Understanding Cognitive Distortions
Jesse was passing the ice cream shop when he spotted a group of girls standing there chatting. They didn’t seem to notice him, but as he walked past, they suddenly burst out laughing. He looked back at them and they didn’t seem to be looking at him, but were still giggling. Jesse walked on hurriedly, convinced one of them had cracked a joke at his new hairstyle. Or was it his Slipknot t-shirt? Either way, he was sure they were laughing at him and his cheeks flushed red with embarrassment.
This is an example of a cognitive distortion. "Cognitive distortions" are faulty or inaccurate thinking, perception, or belief that an individual may use in coping with situations.
Therapy can help identify these patterns, help the individual understand when they come up and dispute these thoughts that are triggered by certain situations. So, by changing a particular thought that is part of a dysfunctional thinking pattern (e.g. assuming the behaviour of others has something to do with you, as was the case with Jesse) it may have manifold benefits for the patient.
Let us understand the different types of cognitive distortions that individuals most often employ when faced with certain situations:
All-or-nothing thinking: describes viewing situations in extremes rather than on a continuum. It is also known as black and white thinking.
Example: “If even one dish at my dinner party tastes a bit less than amazing, it means I have failed as a hostess!”
Catastrophizing: involves predicting only negative outcomes for the future or believing that anything negative or unpleasant that might take place would be hugely catastrophic.
Example: “I didn’t get into this super fancy college. I am done. I can’t face my family and friends now.”
Disqualifying or discounting the positive: telling yourself that the good things that happen to you don’t count, because they happened by coincidence or luck.
Example: “Oh, I won the 1st prize from the hundreds of entries AND I was mentioned in the university magazine? Whatever, I’m sure it was just a fluke win.”
Emotional reasoning: implies that how one feels about something is enough to prove that it is true, even if there exists evidence proving otherwise.
Example: “Yeah my friend said that they couldn’t watch a movie with me this weekend because she had family commitments, but I know that she’s just trying to avoid me.”
Labelling: involves making a swift judgment about someone on the basis of one characteristic or detail, rather than objectively analysing the situation.
Example: “The new guy at work was wearing a creased shirt yesterday. I’m sure he’s a good for nothing”
Magnification/minimization: involves seeing the positive results of your actions as smaller than they really are and the negative results of your actions as bigger than they really are.
Example: “Yes, the teachers praised me for my presentation. But they were just being nice.”
Mind reading: Assuming that you know what others are thinking even if you don’t have much evidence supporting the same.
Example: “My crush must think I’m pretty stupid for not noticing my laces were undone until lunchtime.”
Mental filter/tunnel vision: Focusing one’s attention or seeing only the negatives of a situation.
Example: “I wish I hadn’t stumbled when I walked onstage to receive my ‘Achiever of the Year’ award. Who’s going to remember anything else now?!”
Overgeneralization: involves making an overall negative conclusion based on one small incident or detail.
Example: “My girlfriend didn’t call me after work today. I think she’s not interested in me now.”
Personalization: involves assuming that others negative behaviour or words are directed at you
Example: “My wife has been so quiet today. I’m sure I said something to upset her.”
“Should” and “must” statements: Having a rigid idea of how everyone including the self should behave.
Example: “I must get the highest marks in the exam.” Or “My child should listen to everything I tell him!”
Dealing with cognitive distortions - Cognitive restructuring
In Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, Cognitive restructuring is a process of identifying and then changing inaccurate negative thoughts.
The therapist and client work together to help the client realize how and why these thoughts are ineffective or disruptive. Clients learn how to think differently by replacing irrational thoughts or faulty thinking patterns with more rational and positive thinking.
Cully, J., & Teten, A. (2008). A Therapist’s Guide to Brief Cognitive Behavioral Therapy [Ebook] (1st ed.). Houston: Department of Veterans Affairs, South Central Mental Illness Research, Education, and Clinical Center (MIRECC). Retrieved from https://depts.washington.edu/dbpeds/therapists_guide_to_brief_cbtmanual.pdf
About the author
My name is Brinelle Valladares and I have been a psychologist at AscendPsychology CogniPsyTech Pvt. Ltd since August 2018. My responsibilities involve handling the psychometric career assessments and counselling for our clients. Apart from that, I have also contributed towards developing psychology related content and provided support for different areas – namely, talent acquisition, and client management.
Since my childhood days, I have always been inclined towards helping others and this has continued through the years. Throughout school and college, I have supported and participated in individual and group activities that have provided guidance and assistance to children, old persons and the less fortunate in society. I like helping others and reveled in the knowledge that I had helped in making their day just a little brighter. This desire to help others is what pushed me to pursue Psychology. I knew I wanted to work with people, understand their behavior and help them in whatever way I could to live better, more fulfilling lives. I realized that in studying Psychology, I would gain a better understanding of and make a positive impression in the lives of others. I later pursued a Masters in Clinical Psychology with that goal in mind. And then completed the PG Diploma in Counselling Psychology from Xavier Institute of Counselling Psychology so as to further hone my skills and equip me to work better with individuals from different walks of life. At AscendPsychology, I hope to continue in further building proficiency in career guidance and application of psychological theory to real world situations.
And when I’m not at work, I enjoy dabbling with baking, gardening and obsessively clicking
photographs of the evening sky.