Cognitive Distortions are false and repeated negative thoughts that affect our accurate perception of reality. They are magnified and irrational beliefs that can influence our daily lives (Grohol, 2015). They result in unconscious habitual patterns, and we may not be able to identify their occurrence. Furthermore, our lack of awareness of these thoughts can lead us to believe that we are powerless and incapable of changing our experiences. Such thoughts are likely to reinforce negative emotions, affecting our mental state, and they may create anxiety and depression.
There are various types of cognitive distortions. You may identify with one or a few of them. The good news is that having an awareness of such thought processes can help you make a conscious choice to shift your attention to more rational thoughts, affecting your reactions and overall attitude in your everyday life.
Our psychological and emotional development highly affects such habitual thinking. With reinforcement, we learn to make such thoughts our natural reactions to any trigger from the world.
Here are the most common types of cognitive distortions:
1- Overgeneralization: This process occurs when we assume that something will go badly based on an old experience, like starting a new relationship or reapplying for an exam. We presume the results will be unpleasant based on our previous negative experiences.
2- Personalization: When we tend to take everything personally and assume responsibility for things beyond our control. Example: “My manager is in a bad mood today. It must be because of something I did yesterday.” Such thinking causes unnecessary self-blame.
3- Catastrophizing: When we magnify the weight of something that didn’t go our way or unpleasant triggers into catastrophes. Examples: Carl failed one exam in the spring semester, so he assumes he will fail the entire year; Amy starts getting an unusual headache, and she starts believing she has a chronic illness.
4- Blaming: When we always find something or someone to blame. It is the opposite of personalization.
5- Fallacy of Change: Other people’s behavior must change for us to be happy. Our happiness is dependent on other people’s actions.
6- Jumping to conclusions: This is a combination of anticipation and mind reading. It is when we anticipate bad results, creating anxiety without even knowing the facts. Similarly, with no evidence, we chose to believe that we know what a person is thinking or feeling.
7- Black-and-White Thinking: When people see things as positive or negative, right or wrong, all or nothing, they are engaging in black-and-white thinking.
8- Should Statements: We have a set of rigid guidelines or rules about how we and others should behave. We feel guilty when we break these rules and get upset when others do. Thoughts that include musts and shoulds can create guilt and anger. “I shouldn’t have said that,” “I must weigh …”
9- Always Being ‘Right’: This type of thinking process causes people to believe their opinions as facts and are unable to acknowledge the feelings and views of other people. Usually, such individuals will do anything to be right in discussions or win arguments.
10- Filtering: This occurs when we select the negative details of a situation and completely disregard the positive aspects. For example, when we get feedback on our work, we dwell endlessly on the negative remarks and ignore the positive comments.
Do you identify with any of these thought patterns?
Dealing with Cognitive Distortions:
Here are two ways that have helped me personally in dealing with negative thinking:
1) Being Present. I am certain that for some of you, this concept is not something new. Great minds have long preached about the gifts of being in the present.
“The ability to be in the present moment is a major component of mental wellness.” Abraham Maslow
My question to you is, have you actually tried it?
Try it now. Be here with me. Read the words. Notice what is present in your current perspective. How does your body feel? Are you sitting comfortably? Notice more of what is present around you. Breathe. Once you are in the now, a shield is created. I like to call it Protego as in the Shield Spell from Harry Potter’s world (Rowling, 2014). Now, once you are in the present, a powerful shield is created that protects you from those anxious thoughts about the past or future. The purpose of this exercise is to help you take control and become grounded. Thoughts can shake us just as big waves wreck ships in upset storms. Becoming present is an anchor. It holds your ship and allows the waters to calm down. Ask yourself, “What is possible from being grounded and calm?”
“If danger arises in the present moment, there may be an emotion. There may even be pain. But that’s a challenge, not a problem. For a problem to exist, you need time and repetitive mind activity.” Eckhart Tolle
2) Another simple strategy that I have learned from the greatest coaches I have encountered is choosing a better-feeling thought. It is that simple. Our feelings are indicators of unhealthy perceptions. If you are feeling bad, go back to the thought trigger. Take a step back, breathe in and out, become present and choose something that feels better. It could even be a distraction, like remembering a funny scene from your favorite show (Ross getting a fake tan always does it for me :D) , or getting engaged in an activity you enjoy and helps you relax. Choosing a better-feeling thought is a skill that needs practice. It took me a long time to start practicing it.
Applying such skills can be difficult at first but with time it becomes part of your nature! It is a never ending practice. I am still every day choosing to be present and engaging in better feeling thoughts.
However, if you feel you are struggling and unable to make the change on your own, it is best to seek professional help. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is based on the principle that our thoughts affect our emotions and behavior. The therapist helps the client identify the negative thoughts and enables them to shift. The more a person is aware of engaging in such thought patterns, the easier for him/her to consciously choose to replace the habitual negative thinking with more rational and positive thoughts.
Just remember, always choose what feels good to you! No one can have a better insight on this than you!