Cognitive Distortions

Man’s ability to think and communicate through verbal and written language is unique and sets him apart from other animal species.  In fact, we can define our very existence in terms of our ability to think. As the philosopher Rene Descarte once wrote in the seventeenth century, “Cogito Ergo Sum,” or “I think therefore I am.”  Indeed, the human mind is a thinking machine.  During its waking state, the mind is seldom inactive and void of thought.  The mind is constantly busy fantasizing, imagining, conjecturing, planning, remembering, reasoning and problem solving. Some of this thinking is purposeful and conscious; however, most of it is automatic and occurs outside our conscious awareness.  This automatic thinking has a powerful effect on what we feel, say and do.

Many people would agree that our thoughts impact how we feel and act. But, they might be surprised to learn that how we think has more impact on our feelings and actions than do events or environmental circumstances. To put it simply, our emotions and behavior are largely governed by our thinking. Philosophers and many psychologists have argued that our thoughts are responsible for causing us to feel the way we do and for much of what disturbs us. For example, the philosopher Epictetus (1 A.D.) stated, “Men are disturbed not by things, but by the views which they take of them.” Contemporary psychologists and psychiatrists such as Albert Ellis, Ph.D., Aaron Beck, MD and David Burns, MD believe, as did Epictetus, that our emotional suffering is largely attributable to automatic thinking that is distorted in some way, and that if we can overcome our distorting thinking we can relieve our emotional suffering.

Everyone has some distorted thoughts or what are now termed by psychologists as cognitive distortions.  Some cognitive distortions are benign and do not cause us any distress.  Other cognitive distortions can be very harmful, causing a great deal of emotional suffering.  Since these cognitive distortions are largely automatic and outside our conscious awareness, they can have a powerful influence over us without our knowing it.  However, we can learn to recognize our distorted automatic thoughts, especially those thoughts that give rise to distressing emotions and harmful behavior. Then, if we change these distorted thoughts in order to make them more realistic and balanced, we can relieve our emotional suffering and put a stop to our self-defeating behavior. Below there is a list of cognitive distortions described by David Burns, MD in his book, Feeling Good, the New Mood Therapy.  Following each cognitive distortion are some questions that you might ask yourself in order to correct the distortion and make your thinking more realistic and balanced.

  • ALL OR NOTHING THINKING:  With this distortion you view the world in a black and white, cut and dried fashion. Examples of this thinking are, “You are either with me or against me, there is no in-between,” “If I don’t don’t get a perfect score, then I am a  complete failure,” “I flunked out of college, so that makes me a big loser” or “She cheated on me, she’s nothing but a filthy whore.”    Reality testing questions:  “Are there any other ways I could think about this?”  “Is there any evidence to the contrary?”  “Is this really true, or have I just chosen to think about it this way?”
  • JUMPING TO CONCLUSIONS:  This distortion occurs whenever you draw a conclusion without having any facts to back it up.  It often leads you to believe that because something could happen that it will happen, and to overestimate the likelihood that negative events will occur in the future.  When your boss gives you a less than perfect performance evaluation, you think, “I’m never going to get promoted; My boss is probably planning to fire me.”  If your spouse has seemed quiet and preoccupied lately, you think “She doesn’t love me anymore.”  Or, if you suddenly become anxious, light-headed and faint while giving a presentation, you think “Next time I’ll lose control and really embarrass myself.”  There are two sub-categories of this distortion: Mind Reading and Fortune Telling.  Mind reading occurs whenever you conclude someone is thinking negatively about you without verifying your conclusions.  And, fortune telling occurs whenever you predict the future will turn out badly. Reality testing questions:  “What are the chances of this really happening?”  “How often has this happened in the past?”  “Do I know absolutely for certain what the other person is thinking about me?”  “What are the facts supporting my conclusion?”  “How certain am I of my conclusion, would I bet my house on it?”  
  • MAGNIFICATION:  This distortion entails thinking that if something does happen it will be a catastrophe, awful, terrible, horrible and generally unbearable.  Examples of magnification are as follows: “If my spouse left me, life wouldn’t be worth living anymore and I might as well commit suicide,”  “If anyone knew I was seeing a psychologist, I’d be so ashamed that I couldn’t stand it,” or “If my kids got into drugs, I’d just die/fall apart.” Reality testing questions:  “Why would it be awful?”  “What’s the worst that could happen, and how bad would that really be?”   “Would the world come to an end?”  “Could I eventually get over it?”
  • OVERGENERALIZING:  This distortion involves thinking that something negative that happens once in a while, or even once, is a set pattern which will happen over and over again.  For example, if you have been struggling to overcome depression, you might think, “I’ll never get better.”  If your spouse is late for dinner occasionally, you think “He/she is always late to dinner and is never going to make it home on time.”  Or, if you make a mistake, you think “I can’t do anything right.”  When you engage in this distortion you frequently use words like “always” and “never.”  Reality testing Questions:  “What percent of the time does this happen?”  “Are there any exceptions to this generalization.”  “What else could mean?” 
  • MENTAL FILTER:  When you engage in this distortion, you employ a type of tunnel vision where you focus on the negative and filter out the positive.  You find ample evidence to support your negative beliefs and filter out any counter examples.  For instance, you might ignore compliments others have given you and focus on a criticism someone made.  Reality testing Questions: “What am I overlooking?”  “Am I seeing the whole picture?”  “Can I think of any positives?”
  • DISCOUNTING THE POSITIVE:  You engage in this distortion when you discount your positive experiences or attributes and emphasize your negative ones. This can sometimes go to such an extreme that you are unable to identify any positive experiences or personal qualities.  An example, of this thinking would be saying to yourself, “I don’t know why anyone would ever love me, I have nothing to offer them.”  Reality testing questions: “What would you say to a friend who felt or thought the way you do?”  “What is the evidence my belief is true and is there any evidence it might be false?”
  • EMOTIONAL REASONING:  When you engage in this distortion, you turn feelings into facts.  In other words, “I feel it, so it must be true.”  Hence, you decide something based on emotions of the moment, such as when you decide “I can’t go exercise, I don’t feel I have the energy for it,”  or “I’ll wait to plan the trip, I don’t feel like it now.” In reality, feelings are not the same as facts and sometimes they are poor predictors of facts.  Only by testing will you know if your feelings are valid indicators of what is true or not.  Reality testing questions:  What will happen if I ignore that feeling, try an experiment and do it anyway?”  “Am I basing my decision on feelings which change from time to time?”  “Would I feel better about myself if I ignored these feelings for the moment to see what will happen?”
  • SHOULD STATEMENTS:  When you use “Should statements,” you turn personal wishes and wants into entitlements, obligations or necessities.  “Should statements” rest on the erroneous assumption that you are entitled to what you want, others are obligated to give you what you want or you or others are obligated to behave in certain expected ways.  It is a type of distorted thinking that occurs when something doesn’t turn out the you expect or want it to turn out.  By making “Should statements” you are not accepting reality on its own terms, you are demanding that reality conform to your terms.  How unrealistic or grandiose is that?  Thinking that contains “must,” “ought” and “have to” are another form of “should statement.”  Examples of “Should statements” are, “People should be more considerate of one another in traffic,”  “People shouldn’t be so rude,” “I should have done better,”  “People shouldn’t treat me with disrespect,” or “I should have known better.”  Reality testing questions:  “If it is required or necessary that something occurs, why doesn’t it occur.”  Something either happens or it doesn’t there is no “SHOULD” involved.  I am not GOD and the universe does not follow my dictates.  “Where is the proof that this belief is true?”  “If this is only my expectation, is it fair or kind?”
  • LABELING:  When engaging in this distortion you generalize and make make negative characterizations regarding yourself or another person based upon a limited set of behaviors.  For example, “Because you forgot my birthday and our anniversary, you are a total jerk.”  It leads to calling others names such as “jerk,” “bitch,” “bum,” “@*#hole, selfish or retarded.  Labeling is a form of objectification where you dehumanize yourself or another person by making them into an object, something less than human.   It causes you to feel morally superior to the other person, to judge and blame them for problems and to feel angry and/or behave aggressively.  Finally, it eliminates any motivation you may have to resolve problems between you and the other person.  Reality testing questions:  “What is the problem specifically?”  “What specific behaviors am I upset about?”  “This person is a human being not an object.”  “How is this individual like me, can I put my self in their shoes?”  “Can I see things from the other person’s point of view, e.g., stand in their shoes for a moment.”
  • PERSONALIZATION:  Personalization occurs when you take complete responsibility for an occurrence that is not entirely your responsibility or under your control. You blame yourself when the blame is not entirely yours to own.  An example would be thinking that if you were a better wife, your husband wouldn’t beat you or that if you had been a better mother, your son wouldn’t have failed out of college.  Reality testing question:  “Are there any other factors that may have caused the event to occur.”  “What would you say to a friend who felt or thought the way you do?”