Cognitive Distortions: Is Your Mind Playing Tricks On You?
Updated May 21, 2020
If you've never seen a picture of really good pavement art, you're missing out. Talented artists, using deliberate shading, color choice and contrast, the right point of view, and extreme skill, create illusions that transform an ordinary street into a raging waterfall, a mysterious cavern, a fearsome pit of fiery lava.
When looked at from the wrong angle these sometimes terrifying and sometimes alluring deceptions are revealed for what they are. They are exquisite, beautiful drawings, and that is all they are. What looks from a certain perspective like a man about to step out into an abyss is simply a man walking along a sidewalk decorated with a fabulous, but an otherwise flat sidewalk drawing.
There are other famous examples of optical illusions. In each of them, our eyes send signals to our brain that our brains misinterpret for us, leaving us with false impressions that can be hard to detect even with scrutiny.
So, while not exactly a technical term, cognitive distortion is a way your mind is "playing tricks" on you. This happens all the time. And if you accept the fact that your brain can fool you into seeing things that aren't there, or to not see things that are there, it should not be a leap to assert that sometimes in your thinking you see reality through a false lens. This is what "cognitive distortions" mean - distorted thinking. It happens automatically when your brain processes your surrounding environment. Since there's so much information surrounding us, our brains rely on mental shortcuts which can sometimes cause distorted thinking. Later, we'll talk about ten common cognitive distortions and how to start recognizing and overcoming them.
Why Do Cognitive Distortions Matter?
It is almost impossible to conduct an honest and serious discussion about the existence of cognitive distortions and their impact on mental health without coming back to Dr. David D. Burns. In his groundbreaking book Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy, he elaborates on the idea and practices of Cognitive Therapy, originally explored by Dr. Aaron Beck from the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine in the 1960s.
In his book, Dr. Burns asserts an idea that seems quite obvious, but somehow never occurs to many of us. According to Burns, our thoughts are directly responsible for our feelings. Therefore, when someone frequently engages in happy thoughts they feel happy and vice versa. However, when someone frequently indulges in negative thoughts, it follows that the person's mood will be negatively affected as well. Or, in other words, thinking unhappy thoughts leads to feeling unhappy feelings. Those who have fallen into a rut of negative thinking often are engaging not just in negative thoughts but cognitive distortions - false negative thoughts. These types of constant, negative, cognitive distortions are not healthy and can contribute to disorders such as depression and anxiety.
Cognitive distortions, therefore, matter because they have the power to make you sick - if not physically and mentally - in a very real sense.
Common Cognitive Distortions
The good news is that once the problem (cognitive distortion) has been identified as the cause of a person's depression or anxiety they can begin to correct it. An integral component of the healing process is learning to recognize and eliminate cognitive distortions. To that end, Burns provides a list of cognitive distortions. The following is a list, with brief explanations, of the 10 cognitive distortions Burns describes:
- All or Nothing Thinking: This is exactly what it sounds like. Convincing yourself that you must either be perfect or you are a failure is destructive because, as they say, nobody's perfect.
- Overgeneralization: When you assume that because one negative thing happened, that negative occurrence will always happen in future similar situations you are engaging in this type of thinking.
- Mental Filter: This is the act of filtering out all the positives to focus only on the single negative (for example, a broken chair at an otherwise wonderful party).
- Disqualifying the Positive: Again, exactly what it sounds like. In this type of thinking you discount anything that could be construed as good or positive.
- Jumping to Conclusions: More than the more mundane act of jumping to conclusions, you make leaps of logic that are not even suggested by objective facts. Burns provides two subcategories of this cognitive distortion which he refers to as "mind reading" and "the fortune teller." When "mindreading" you assume that every negative behavior of other people is somehow attributed to you and your behavior when there could be myriad other explanations for the person's actions, which have nothing to do with you. When you fall into the trap of "fortune telling" you convince yourself that your future is destined to be bad.
- Magnification and Minimization (also known as Catastrophizing): Ever heard the expression: "You're making a mountain out of a molehill?" When you catastrophize, you do just that. Conversely, you also engage in the equally harmful thought pattern of diminishing anything positive about yourself or an event.
- Emotional Reasoning: Perhaps the most destructive, you believe your cognitive distortions and take the negative emotions about yourself that follow as the absolute truth.
- "Should" Statements: Thinking too much about what you or others should or shouldn't do can cause unrealistic expectations. The inevitable failure to live up to them results in negative feelings.
- Labeling and Mislabeling: You define yourself by your mistakes, not taking into account in the slightest that humans are complicated creatures. The worst among us have some good qualities and the best among us are not without fault.
- Personalization: When anything goes wrong, even things completely beyond your control, you consider yourself responsible.
Of course, Burns does not stop at simply providing this cognitive distortions list. His book goes on to provide, with detailed explanations, strategies for learning to recognize when you are thinking these inherently distorted thoughts and consequently eliminating them.
If, as you read the above list of cognitive distortions, you began to feel the disconcerting sensation that many of them applied to you, that's not necessarily a bad or unusual thing. As mentioned above, everybody engages in this kind of automatic thinking. It's not good that we get caught up in negative and false thoughts. But it is good to realize when we tend to do it. Now you can begin the work of correcting these destructive thought patterns, and consequently, begin to feel better.
How can you do this? You can always start by conducting an internet search. You'll come up with informative resources on cognitive distortions, cognitive distortions worksheets, and cognitive distortions handouts.
In addition to learning about cognitive distortion, you may find it helpful to jot down your thoughts when you come across them and recognize them. You might start to see a pattern that you can begin to address. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) can also be helpful. CBT will help you identify and reframe potentially negative thoughts so that you can respond to them more effectively. If you are serious about tackling and eliminating the cognitive distortions that have caused you so much needless suffering, you might benefit from professional help.
How BetterHelp Can Help
A trained therapist can guide you through the process of learning to recognize when you are spiraling into a negative emotional storm of cognitive distortions and teach you how to deal with them effectively. Through whatever therapy your therapist deems appropriate, such as cognitive therapy or cognitive behavioral therapy, you will learn to recognize when cognitive distortions are happening so that you can adjust your behavior as necessary. BetterHelp has over 4,000 licensed therapists, many of whom specialize in CBT and cognitive distortion issues. With BetterHelp, you can work with counselors from the comfort of your own home, in sessions that fit with your busy schedule. Below are some reviews of BetterHelp counselors, from people experiencing similar issues.
"I was in a very bad place when I started counseling with Vanessa. I was drowning in my negative thoughts, especially about moving into a new place. Vanessa helped me face these thoughts, counter them. It isn't easy, but I am training myself and getting better at it. She helps boost my confidence in all aspects. In Vanessa, I found guidance, empathy, open-mindedness and a good listener. Vanessa will never fail you!"
"Erika is not just amazing, she is a game changer! I was struggling with lots of negative thoughts and procrastination that was paralyzing me but since I started my sessions with her, I have had breakthroughs. Every time I see her, something miraculous happens. I feel more energetic, clearer and motivated to continue the process of growing and changing. I definitely recommend her. She truly cares and brings tons of positive vibes into the sessions."
It can be hard to accept when the misinformation is not just in our physical perceptions but stems from our very thought processes themselves. If Descartes said "I think. Therefore I am," then what does it say when we cannot rely on our thoughts? But it is that very type of thinking that is part of the problem, and that is why having access to an outside and objective person in the form of a therapist can be so important to the recovery process.
Reading the above list of common cognitive distortions and finding yourself in them can be a painful yet powerful experience. Painful, because you must admit to yourself that you have a problem. But powerful, because now you know there is a way to fix it. Take the first step today.