Cognitive Distortions

Our thoughts about ourselves and the world impact how we feel. This connection between thoughts and emotions is the basis of cognitive therapy. Books like Mind over Mood, Thoughts & Feelings: Taking control of your moods and your lifeFeel the way you want to feel...no matter what!, and The Feeling Good Handbook all suggest that changing our thinking can alleviate distress.

To illustrate how our thoughts create emotions let's say I tell you "You look nice today".  You might have the thought "That's nice, I do look good don't I". This may create a positive feeling and you may feel happy. Let's say you have the thought "What does she want? She must be buttering me up for something". This thought might lead to feeling skeptical, defensive, anxious and untrusting. Another thought could be "She's just saying that, I look terrible." This thought might lead to feelings of anger or sadness. The statement "You look nice today" didn't change yet the interpretation, the thoughts we have about that statement can create very different feelings.

Cognitive distortions are irrational thoughts. Simply explained cognitive distortions are ways in which our mind convinces us of something that isn’t really true. These inaccurate thoughts usually reinforce negative emotions and feelings by disgusting themselves as things that sound rational and accurate. However these thoughts only really serve to keep the negative view and emotions going (keep us feeling bad about ourselves or others). I find it helpful when working with clients to have them identify these distortions, specifically when challenging interpretations or faulty beliefs. Aaron Beck first proposed the theory behind cognitive distortions and David Burns, MD was responsible for popularizing it.  Eliminating these distortions and negative thoughts is said to improve mood and discourage maladies such as depression and chronic anxiety. The process of learning to refute these distortions is called "cognitive restructuring".

Here is a list of the 10 most common types of Cognitive Distortions from Dr. Burn's "The Feeling Good Handbook".

  1. All-or-nothing thinking: Thinking about things in absolute terms,  like “every”, “always” and“never”. I also refer to this as Black and White thinking. Few aspects of human behavior are so absolute. For example you decide you are going to go on a diet and you have something that wasn’t on your diet, you then decide you failed and give up completely. If your performance falls short of perfect, you see yourself as a total failure. All-or-nothing-thinking can contribute to depression.
  2. Overgeneralization: You see a single negative event as a never-ending pattern of defeat. One bad grade on a test means you will always do badly.
  3. Mental filter: You pick out a single negative detail and dwell on it exclusively so that your vision of all reality becomes darkened, like the drop of ink that discolors the entire beaker of water
  4. Disqualifying the positive: You reject positive experiences by insisting they "don't count" for some reason or other. You maintain a negative belief that is contradicted by your everyday experiences.
  5. Jumping to conclusions: You make a negative interpretation even though there are no definite facts that convincingly support your conclusion. Examples of jumping to conclusions include: 1. Mind reading: You arbitrarily conclude that someone is reacting negatively to you and don't bother to check it out. 2. The Fortune Teller Error: You anticipate that things will turn out badly and feel convinced that your prediction is an already-established fact.
  6. Magnification (catastrophizing) or minimization: You exaggerate the importance of things (such as your goof-up or someone else's achievement), or you inappropriately shrink things until they appear tiny (your own desirable qualities or the other fellow's imperfections). This is also called the "binocular trick".
  7. "Emotional reasoning: You assume that your negative emotions necessarily reflect the way things really are: "I feel it, therefore it must be true."
  8. Should statements: You try to motivate yourself with shoulds and shouldn'ts, as if you had to be whipped and punished before you could be expected to do anything. "Musts" and "oughts" are also offenders. The emotional consequence is guilt. When you direct should statements toward others, you feel anger, frustration, and resentment.
  9. Labeling and mislabeling: This is an extreme form of overgeneralization. Instead of describing your error, you attach a negative label to yourself: "I'm a loser." When someone else's behavior rubs you the wrong way, you attach a negative label to him, "He's a damn louse." Mislabeling involves describing an event with language that is highly colored and emotionally loaded.
  10. Personalization: You see yourself as the cause of some negative external event for which, in fact, you were not primarily responsible.

References:

Beck, A. T. (1976). Cognitive therapies and emotional disorders. New York: New American Library.

Burns, David D., MD. 1989. The Feeling Good Handbook. New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc.