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“I have the worst luck in the entire world.“
“I just failed that math test. I’m no good at school, and I might as well quit.“
“She’s late. It’s raining. She has hydroplaned and her car is upside down in a ditch.“
These are all prime examples of cognitive distortions: thought patterns that cause people to view reality in inaccurate — usually negative — ways.
In short, they’re habitual errors in thinking. When you’re experiencing a cognitive distortion, the way you interpret events is usually negatively biased.
Most people experience cognitive distortions from time to time. But if they’re reinforced often enough, they can increase anxiety, deepen depression, cause relationship difficulties, and lead to a host of other complications.
In other words, stress could cause people to adapt their thinking in ways that are useful for their immediate survival. But these thoughts aren’t rational or healthy long-term.
In the 1960s, psychiatrist Aaron Beck pioneered research on cognitive distortions in his development of a treatment method known as cognitive behavioral therapy.
Since then, researchers have identified at least 10 common distorted thinking patterns, which are listed below:
Sometimes called all-or-nothing, or black and white thinking, this distortion occurs when people habitually think in extremes.
When you’re convinced that you’re either destined for success or doomed to failure, that the people in your life are either angelic or evil, you’re probably engaging in polarized thinking.
This kind of distortion is unrealistic and often unhelpful because most of the time reality exists somewhere between the two extremes.
When people overgeneralize, they reach a conclusion about one event and then incorrectly apply that conclusion across the board.
For example, you make a low score on one math test and conclude that you’re hopeless at math in general. You have a negative experience in one relationship and develop a belief that you just aren’t good at relationships at all.
This distorted type of thinking leads people to dread or assume the worst when faced with the unknown. When people catastrophize, ordinary worries can quickly escalate.
For instance, an expected check doesn’t arrive in the mail. A person who catastrophizes may begin to fear it will never arrive, and that as a consequence it won’t be possible to pay rent and the whole family will be evicted.
It’s easy to dismiss catastrophizing as a hysterical over-reaction, but people who have developed this cognitive distortion may have experienced repeated adverse events — like chronic pain or childhood trauma — so often that they fear the worst in many situations.
One of the most common errors in thinking is taking things personally when they’re not connected to or caused by you at all.
You may be engaging in personalization when you blame yourself for circumstances that aren’t your fault, or are beyond your control.
Another example is when you incorrectly assume that you’ve been intentionally excluded or targeted.
Personalization has been associated with heightened anxiety and depression.
When people assume they know what others are thinking, they’re resorting to mind reading.
It can be hard to distinguish between mind reading and empathy — the ability to perceive and understand what others may be feeling.
To tell the difference between the two, it might be helpful to consider all the evidence, not just the evidence that confirms your suspicions or beliefs.
Another distorted thought pattern is the tendency to ignore positives and focus exclusively on negatives.
Interpreting circumstances using a negative mental filter is not only inaccurate, it can worsen anxiety and depression symptoms.
Like mental filters, discounting the positive involves a negative bias in thinking.
People who tend to discount the positive don’t ignore or overlook something positive. Instead, they explain it away as a fluke or sheer luck.
Instead of acknowledging that a good outcome is the result of skill, smart choices, or determination, they assume that it must be an accident or some type of anomaly.
When people believe they have no control over their circumstances, it can reduce motivation and cultivate a sense of “learned helplessness.”
When people find themselves thinking in terms of what “should” and “ought” to be said or done, it’s possible that a cognitive distortion is at work.
It’s rarely helpful to chastise yourself with what you “should” be able to do in a given situation. “Should” and “ought” statements are often used by the thinker to take on a negative view of their life.
These types of thoughts are often rooted in internalized family or cultural expectations which might not be appropriate for an individual.
Such thoughts can diminish your self-esteem and raise anxiety levels.
Emotional reasoning is the false belief that your emotions are the truth — that the way you feel about a situation is a reliable indicator of reality.
While it’s important to listen to, validate, and express emotion, it’s equally important to judge reality based on rational evidence.
Labeling is a cognitive distortion in which people reduce themselves or other people to a single — usually negative — characteristic or descriptor, like “drunk” or “failure.”
When people label, they define themselves and others based on a single event or behavior.
Labeling can cause people to berate themselves. It can also cause the thinker to misunderstand or underestimate others.
This misperception can cause real problems between people. No one wants to be labeled.
The good news is that cognitive distortions can be corrected over time.
Here are some steps you can take if you want to change thought patterns that may not be helpful:
Identify the troublesome thought
When you realize a thought is causing anxiety or dampening your mood, a good first step is to figure out what kind of distorted thinking is taking place.
To better understand how your thoughts affect your emotions and behavior, you may want to consider reading “Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy” by clinical psychologist Dr. David Burns. This book is considered by many to be the definitive work on this subject.
Try reframing the situation
Look for shades of gray, alternative explanations, objective evidence, and positive interpretations to expand your thinking.
You might find it helpful to write down your original thought, followed by three or four alternative interpretations.
Perform a cost-benefit analysis
People usually repeat behaviors that deliver some benefit.
You might find it helpful to analyze how your thought patterns have helped you cope in the past. Do they give you a sense of control in situations where you feel powerless? Do they allow you to avoid taking responsibility or taking necessary risks?
You can also ask yourself what engaging in cognitive distortion costs you. Weighing the pros and cons of your thought patterns could motivate you to change them.
Consider cognitive behavioral therapy
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a widely recognized form of talk therapy in which people learn to identify, interrupt, and change unhealthy thinking patterns.
If you’d like some guidance in identifying and changing distorted thinking, you might find this type of therapy useful.
CBT usually focuses on specific goals. It generally takes place for a predetermined number of sessions and may take a few weeks to a few months to see results.
Look for a therapist who’s properly certified and licensed in the state where you live. Your therapist should be trained in CBT. Try to find a therapist who has experience treating your type of thinking pattern or issue.
Cognitive distortions are habitual ways of thinking that are often inaccurate and negatively biased.
Cognitive distortions usually develop over time in response to adverse events. There are at least 10 common distorted thinking patterns that have been identified by researchers.
If you’re ready to tackle a cognitive distortion, you may want to try some of the methods found in cognitive behavioral therapy. This type of therapy has been successful in helping people identify cognitive distortions and retrain themselves to look at the world in a clearer, more rational way.