things will not always work out in their favour, even when they should.
Blaming – when someone engages in blaming, they hold others responsible for their pain. They may also take the opposite approach and blame themselves for everything, when it is outside their control.
Emotional Reasoning – whatever one is feeling is believed to be true can automatically and unconditionally. If one feels stupid and boring, then they ought to be stupid and boring. Emotions are strong in people and can overrule any rational thinking and reasoning. Emotional reasoning is when one’s emotions take over their thinking completely, regardless of logic and reason.
Fallacy of Change – a person expects that others will change to suit them if they pressure them enough to. This distortion is often found in thinking around relationships. For instance, a someone who tries to get their partner to improve their appearance in belief that it will make them happy if their partner dressed sharper.
Global Labeling – a person has a general judgment about themselves or another individual. This a form of generalizing. Instead of describing an error in context of a specific situation, a person will attach an unhealthy label of themselves or others. For instance, one might say that they are not enough in a situation because they failed at a specific task. Mislabeling involves describing an event with language that is hurtful.
Always Being Right – when one engages in this distortion, they are putting other people on trial to prove that their own opinions and actions are always right. Individuals will go out of their way to prove that they are right.
Heaven’s Reward Fallacy – the false belief that a person’s sacrifice and self-denial will pay off as if there is some global force is keeping a score of what they do. This is similar to the fallacy of fairness because in a fair world, the people who work the hardest will get the bigger rewards. An individual who works hard but does not experience their expected reward will feel bitter when the reward is not there.
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Leahy, R.L. (2017). Cognitive Therapy Techniques, Second Edition: A Practitioner’s Guide. New York: Guilford Press.
McKay, M. & Fanning, P. (2016). Self-Esteem: A Proven Program of Cognitive Techniques for Assessing, Improving, and Maintaining Your Self-Esteem. New York: New Harbinger Publications.