Cognitive Distortions

A few weeks ago I wrote about the world of negative thinking, the amazing ability of our brain to speak to us in terms that are, albeit damaging, comfortable and well known. However, I cautioned you not to believe everything your brain says…you see, we have a built-in negativity bias. Yes, we have a natural tendency to think in negative terms, and that is ok, it is a survival skill, our brains need to alert us from danger. It has been there since the times we lived in caves and our ancestors had to worry about wild animals and glaciers and such. 

Nowadays, however, we don’t really live in that much physical danger (generally) but we have translated that skill into emotional and psychological terms. So, where’s the problem you might ask? Well, when we lived in caves it was easy to see if the animal was, in fact, a danger to us or if the glacier was getting too close. We could react to the danger or we could ‘debunk’ our negative idea about danger or causality fast and easily. Emotional and psychological interpretations of our world are a bit harder to debunk. Our “truths” are as true to us as our existence. Today I want to talk about those thoughts that cause us to perceive reality in a distorted way. Cognitive distortions are twisted perspectives we take on ourselves and the world around us. They are irrational, but with time and practice we learn to believe them and we accumulate “proof” using our filters. 

Neuroscience has found that the human brain works based on stories. We need a beginning, a middle and an end. When we do not have any of those components, we literally fill in the gap with whatever is familiar to us, sometimes a similar experience from the past, sometimes a completely different story with no foundation, sometimes a plain lie. In a certain way, we can say that this is the place where cognitive distortions are born; when we don’t have enough information but we need to fill in the gap to complete ‘our story’ to satisfy our brain…the story we tell ourselves. 

Our brains are wired to create connections between thoughts, ideas, actions and consequences. This happens whether they are actually connected or not. As I was trying to think of an example, I remembered that back home we think that if someone looks at what we are eating with desire, and it falls on the floor it means that they were jealous or envious and their act of looking at our food is the reason it fell even though the person could have been 5 feet away from us. I bet any Cuban reading this will remember a time when they did that or said it to someone else. Yes, it is weird now that we think about it, but we truly believed it. “Me lo tumbaste con los ojos” we say as in “you made it fall with your eyes”.

 

Cognitive distortions are intrusive and go hand in hand with depression and anxiety. They are errors in thinking that when going unchecked can prevent you from living a healthy and fulfilling life.

 

That is a funny example but cognitive distortions can be a lot more damaging than a food falling on the floor. It is a version of the ANTs (Automatic Negative Thoughts) that we have talked about when we are discussing depression, it is also the ghost of the future and the fears linked to anxiety; and of course, it the overwhelming “explanations” that we give ourselves when we are not communicating clearly with our partners. The inside critical voice that tells you “you are the problem”, “that person hates me”, or “he doesn’t love me anymore”.

At one point or another one in our lives, we have all experienced or have had these thoughts (you can see and download the PDF here

  • Filtering: When we focus on the negative aspects of the person or situation and ignore all the positive
  • Overgeneralization: When we assume all the experiences and people are the same, based on one negative experience. “All men are the same”
  • Polarized thinking: When we analyze everything in extremes, black and white thinking with no grey area. All or nothing thinking using terms such as ‘never’, ‘always’, ‘every’, etc.
  • Jumping to conclusions” When we interpret the meaning of something with little to no evidence to support it. 
    • Mind-reading: Interpreting the thoughts of others with little to no evidence
    • Fortune telling: When we expect a situation to turn out badly without enough evidence
  • Magnification-Minimization: When we exaggerate or minimize the importance or the repercussions of events. 
    • Catastrophizing: When we assume the worst-case scenario, magnifying the negative and minimizing the positive. 
    • Delusion: When we hold a fixed false belief about something even though there is plenty of proof of the opposite. 
  • Personalization: When we believe that we are al least partially responsible for everything bad that happens around us “My mom is always mad, she will be fine if I do more chores”
  • Fallacy of fairness: When we are too concerned over whether everything is or should be fair
  • Blaming: When we point to others when looking for a cause to any negative event instead of looking at ourselves as well. Avoiding responsibility is the rule
  • Shoulds: When we hold a tight list of personal rules on how people ought to behave “I should always be happy”
  • Emotional reasoning: Feeling is believing… “I feel it, therefore, it is true” “I feel like a bad parent, I must be a bad parent”
  • Fallacy of change: When we expect others to change to suit our needs and desires. “Once we are married, she/he will change”
  • Global labelling/mislabeling: Generalizing one or two instances into the overall judgment of someone. “Once a cheater, always a cheater”
  • Always being right: Believing that it is absolutely unacceptable to be wrong. 
  • Magical thinking: Believing that every good act in our part will be rewarded or repaid. “I am a good person. Bad things should not happen to good people”

 

Please keep in mind that depending on the source, you will find different names for cognitive distortions. This list is not meant to be exhaustive, it is a combination of several sources with the ones I have found to be more common in my counselling practice. 

Even though cognitive distortions are common and a part of our everyday lives, it does not mean that we have to resign ourselves to having them. You can identify, challenge and even erase distortions from your thinking. Putting your thoughts on trial, learning the difference between facts and your opinion, decatastrophizing, keeping a thought record, are some of the strategies you can use.  Some will be easy and some will be harder to do. For a list of well-researched strategies and their handouts go to Positivepsychology.com 

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