by Annabelle Parr
Whether you recognize the term or not, at some point you have dealt with a cognitive distortion. These are thoughts that feel like the truth, but they describe an emotional reality rather than an objective one. For those struggling with stress, anxiety, or depression, often chronic and significant cognitive distortions play a big role in the struggle.
Dr. David Burns (1980) outlined 12 of the most common cognitive distortions in his book, Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy. Dr. Burns’ list is adapted below with examples. As you read through the list, see if you recognize examples of any of these distortions in your life.
1. All-Or-Nothing (Black and White) Thinking: You see things in black and white terms, refusing to see any gray area.
Distortion: If I’m not nice to everyone all the time, I’m a jerk.
Reframe: I’m allowed to be assertive and set boundaries. I don’t have to be nice to someone who is being disrespectful to me. Standing up for myself doesn’t make me a jerk.
2. Overgeneralization: You see one or several negative events as a sign of an endless pattern of defeat.
Distortion: I got a bad grade on this math test, so I will never get a good grade on a math test.
Reframe: I got a bad grade on this math test. Maybe I didn’t understand the material or studied wrong. I will talk to my teacher to better understand my mistakes, and hopefully I will do better next time.
3. Mental Filter: You exclusively notice the negative aspects of a situation and magnify them out of proportion. At the same time, you filter out/fail to notice the positive aspects.
Distortion: My presentation went terribly. I lost my train of thought because I got nervous, and I forgot a key point I wanted to make.
Reframe: I stumbled over my words a little bit, but no one besides me seemed to notice. I also forgot a key point I wanted to make. But I got good feedback and everyone seemed engaged during my presentation. Next time I will practice a little bit more, but overall it went pretty well.
4. Minimizing/Disqualifying/Overlooking the Positive: You turn positive experiences or comments into negative ones by deciding that they don’t count for some reason. You overlook positive things about yourself or your environment. You don’t just filter out positive things; you actually turn them into negatives.
Distortion: He only invited me to come to his party because he feels sorry for me and knows I’m a loner.
Reframe: He invited me to come to his party because he wants me to come.
5. Mind Reading: You assume that someone is thinking or reacting negatively to you even though you do not know what they’re thinking.
Distortion: She didn’t wave at me because she doesn’t like me.
Reframe: She didn’t wave at me. She probably didn’t see me, or maybe she had something on her mind.
6. Fortune Telling: You think that something bad is going to happen even though you do not yet know what the outcome will be. This causes you to worry, overreact, or give up too soon.
Distortion: Even though things are going well now, I think he will eventually break up with me and I am afraid I will get hurt. Maybe I should just break up with him now to avoid getting hurt.
Reframe: Things are going well now. I’m not sure what will happen in the future. But for now I will try to be present and enjoy what is.
7. Magnifying/Catastrophizing: You exaggerate the importance of something, or you imagine that something that might happen would be terrible or earth shattering, when it would not actually be as bad as you imagine or you could cope despite it being difficult.
Distortion: I can’t accept the promotion because then I will have to give presentations. I’m terrified of public speaking, and I will get too scared and embarrass myself in front of everyone and then probably lose the job anyway.
Reframe: If I accept the promotion, I will have to give presentations. Lots of people are scared of public speaking. I might make a mistake and I might feel embarrassed or scared, but that’s part of being human. It won’t be the end of the world.
8. Emotional Reasoning: You assume that your feelings reflect the truth, even though your feelings are based on erroneous thinking.
Distortion: I feel like a failure, which means I am a failure.
Reframe: I may feel like a failure right now because I am still looking for a job, but job hunting takes time. I am not a failure.
9. Should Statements: You have a list of rules set in stone about how you or others “should” behave, but these rules are arbitrary or unrealistic. You feel guilty or inadequate when you “break” a rule, or get angry or frustrated when others do so.
Distortion: I should have enough time and energy after work to play with the kids. I feel guilty if I let them watch TV while I finish up some work instead, and I feel frustrated with my spouse when he/she does the same.
Reframe: I want to have enough time and energy after work to play with the kids. But sometimes I will be too busy or tired. I will do my best to spend quality time with them, even if sometimes that means cuddling on the couch watching TV while I finish up some emails. On those nights when I really can’t find the time, I will give myself (and my spouse) grace.
10. Labeling: When someone makes a mistake, you don’t objectively evaluate the mistake. Instead you label the person – “I’m a failure” or “They’re an idiot.”
Distortion: He forgot to lift the toilet seat again! He is so inconsiderate. Or I forgot my kids had a half day today. I’m a terrible parent!
Reframe: He forgot to lift the toilet seat again. He must have had something else on his mind. Or I forgot my kids had a half day today. Today was really busy and I had too much on my mind. Maybe I need to write down half days on my calendar from now on.
11. Personalization: You think that things that others do or things that happen to you are personalized reactions to you, even if this is not the case.
Distortion: My friend didn’t return my text because she thinks I’m annoying.
Reframe: My friend didn’t return my text. Maybe she is really busy or has something going on in her life I don’t know about. Sometimes I forget to return texts too.
12. Probability Overestimation: You overestimate the likelihood of something bad happening.
Distortion: If I drive, I will get in a car accident, so I am not going to get my driver’s license.
Reframe: Accidents can happen anytime, but the odds are not high. Most people drive every day and nothing bad happens.
Cognitive distortions are not constructive, but experiencing a distortion every now and again is simply part of being human. However, when you are not able to reframe your distortions, or when cognitive distortions begin driving your behavior, they can become a problem.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) works to help clients notice, address, and alter these destructive thoughts. When you believe your own destructive thoughts, you may also tend to avoid certain situations on the basis of a false belief. CBT also works to help clients slowly learn to approach rather than avoid such situations. Having a warm, empathic therapist come alongside you throughout this process is healing. She can model compassion for you, helping you learn to have compassion for yourself, while still challenging you to see things in a new and healthier way.
If you find yourself feeling overwhelmed by cognitive distortions, stress, anxiety, and/or depression, you do not have to struggle alone.
CSAM IS HERE TO HELP
If you or someone you love might benefit from cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), or biofeedback for anxiety, depression, stress, or PTSD, or if you would like more information about our therapy services, please contact us at (858) 354-4077 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.