Cognitive distortions can alter the way we feel about ourselves in a negative way. They do not reflect real life and only make us feel worse about ourselves.
Are you a glass half full kind of person or do you think that the world is out to get you? Do you ever wonder how some people appear to bounce back from the hardest knocks in life, and yet others fall at the slightest hurdle?
Psychologists believe that it is all to do with our thinking patterns. A well-balanced person will have rational thoughts that are in perspective and give us positive reinforcement when we need it. Those who suffer from cognitive distortions, however, will experience irrational thoughts and beliefs that tend to reinforce the negative ways we think about ourselves.
For instance, a person might submit some work to a supervisor who criticizes a small part of it. But that person will then fixate on the small negative detail, disregarding all other points, whether they are good or excellent. This is an example of ‘filtering’, one of the cognitive distortions where only the negative details are focussed on and magnified over every other aspect.
Here are 12 of the most common cognitive distortions:
1. Always being right
This person cannot ever admit to being wrong and they will defend themselves to the death to prove that they are right. A person that feels this cognitive distortion will go to great lengths to show that they are right and this could involve them prioritizing their needs over others.
Filtering is where a person filters out all the positive information they have about a situation and concentrates only on the negative aspects. A husband, for instance, might have prepared a meal for his wife and she may have said the beans were slightly overdone for her liking. The husband would then take this to mean the whole meal was awful.
Someone that constantly filters out the good is getting an extremely negative view of the world and themselves.
3. Discounting the Positive
Similar to filtering, this form of cognitive distortion occurs when a person discounts every positive aspect of a situation. This can be an exam, a performance, an event or a date. They will focus solely on the negative parts and will typically find it very difficult to accept a compliment.
A person that will never see the positive side can be a drain on themselves and those around them and may end up alone and miserable.
4. Black-and-White Thinking
There’s no grey area here for a person who acts in terms of black and white thinking. For them, something is either black or white, good or evil, positive or negative and there’s nothing in-between. You cannot persuade a person with this way of thinking to see anything other than two opposite sides to a situation.
A person that only sees one way or the other could be thought of as unreasonable in life.
Have you heard of the phrase ‘Mountains out of molehills’? This kind of cognitive distortion means that every little detail is magnified way out of proportion, but not to the point of catastrophizing, which we will come to later.
It’s easy for people around a person that magnifies everything in life to become bored and walk away from the drama.
It is quite typical for somebody who is prone to magnifying things to also minimise them also but these will be the positive aspects that get reduced, not the negative ones. They will play down any achievements and give others the praise when things go right.
This kind of cognitive distortion might irritate friends as it could appear that the person is being deliberately self-deprecating to get attention.
Similar to magnifying, where tiny details are blown up out of all proportion, catastrophizing is assuming every little thing that goes wrong is a complete and utter disaster. So a person that fails their driving test would say that they will never pass it and to carry on learning is futile.
The problem with this kind of thinking is that it is obviously a very ill-balanced way of looking at the world and could cause serious depression.
Personalization is making everything about yourself, in particular when things go wrong. So blaming yourself or taking things personally when words were meant as advice, is typical. Taking things personally means that you do not see what is going on in other people’s lives who may start to resent the lack of interest.
The opposite cognitive distortion to personalization, instead of making every negative thing about yourself, you blame everything but yourself. This kind of thinking makes people less responsible for their actions, if they are continually blaming others they can never accept their part in the problem. This could lead them to feelings of entitlement.
Someone that overgeneralizes will often make decisions based on just a couple of facts when really they should look at a much wider picture. So for instance, if an office colleague is late once for work, they will assume they will always be late in the future.
People that overgeneralize tend to use words such as ‘every’, ‘all’, ‘always’, ‘never’.
The opposite to overgeneralizing, labelling is when a person gives something or someone a label, usually derogatory, after only a one or two incidences. This can be upsetting, particularly in relationships as the partner might feel they are being judged on one wrongdoing and not the rest of their behaviour.
12. Fallacy of Change
This cognitive distortion follows the logic that others need to change their behaviour in order for us to be happy. Those who think like this can be thought of as selfish and stubborn, making their partners do all the compromising.
How to restructure cognitive distortions
There are many different types of therapy that can benefit those with cognitive distortions. Most of these distortions begin with unwanted and automatic thoughts. So the main treatment thought to work is one that tries to eliminate these thoughts and replace them with more positive ones.
By adjusting our automatic thoughts, we can then stop the negative reactions we have towards situations and people, and live the life we were meant to.