Understanding Cognitive Distortions
Updated: Dec 28, 2020
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