Friday, July 13, 2012

13 Common Cognitive Distortions

A motto I live by: Don't believe everything you think.

I think this principle is crucial to overall happiness, simply because the human brain has a tendency to make predictable errors which, left unchecked, contribute to distress. We call these errors cognitive distortions. They result from mental short-cuts that evolved to help us manage the volume of incoming information, and therefore allow us to function more effectively.

Except when they don't. It's unfortunate, but true, that these short-cuts seem to favor negative thoughts - perhaps as a way to ensure survival by preparing us for the worst possibilities. However, while we usually do survive, these negative thoughts can dampen our mood, and interfere with effective action.

When this happens, notice what you're thinking, and be on the lookout for these common distortions:

1) Assuming: 

Assuming the worst without evidence, and without testing the assumption. We tend to act on our assumptions, and limit our opportunities as a result. More balanced thinking considers other (more positive) explanations.
Examples: “I know I’m going to fail, so I’m not even going to try.” 
“She didn’t call me back. She must not want to be friends.”

2) Shoulds: 

Demands we make of ourselves and/or others. We may think should statements motivate us, but really they just make us feel inadequate when we are (predictably) imperfect about following them. More balanced thinking replaces “should” with things like “could,” “it would be nice if” or “I want to.”

Examples: “I should be thinner.” “I should exercise.”
“I should be the perfect student or employee.”

3) Fairy-Tale Fantasy: 

Expecting life to live up to an ideal. Statements like “It’s not fair!” or “Why did that have to happen?” are really saying that the world should be different. In reality, bad and unfair things happen to good people – sometimes randomly, sometimes because of others, and sometimes because of our own choices. To expect the world to be different is to invite disappointment and unhappiness. Replacing “should” with “it would be nice if” can work here, too…along with acceptance of “life on life’s terms.”

Examples: “It shouldn’t be so hard to meet people.” “People should be more considerate.”

4) All or Nothing Thinking (Black or White Thinking): 

Thinking about things in extremes, using absolute categories: If it’s not black, it must be white.” This kind of thinking fails to recognize all the possibilities in between black and white (the grey area).

Examples: “If I’m not the best, I’m a failure.” “If I’m not the prettiest, I must be ugly.”

5) Overgeneralizing: 

Deciding that a negative experience is a never-ending pattern that describes your life completely. Overgeneralizing makes you feel worse, and is inaccurate because it overlooks all the times things have been and/or will be different/better.

Examples: “Nobody likes me.” “I ruin everything.” “I always end up relapsing eventually.”

6) Labeling: 

Calling yourself (or others) a name, as if that word describes the person completely. Labels oversimplify people (who are complex, and have strengths and limitations), and also overgeneralize (e.g., describing the whole person based on a single behavior). If you have to use labels, label behavior, not people. (e.g., “that was a silly thing to do,” rather than “you’re silly”).

Examples: “I’m such a loser.” “I’m disgusting.” “What a jerk.”

7) Dwelling on the Negative: 

Focusing on the negative aspects of a situation, while ignoring the positive aspects. When you do this, soon the whole situation looks negative. Instead, actively look for positive or neutral things that you might be missing

Examples: “Someone criticized me, so the whole day is ruined.”
“How can I enjoy myself when my children have problems?”

8) Rejecting the Positive: 

While dwelling on the negative just overlooks positives, this distortion actively rejects and negates positives. You come up with reasons why the positive things don’t matter.

Examples: “I just got lucky – it has nothing to do with my abilities”
“Anyone could have done that – it was nothing.”

9) Unfavorable Comparisons: 

This is like having a special magnifying glass that magnifies some things (your negatives, other people’s positives) and shrinks others (your positives, other people’s negatives). You compare your out-takes with someone else’s highlight reel. Instead, try recognizing everyone (even yourself) as having unique strengths and weaknesses. If you have to compare, try to comparing evenly – include both favorable and unfavorable comparisons.

Examples: “She’s thinner, so she’s prettier; who cares if I have nicer hair?”
“She is more successful because she runs more; who cares if she’s unemployed?”

10) Catastrophizing: 

This involves both assuming the worst case scenario, and telling yourself you can’t stand/handle/cope with it. However, the reality is that, while the situation may be uncomfortable and challenging, we really can stand anything that doesn’t actually kill us. Stop and ask yourself how likely it is that the worst will really happen, whether you are likely to survive it, and if so, come up with some strategies to cope.

Examples: “I can’t tolerate having an urge without acting on it.”
“I couldn’t stand it if he broke up with me.”

11) Personalizing: 

Seeing yourself as personally responsible for negative events that are beyond your control, or more responsible than you really are for problems to which youmay have contributed. Every event becomes a reflection of worth (or lack thereof). Instead, distinguish between those things you can control, those you can influence but not control (e.g., others’ behavior), and those over which you have no influence or control. Also look for other, external influences (e.g., maybe she hasn’t called because she has a lot going on, not because she is angry with me”).

Examples: “It’s my fault my relationship failed.” “She hasn’t called; she’s angry with me?”

12) Blaming: 

The opposite of personalizing, blaming puts all the responsibility for your difficulties on something outside yourself. The problem with blaming is that it leads us to think about ourselves as victims who are powerless to cope. Balanced thinking acknowledges both outside influences and personal responsibility.

Examples: “You made me relapse.” “Having a bad childhood ruined my life.”

13) Making Feelings Facts: 

This distortion involves taking your feelings as proof of the way things really are. Since feelings result from thoughts, and thoughts are often distorted, feelings also do not reflect objective reality. Stop and check the thoughts behind the feelings to see if you may be seeing things in a distorted way. Changing thoughts changes feelings.
Examples: “I feel ashamed. I must have done something wrong.” “I feel worthless, I must be worthless.” “I feel fat, I must be fat.”

Based on: Schiraldi, G. R. (2001). The Self-Esteem Workbook.

1 comment:

  1. Don't believe everything you think - I think this is the only way to help you out.