Five Common Cognitive Distortions

cognitive distortions

Last week I wrote about negative self-talk and how it affects me. While writing that post I ended up on the topic of cognitive distortions. Since that wasn’t the intention of my post I didn’t go into too much detail but when I read through the post, I realized I should have.

I didn’t know a thing about cognitive distortions until my therapist brought the topic up to me a few years ago. What are they exactly? Cognitive distortions are, more or less, lies that our brain tells us. They’re irrational thoughts and beliefs that, like any other thought or belief, grow more powerful the more they occur. Cognitive distortions come in many forms, and sometimes it’s hard to recognize when they happen. I decided to list and explain five of the most common cognitive distortions that I struggle with. I hope this helps!

Cognitive Distortion #1: All-or-Nothing Thinking

As the name implies, ‘all-or-nothing’ thinking is when you look at things in a very black-or-white, right-or-wrong way. You think in extremes – either something is very, very good or completely awful. You’re either perfect or a total failure.

Cognitive Distortion #2: Overgeneralization

This is one that many people I know struggle with because it’s so easy to turn into a habit. Overgeneralization is when we generalize about ourselves based on one event. For instance, if you don’t win a game, you think you’re a loser. If you don’t do as well on a test as you think you should have, then you label yourself as stupid. This type of thinking can lead to dangerous behavioral patterns and become very instinctual.

Cognitive Distortion #3: Mind Reading

This one sounds a little silly – of course, you can’t read minds! – which is why it’s so dangerous. When you try to guess what other people are thinking and make your decisions based on them, and not your own thoughts, you can end up expecting things from others that you’re never going to get.

Cognitive Distortion #4: Fortune Telling

We all love to predict the future, but when it’s done in a negative and pessimistic light, it might just be a cognitive distortion. Popular versions of this thought process are ‘I will never find that special someone’ or ‘every job I ever have will be terrible.’ You don’t know what’s going to happen to you, but by guessing the worst-case scenario you’re only causing more stress and anxiety.

Cognitive Distortion #5: Emotional Reasoning

Probably my least-favorite cognitive distortion of all-time, emotional reasoning is when you approach your feelings as if they are facts. For instance, if I feel like I’m worthless, I believe that I am worthless. Whatever I feel is true. Wrong! As we know, feelings are not facts, but no matter how many times I repeat this to myself, I still mistake what I feel for factual things.

While there are many different types of cognitive distortions, these five had played the biggest role in my life. I won’t say that they’ve disappeared now that I am aware of them, but in understanding my thought processes I have taken the first steps to gain a more positive mindset.

 

On Negative Self-Talk

SelftalkĀ is a buzzword for me – I feel like I use that phrase once or twice a week when discussing my mental health. What do I mean when I say ‘self-talk’? On one hand it’s exactly what it means – talking to yourself. But it can be much more complicated or involved than that. It’s not just the words you say out loud, but the thoughts you consciously – sometimes unconsciously – have. Whether they’re about you or someone else, it’s safe to say that all of us engage in self-talk in one form or another.

As the title indicates, I wouldn’t be bringing this up on a mental health blog if I had a problem with my self-talk being too positive. No, when someone asks me what’s wrong my answer usually is…

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(courtesy of Netflix)

I don’t know when it started, but my thoughts about myself have never been all that great. Call it low self-esteem or an unwillingness to care, but I have a tendency to deflect compliments and downplay achievements. Since I’m not your therapist (or my therapist) I’m not going to explore why this happens, but I will tell you some things you might not know about negative self-talk – and how to be aware of it.

Another Buzzword – Cognitive Distortions

‘Cognitive Distortions’ are thoughts that our mind tries to convince us are true. There are tons of them and they can happen in plenty of different situations. While there are tons of ways they can manifest themselves, they all have a few things in common:

  • they’re not true
  • they’re often illogical
  • they can cause psychological damage if left unchecked

There’s plenty of resources available on cognitive distortions if you Google it, but this post from Psychology Today could be a good place to start. Cognitive distortions are basically the various ways our negative self-talk can occur.

It’s More Common Than You Think

Great, so now you’ve read about cognitive distortions and realize you engage in negative self-talk more often than you think. Bravo! But are you aware of how much you really do it? I know I wasn’t. One time to find out, I decided to write down every negative thought I had about myself during a day. Multiple pages later, I realized I had a problem on my hands.

Again, I’m not a therapist so I will not pretend to counsel anyone, but I know there are plenty of things you can do to rewire your thoughts and try to think more positively about yourself. Some things that have worked for me in the past have been

  • changing my tone
  • not taking every thought so seriously
  • don’t suppress these thoughts – acknowledge them and move on

Like any change in behavior, it’s easier said than done. But don’t think that being aware of the issue will solve it.

There Will Be More

There’s a lot more I can – and will – say about negative self-talk, but I think being aware of it is a good first step. Next week I’ll talk more about cognitive distortions and the role they play in negative self-talk.

How did you become aware of negative self-talk and cognitive distortions? I’d love to hear from you!