Cognitive distortions – Look out for them and correct them

There are numerous times when our everyday thoughts, beliefs expectations and assumptions do not correspond to what is really happening. In these cases, we say that there is ‘cognitive distortion.’ Cognitive distortions often lie behind distressing emotional states, especially those involved in anxiety, depression and anger. This is because cognitive distortions can make things appear more threatening or difficult than they really are or give us an inflated sense of our own importance. We are likely to feel better and encounter fewer problems when we think realistically. Look at the cognitive distortions listed below and see if you can identify them in your own automatic thoughts and correct them.  See also three different list of these distortions that you can print out:

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1.  Global or over-inclusive judgements

You judge events in a manner which greatly oversimplifies the information available. E. g.

Dichotomous or all-or-none thinking: You see things in exclusive polar categories instead of along a continuum. For example, if you make a mistake in some work, the work is ‘bad’ (polar opposite of good). If you take a coffee break you become ‘lazy’ (polar opposite of hard-working). This type of thinking is often associated with extreme mood swings as the individual’s emotions change dramatically depending on which of the two categories is currently being applied.

Overgeneralisation: On the basis of the data you overgeneralise to reach your conclusion. For example, he angrily criticises your political belief. You conclude that he doesn’t approve of your other attitudes or tastes either. You are let down once (without knowing the reason) and you conclude that the person is completely untrustworthy.

Inappropriate labelling: Here, you apply an overinclusive negative label to someone or something on the basis of a single instance. One slip and they are ‘stupid’. You fail at a project and you become ‘a loser’.

Personalisation: You overgeneralise and assume that something that applies only to a small aspect of your beliefs, or behaviour applies to the whole of you. For example, you are unable to separate criticism of your behaviour from criticism of yourself as a person so that, when someone disagrees with you, you experience it as a personal attack. Another example is the maxim ‘your work is your worth’. In other words your value as a person depends on the quality of your work.

2.  Focussing on negative evidence

You support a negative conclusion you have already reached by selectively focusing on evidence that fits in with it.

Mental filter (selective abstraction): You focus on only a part of the situation and ignore the rest. For example, you notice a frown but not a smile. You remind yourself of what you didn’t say at the interview but wanted to, but you ignore the good things you did say. You fail to attend to information that does not fit your global judgement.

Discounting evidence: A negative belief is often maintained by discounting evidence that contradicts it. Thus if I believe she dislikes me, and then she talks to me in a friendly way, I say to myself ‘She doesn’t really mean it’ or ‘She’s just using me to keep herself from getting bored as her friends are busy.

3.  Going beyond the evidence (arbitrary inference)

These errors involve reaching a conclusion that is inaccurate or distorted and goes beyond the evidence that is available:

Mindreading: You jump to conclusions about what someone thinks or believes. E.g. ‘he thinks I’m too fat;’ ‘she is bored with what I’m saying;’ or someone looks at you and you (mistakenly) believe this is because they are inappropriately interested in what you are thinking and feeling.

Fortune telling: You predict what is going to happen in the future on the basis of poor evidence (if I say that he’ll be hurt… offended… enraged…).

Catastrophising: You predict catastrophic consequences, believing them to have a high probability when in fact the true probability is very low. E.g. a family member is late coming home and you respond as if they have been run-over, raped, murdered etc.

Magnification: You overestimate the seriousness of an outcome (e.g. you assume that to fail the course would be the end of your academic career, or that no one would respect you any more). Or you underestimate your resources for coping with an unpleasant outcome (e.g. you assume that the shame, embarrassment or criticism will be unbearable).

Emotional reasoning: You assume that because you feel something it is true. You use your emotions as evidence for the way things are. E.g. you use your feeling of rejection or isolation as evidence that people reject you or that you are unable to relate to people.

4.  Other forms of faulty reasoning or biased thinkingMagical thinking:

You believe that your thoughts can cause things to happen. For example, you believe that, if you think of harming someone, harm will actually befall them.

Misattribution of symptoms: You jump to wrong conclusions about the meaning of physical symptoms, e.g. “These heart palpitations are symptoms of an impending heart attack…” “These feelings of faintness or dizziness are a sign that I am going insane…” “This pain is a sign that I have developed cancer…”

Misattribution of responsibility: You are over-responsible and inappropriately take responsibility for bad things that happen to other people. For example, you introduce a friend to someone and you quarrel and you blame yourself for causing the friend pain, or, you decide to break off a relationship that is not working out and you blame yourself for the feelings of disappointment and rejection experienced by the other.

Misattribution of rights: You attribute rights to another person which you would not claim for yourself (non-assertiveness) or you claim rights for yourself which you would not accord to others (aggressiveness). E.g. You willingly lend some CDs to a friend but would not ask your friend to lend you hers because you believe she would feel imposed upon; you are angry with others in front of you in a queue while expecting others behind you not to be angry with you.

‘Shoulds’: You tell yourself that you, other people, institutions or events should be different to what you are. Such implicit demands often underlie feelings of irrational anger and can usually be translated into should statements so that their appropriateness can be evaluated. When applied to yourself, these ‘shoulds’ may imply that you should not experience emotional states that arise in response to everyday situations, or that you should be more capable or motivated than you actually are. When applied to people or events, ‘shoulds’ often involve unrealistic demands that these should comply with your personal viewpoint as to how the things should be.

Regretful rumination: You focus on mistakes or missed opportunities in the past and think how you would be better off now if things had been different. This may be an attempt to turn back the clock and magically rerun your life differently so that you could be happier now. This kind of ‘If only …’ thinking traps you in the pain of the past and prevents you from building a happier future.

5.  Defensive and avoidant thinking

You soften the truth as a way of avoiding having to deal with its negative emotional impact.

Denial of reality: You think or fantasise as if some event that really took place did not. For example, you stole some money or cheated on a test and you fantasise that it didn’t happen and tell yourself that it didn’t.

Denial of concern: You respond in a way which enables you to deny that you feel lonely, disappointed, hurt etc. E.g. (after girl-friend has broken off with you) ‘I didn’t like her much anyway. I’m best rid of her.’ In the classic case of ‘Sour grapes’: You tell yourself that something you wanted and can’t have would not have pleased you anyway. E.g. after failing to get job or bursary, you say ‘Well it was not the sort of thing I wanted anyway.’ Or, ‘The people there are terrible and I would have hated working with them.’

Rationalisation: You offer morally acceptable reasons for actions not consistent with your values. For example you bully someone, and say, ‘I’m doing this for your own good;’ you skip classes and tell yourself the lectures are of poor quality.

False optimism: You maintain a positive perspective without regard to the actual realities of the situation. E.g. After a disappointment: ‘Don’t worry, things are bound to work out fine in the end, you always do.’ Or before tackling something anxiety provoking: ‘Go on you’ll do fine. There’s nothing to worry about. I feel lucky today.’

Next: 27 questions to put to negative thoughts and help correct distortions


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