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March 24, 2022

What Are Cognitive Distortions?

If you read our last behavioral wellness blog post focused on embracing all emotions as part of humanness, you may be wondering what could possibly be tricking your brain into having thoughts that provoke uncomfortable feelings like pessimism, anxiety, or anger. Why are those thoughts keeping you stuck in the discomfort that the feelings evoke? The answer may be cognitive distortions.

Cognitive distortions are ways of interpreting an experience and twisting the meaning into a distorted or irrational thought, with or without evidence to the contrary. They are learned so subtly in our culture that sometimes we do not even recognize that they even exist.

Becoming an Observer of Your Thoughts

We often say, “You can’t change something you don’t know exists”. Many times, I have found that the best way to challenge a distorted thought is to first identify that it exists. Take a sheet of notebook paper and fold it down the center long way. First, on the left side of the paper write what you are doing, the date and the time of day that this thought began. Then below that write the thought that facilitated the feeling.

Once you have acted as “the observer of your thoughts,” move to the other side of the paper fold and write any cognitive distortions listed below that may apply. The list below includes the most common cognitive distortions identified and addressed by Aaron Beck, the founder of cognitive behavioral theory (CBT). Once a pattern of thinking reveals itself on your paper, use the bottom portion of the paper to negate or challenge your thoughts.  This may take some hard work, especially in the beginning of establishing this behavior. If you have a significant other or someone who can provide an objective perspective, this can be helpful.

Most Common Cognitive Distortions

1. All-or-Nothing Thinking / Polarized Thinking

This distortion manifests in seeing things in terms of extremes, for example, right or wrong, good or bad, etc. This distortion is sometimes referred to as “Black-and-White Thinking”

2. Overgeneralization

This distortion takes one instance or example and generalizes it to an overall pattern. Overgeneralizing can lead you to have negative thoughts about yourself and your environment based on a very limited number of experiences.

3. Mental Filter

The mental filter distortion focuses on a single negative piece of information and excludes all the positive ones.  The mental filter tends to foster a decidedly pessimistic view of the world around you by focusing only on the negative.

4. Disqualifying the Positive

The “Disqualifying the Positive” distortion acknowledges positive experiences but rejects them instead of embracing them.  This distortion can facilitate negative thought patterns even in the face of strong evidence to the contrary.

5. Jumping to Conclusions – Mind Reading

This “Jumping to Conclusions” distortion manifests as the inaccurate belief that we know what another person is thinking.

6. Jumping to Conclusions – Fortune Telling

Fortune telling refers to the tendency to make conclusions and predictions based on little to no evidence and holding them as truth.

7. Magnification (Catastrophizing) or Minimization

This distortion involves exaggerating or minimizing the meaning, importance, or likelihood of things.  This distortion is also known as the “Binocular Trick” because it narrows your field of vision and hyper focuses on one error.

8. Emotional Reasoning

Emotional reasoning refers to the acceptance of one’s emotions as a fact. It can be described as “I feel it, therefore it must be true.”

9. Should Statements

Should statements are statements you make about what you “should” do, what you “ought” to do, or what you “must” do. They can also apply to others, imposing a set of expectations that could or could not be met.

When we use “should” statements about ourselves, we often experience guilt about our inability to fulfill what we feel “should” be. Similarly, when we use “should” statements about others, we are often disappointed by their failure to meet our expectations.  This may lead to feelings of anger and resentment.

10. Labeling and Mislabeling

A tendency to label or mislabel are extreme forms of overgeneralization. Value judgments are often assigned to ourselves or others based upon one example.  Mislabeling refers to the application of highly emotional, loaded, and inaccurate or unreasonable language when labeling.

11. Personalization

This distortion involves taking things personally or accepting blame for something that is logically not our fault.

12. Control Fallacies

The control fallacy manifests as one of two beliefs: (1) that people have no control over their lives and are helpless victims or (2) that they are in complete control of themselves and their surroundings. Individuals who use this distorted thought tend to take responsibility for the feelings of others.

13. Fallacy of Fairness

The assumption of an inherently fair world unfortunately does not involve reality. Therefore, a person who judges their experiences by their perceived fairness will often experience anger, resentment, and hopelessness when they encounter a situation that they perceive as not fair.

14. Fallacy of Change

This distortion involves expecting others to change in response to our pressure or encouragement.

15. Always Being Right

This cognitive distortion refers to the belief that we are always right. For those struggling with this distortion, the idea that they could be wrong or that someone else’s perspective may also be right is unacceptable and they will fight to prove that their way is right.

16. Reward Fallacy

The “Reward Fallacy” manifests as a belief that one’s struggles, suffering, and hard work will result in reward.  The reality is that occasionally, regardless of how hard someone works or how much they sacrifice, they will not achieve what they aim to achieve.

Training yourself to be the observer of your thoughts will help you live a more positive and intentional life.  In working to identify and rationalize yourself out of potential cognitive distortions and then intentionally choosing how best to behave in the feelings generated from the thoughts, we can get ourselves “unstuck” from unproductive and potentially damaging patterns.

Our Behavioral Wellness providers engage you in an active therapeutic process that will help you grow in self-awareness, make healthy choices, and achieve appropriate balance in your life. Avance Care therapists use a strengths-based approach that helps you achieve your full potential and greatest degree of life satisfaction. Find mental health support through Behavioral Wellness Services at our Avance Care locations.

Dr. Sharon Kirlik is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker with over 28 years of pragmatic, clinical knowledge practiced in multiple realms of social work across the United States, India, and throughout the African continent. She earned her Master of Social Work degree at the University of Georgia and her PhD from Capella University in counseling. Dr. Kirlik integrates several robustly supported theories to assist clients in self-defining behaviors and thought patterns that no longer work within the context of their lives. She is expertly versed in cognitive behavioral theory (CBT) and client-centered theory (CCT).

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