Ever gotten into a pattern of negative thinking and found it hard to break out of it? Have you been beating yourself up over past mistakes and letting other people completely off the hook? Do you spend a lot of time making assumptions about how the people in your life are feeling and then start reacting based off of those made up thoughts? You may be struggling with cognitive distortions. Cognitive distortions are “habitual ways of thinking that are often inaccurate and negatively biased”. They usually develop overtime in response to adverse events in our lives. Whether that be a heightened sense of the feelings of others that lends itself to people pleasing as a result of neglect and abandonment or a complete lack of awareness and compassion for our own needs as a result of abuse—these ways of thinking can begin to sink into the very fiber of our relationships with others as well as with ourselves. Different people may experience distorted thinking in a myriad of ways, so it can be hard to know exactly how cognitive distortions will play out on a case by case basis. However, it is important to know the signs of each in order to better counteract them.
Here are the most commonly recognized cognitive distortions.
All-or-nothing thinking is also known as black or white thinking and it involves viewing things in absolute terms: good or bad, success or failure, everything or nothing, etc…The problem with this thinking is that it does not allow for any possibilities between the two extremes and can, overtime, affect your confidence in pursuing your goals. For example, instead of sticking to a healthier lifestyle, you may give up and call yourself a failure every time you deviate from your plan. Or you might feel like starting a new workout plan is pointless because you think that if you can't stick with it all the way, you’re a failure. Do you see how easy it is for this type of thinking to derail your motivation?
Usually words like “always” and “never” compliment this type of thinking. When you make every event in your life the rule for how the rest of your life will go—you’re overgeneralizing. Just because you lose one job or a partner doesn’t mean you’ll always be jobless and alone. Overgeneralizing is more severe than licking wounds in a moment of loss, it can lead to debilitating depression for many who are unable to see an event as isolated rather than a sign of what is to come. Having a bad experience in one case does not mean all cases moving forward will have the same outcome. It is important to remember that life has ups and downs—some of them cannot be explained or even understood.
Discounting the positive.
This cognitive distortion involves ignoring or discounting any of the positive things that happen to you. If you’re a high achiever, you may struggle with this way of thinking. Perhaps, you have become so accustomed to setting out to accomplish something and then doing it that you find it hard to celebrate yourself. You, instead, attribute your wins to luck or something other than your talent, discipline and hard work. This way of thinking undermines your faith in your own abilities.
Mind reading and fortune telling.
These two are often coupled with one another. In order to still ourselves against undesirable outcomes, we can go to work on trying to predict either the way a person will respond to us or how events will unfold. When we’ve experienced a lot of disappointment, it can be excruciating to just wait to see how things turn out; therefore, we try to predict in order to prepare. It’s impossible to know how something will end before it even starts and we can’t read anyone’s minds—we can barely keep track of our own at times.
This one is for the girls who find it easier to magnify their, seemingly, negative qualities than accept their good ones. If you’ve been in relationships where you have been abandoned, ghosted and/or mistreated, it can become a habit to search for the flaws in yourself in an attempt to make sense of the pain you’ve experienced. When something bad happens, it confirms all the negative things you think of yourself. While when something good happens, you minimize their importance. You also may become hyperaware of the way other people perceive your “flaws”, contributing to anxiety disorders.
This type of thinking basically makes you conflate your current emotions with your overall reality. One may feel sad and convince themselves that both they and their circumstances are sad. You can feel worthless and then decide that you are worthless. When we are unable to separate a temporary feeling from our overall being, it can have dangerous and lasting implications.
Personalization and Blame.
This cognitive distortion is one where you place the entirety of blame for a situation on yourself or another person while ignoring that there may be several contributing factors to a less than desirable outcome; all of which were out of your control. For example, in a relationship there may be problems that both parties are contributing to—taking on complete ownership can lead you to believe that you are a bad partner undeserving of love while completely blaming your partner can cause negative feelings towards them. Feelings of shame, guilt, resentment and anger can accompany this day of thinking.
Cognitive distortions are the mind’s way of playing tricks on us to make us believe things are true that really aren’t. Many of them are common and really just need some acknowledgement and redirection while others can be more serious and call for professional help to deal with them.