I’m sure many of you are already familiar with cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), but I thought it was still worth taking a look at cognitive distortions, a key ingredient in the CBT soup. Cognitive distortions are common unrealistic patterns of thinking. They’re not delusional, but at the same time, they don’t accurate reflect reality, and they often cause a whole boatload of uncomfortable emotions.
When we’re not well, we’re more likely to fall into these common thinking traps, although having a mental illness certainly isn’t a requirement for distorted thinking. Recognizing that we’re falling into these traps is an important step towards challenging the thoughts that lead us there.
All-or-nothing (aka black & white thinking, polarized thinking, or splitting)
This multi-named cognitive distortion insists that things are one way (e.g. good) or the opposite way (e.g. bad), with no shades of grey in between.
This can show up in perfectionists as “I am not perfect, therefore I’m a complete failure.” There’s a whole lot of grey area in between those two extremes, but all-or-nothing thinking isn’t interested in grey area.
Always being right
While this may seem odd, as your inner critic may spend a lot of time telling you that you’re wrong, this cognitive distortion isn’t about being factually right. It’s about being convinced that your beliefs, and your actions based on those beliefs, are correct, even if they’re actually pretty darn distorted.
This can tie into self-verification theory, which says that we want to be around others who view us the same way we view ourselves, even if that view is negative. This helps us to maintain a stable self-concept. However, if you’ve made an error and conclude that you’re a failure as a person, self-verification and always being right are going to natter in your head that anyone who tells you otherwise is full of crapola.
This involves blaming another person for causing one’s own inner experiences. It often takes the form of “you made me feel [x].” No one else can control the emotions in your head, so to break that down a bit, it’s actually “you did [x], and I felt [y] in response to that action.” Even if [y] is a very normal and expected reaction to [x], blaming [x] for [y] gives away control of your inner experiences, leaving a sense of powerlessness to manage those inner experiences.
An alternative way of approaching this would be to recognize that you can’t control whether or not another person does [x], and you probably can’t control your automatic reaction [y], but you can control what you do with [y], and CBT can help with that.
Disqualifying the positive
This involves dismissing anything positive as not actually counting. For example, if someone was helpful to you, you might dismiss that as the person just pretending to be nice, because no one would actually be nice to you.
Emotional reasoning is essentially I feel it, therefore it is so (kind of a distorted twist on “I think, therefore I am”).
We have a lot of different thoughts and emotions that float through our heads. Many of them have little to do with the reality outside our heads. I feel like a pathetic excuse for a human being is in no way evidence that you are, in fact, a pathetic human being, but emotional reasoning will tell you that it is.
Fallacy of change
This is the expectation that others will change to suit our needs if we just push them hard enough, and that in turn will change our situation. This can sound like I would be happy if only he would do [x], so I need to keep trying to get him to do [x]. Forget about [x], because you can’t make him do it, and if you’re not happy, that’s something you need to work on for yourself, regardless of what someone else does or does not do.
Fallacy of control
Locus of control refers to who we see as having control over what happens. There can start to be problems if we perceive it as being fully external (i.e. I don’t have control over what happens to me) or fully internal, to the point that you start to think that, through your actions, you have control over what happens to other people. Overestimating the amount of control you have other things can lead to endless frustration as you try to change things that you simply can’t. A big one is that you can’t control how other people think/feel, just like they can’t control what you think/feel (despite what emotional reasoning tells you).
Fallacy of fairness
We all want people to treat us fairly, but when we start to expect them to actually do so, that gets into the fallacy of fairness. When we feel like things are unfair, that can bring out our inner toddler.
When the fallacy of fairness is applied on a broader scale, it’s known as the just world fallacy. This is the idea that good things happen to good people who behave properly, and bad things happen to bad people who behave badly.
Most often, this involves filtering any positives out of our awareness and only focusing on the negative. You may have walked out your front door a thousand times without anything bad happening, but they one time you happen to trip on your way out, that takes over and wipes out the memory of those thousand other times.
Heaven’s reward fallacy
This is the believe that since we’ve sacrificed/suffered, something good/rewarding must come of it eventually, and if we’re not getting that good outcome, we’re not trying hard enough. This fallacy can get in the way of how we relate to other people, along the lines of if I do [a], [b], and [c] for this person, they’ll have to do [x] for me. No, they won’t have to, and they probably won’t. If you want to do [a], [b], and [c], knock yourself out, but if you’re expecting something out of your sacrifice, you’re setting yourself up for disappointment.
Jumping to conclusions
Jumping to conclusions involves overestimating our ability to know things about what’s going on around us.
Specific forms of this are:
- Fortune-telling: predicting how something will turn out. e.g. I know if I go to the party I’ll end up humiliating myself somehow, so I’m better off not going
- Mind-reading: believing that one can know another person’s thoughts based on their behaviour, e.g. It’s been an hour and he still hasn’t answered my text. That must mean that he hates me.
In reality, we’re lousy at both fortune-telling and mind-reading.
Magnification and minimization
Just like it sounds, magnification makes things out to be bigger than they actually are, while minimization downplays the significance of things.
Catastrophizing is a specific example that involves expecting that the worst will happen – think Chicken Little and the sky is falling!
This is exactly what it sounds like. We look at one specific event and overgeneralize to assume that all other related events will be the same. For example, this could involve believing that since one manager at work treated you badly, any manager is going to treat you the same way, although there’s no evidence to support making that conclusion. It could also mean hearing that your friend had a side effect from a certain medication, and overgeneralizing that the medication is horrible and no one should take it, ever, for any reason.
Labelling is a specific type of overgeneralization that involves labelling (and judging) a person as a whole based on a particular behaviour. The internet likes to do this a lot, especially with terms like toxic or narcissistic. The reality is that people, including yourself, are a lot more complicated than any label we slap on, but focusing on the label alone puts on blinders to everything else.
As humans, we’re self-referential creatures. We think about ourselves far more than anyone else thinks about us. One of the ways this can show up is through personalization, which involves perceiving things to be totally because of or directed at us, when in reality they have nothing to do with us.
There are some things we need to do, some things we want to do, and others that we think we should do. Some shoulds are more like needs, like we all “should” follow the law, but others are pretty unreasonable (e.g. I “should” wash my hands 50 times after touching a door handle).
Should involve evaluations and judgments, and they often involve unrealistic standards. Perfectionism, for example, is getting caught up in the idea that you should be able to do things perfectly (but really, that’s not possible). Shoulds tell you that you’re a bad person if you do [x] or don’t do [y]. Your inner critic is all about the shoulds.
Dropping the shoulds isn’t necessarily about changing what you do, but rather, it’s about dropping the judgments and unrealistic standards.
Some MH@H posts on this topic:
- Shoulding Ourselves to Death
- “Should” You Worry About Things?
- The Should Monster: The Problem with “I Should”
So that’s a quick run-down on cognitive distortions. Dr. David Burns’ Feeling Good Handbook is a great resource that goes deeper into this topic. PositivePsychology.com is another resource that has free worksheets related to cognitive distortions.
Tomorrow, I’ll get personal and poke at some of the cognitive distortions I’ve identified in my own thinking.
The CBT Fundamentals mini-ebook, available from the MH@H Download Centre, provides an introduction to cognitive behavioural therapy concepts along with workbook exercises.