The term “cognitive distortions” can sound intense and scary, as if something is severely disturbed in your brain; but this is not the case at all. A cognitive distortion is simply a maladaptive way of thinking — that is, a way of thinking that doesn’t feel good or help you in any way. There are a variety of types of cognitive distortions, some more common than others; but each person experiences them in different frequencies and severities. Listed below are some of the most common cognitive distortions that I treat in my practice.
Catastrophizing: You expect disaster, the worst case scenario. The moment you are presented with an issue, you automatically believe the most awful possibility will manifest. As you can imagine, this is not a helpful thought process, and most likely gets you incredibly worked up over nothing.
Example: You call your mother and she doesn’t answer. Your automatic thought is that she is dead.
Mind Reading: Without their saying so, you assume that you know how others are feeling, thinking, and why they are acting as they are. This includes assuming you know what and how people are thinking and feeling toward you.
Example: Your friend cancels dinner plans, and you think that you “know” she did this because she hates you.
Personalization: Thinking that everything people say or do is some sort of reaction to you. This also includes comparing yourself to others, trying to determine who is smarter, better looking, etc.
Example: Someone cuts you off in traffic, and you think they did it because they drive a nicer car than you.
Another example: Your boss is a jerk and you think that this is a reflection of your work or yourself as a person, even though he is a jerk to everyone.
Blaming: You hold other people responsible for your pain; or the opposite: you blame yourself for the problems of others.
Example: You blame your spouse for forgetting to grab the gift as you are headed to a birthday party, when you left together and you could have easily grabbed it. Or you blame yourself when your child doesn’t do well on a test.
Should: You have an arbitrary list of rules about how you and other people should behave. People who break the rules make you angry; and when you violate those rules yourself, you feel guilty.
Example: You think “I should” go the gym every day, and feel terrible when you don’t live up to that. You think “I should” be a good cook and enjoy cooking, and feel terrible that you’re not.
Fallacy of Change: You expect that other people will change to suit you if you just pressure or manipulate them enough. You need to change people because your hope for happiness seems to depend on them entirely.
Example: You continually present your political views to someone, expecting them to change their opinions, and are unhappy unless they agree with you.
Filtering: You take the negative details and magnify them, while filtering out all positive aspects of the situation.
Example: You had a great vacation except that your luggage was lost for a few days on the way home, and that last part is all you focus on when you think about the vacation, or when people ask you about it.
Control Fallacies: There are two types. (1) If you feel externally controlled, you see yourself as helpless, and a victim of circumstances. (2) If you feel internally controlled, you feel responsible for the pain and happiness of everyone around you.
Examples: You get a flat tire and think that the universe is out to get you. Or you wear yourself out attempting to please and/or fix others, only making yourself miserable.
All or Nothing: Things are black or white, good or bad, all or nothing. There is no middle ground, there is no room for grey areas.
Example: You graduated with a Bachelors degree, but you view yourself as a failure because you earned a 3.8 GPA instead of a 4.0.
Being Right: You are continually on trial to prove that your opinions and actions are correct. Being wrong is unthinkable and you will go to any length to demonstrate your rightness.
Example: You chose to practice a specific parenting technique with your child, and continually explain yourself to others and seek their validation that it is the “right” way.
Overgeneralization: You come to a general conclusion based on a single incident or piece of evidence. If something bad happens once, you expect it to happen over and over again.
Example: You visit a store and have an unpleasant interaction with one staff, so you decide that everyone who works there is bad, it’s a bad store, and you resolve to never visit again.
Fallacy of Fairness: You feel resentful because you think you know what is fair, but other people won’t agree with you. This also includes general thoughts about things being unfair or attempts at making things fair.
Example: Your doctor’s office has a clear late policy, and when you show up late you still expect to be seen because you believe your situation is different, and it wouldn’t be fair for them not to recognize your extraordinary circumstances.
Emotional Reasoning: You believe that what you feel must be true automatically. If you feel stupid and boring, then you must be stupid and boring.
Example: You feel unloved and unlovable after a break up, and believe this must be true.
It is highly likely that you recognized at least one of these cognitive distortions. I have found that I most commonly notice people engaging in “shoulds,” “mind reading,” and “catastrophizing.” Once you are able to identify which cognitive distortions are present in your own brain, you can work toward increasing your awareness of when they happen, and eventually challenge and overcome those thoughts. A therapist will be able to guide you through this process, helping you to increase your awareness of other thought patterns that might not be serving you well.
By: Julie Killion, MA, LPC, LCAS, NCC
Licensed Professional Counselor – Wake Forest