10 Cognitive Distortions
Cognitive distortions are inaccurate or irrational thought patterns that can influence our emotions and actions. We all experience cognitive distortions to some degree, but in their more extreme forms they can be destructive to one’s self-perception and relationships with others. The following is a list of common cognitive distortions.
Negative Filtering A person engaging in “negative filtering” takes the negative details and magnifies those details while filtering out all positive aspects of a situation. For instance, a person may pick out a single, unpleasant detail and dwell on it exclusively so that their vision of reality becomes darkened or distorted. For example, a person who had a wonderful vacation but focuses on and laments about the one rude waiter “who ruined everything.”
Black or White (Polarized) Thinking In polarized thinking, things are either “black-or-white” — all or nothing. We must be perfect or we’re a complete failure — there is no middle ground. A person with polarized thinking places people or situations in “either/or” categories, with no shades of gray or allowing for the complexity of most people and most situations. A person with black-and-white thinking sees things only in extremes. An example is a person who insists that whenever his girlfriend is late it is because she disrespects him. Late = Disrespect, no matter what. Black or white thinking forces a person to either love or hate, see perfection or failure, which causes unnecessary and constant emotional upheavals and changes
Mind Reading This is when a person “knows” (thinks they know) what another person is feeling and thinking. “You’re only acting nice because you have something to hide” “You were late just to be mean” “I know exactly what you’re going to say” “That’s not what you really mean” Mind reading allows the mind reader to focus on the other person’s presumed negative motivations rather than on the subject at hand. It also keeps the mind reader from attending to their own needs and motivations.
Catastrophizing When a person engages in catastrophizing, they expect the worst possible outcomes of a situation and dwell on “what ifs.” In this distortion, a person expects or fears the absolute worst thing to happen. This distortion often keeps people from doing things they are capable of: “I refused the offer to do the presentation because I doubt they really wanted me to, and I’m sure no one is interested in the topic, my laptop would probably freeze, and then I’d get horrible feedback.”
Fallacy of Fairness In the fallacy of fairness, a person has strong beliefs of what is, and isn’t, FAIR. These folks often feel their fairness standard is, or should be, shared by everyone else, and they can therefore be surprised and even angered when someone else sees things differently. For example, “It’s not fair that my dog got sick, I take care of my pets and other people don’t so it’s not fair that my dog got sick!” People who go through life measuring every situation for “fairness” will often feel resentful, angry, and even hopeless because of it. It’s hard to find peace when you can’t accept that sometimes “shit happens” for no reason. When we stay in “It’s not fair” we remain a victim and it’s harder to move forward.
Emotional Reasoning For everyone, strong emotions in highly charged situations can overrule our rational thoughts and reasoning for a period of time. But generally, we can then quickly sort out our emotional responses from other logical aspects and perceptions of the situation. Emotional Reasoning is when a person’s feelings take over their thinking entirely, ignoring rationality and other interpretations. The distortion of emotional reasoning can be summed up by the statement, “If I feel that way, it must be true.” For example: From upstairs, Janice mentions that she left her sweater in Jason’s car. Jason, downstairs, heads out to his car, parked down the block, to get the sweater. When he returns, Janice is very upset and asks how he can be so thoughtless to just leave without telling her? No matter what Jason says, or apologizes for, Janice interprets it all through the now “fact” that Jason is thoughtless—all because Janice had a fleeting moment of distress when she saw that Jason was not in the house. Janice stayed in the painful emotional state, and then blamed Jason for “making her feel that way.” This thought distortion keeps Janice from recognizing and accepting her emotional response, asking Jason to always tell her if he leaves the house, and also appreciate that he went quickly to get her sweater.
Confirmation Bias Confirmation bias refers to the tendency to selectively search for and focus on information that confirms one's already held beliefs. People demonstrate confirmation bias when they actively seek out information which confirms their opinion and disregard information which contradicts it. Most of us can easily see how we do this when reading about politics – we tend to focus on the things that support “our side” and tend to find the negative aspects of the other side. Confirmation bias is often studied in the fields of advertising, race relations and other societal issues. But we do it in relationships, too. Remember Jason and Janice from above? Let’s say Janice has a hard time accepting that Jason isn’t an inconsiderate person just because he did one inconsiderate thing, i.e., he left the house for a moment without telling Janice, before he knew it would upset her. If it’s hard for Janice to let go of her “belief” that only an inconsiderate person would do an inconsiderate thing, then she will likely find “proof” of Jason’s inconsideration in many other circumstances, as a way to confirm her initial belief that Jason is an inconsiderate person. In other words, she will look for and interpret many of Jason’s behaviors as thoughtless, as a way to prove her point that he “always makes me feel unimportant.”
Magical Thinking Magical thinking is a type of cognitive distortion in which individuals believe that their thoughts or actions will directly produce a specific outcome, either positive or negative. Imagine that you are walking by an open garbage can on your way to work and spot a $100 bill in the trash. Chances are you will feel compelled to look in that same garbage can the next time you walk by it even though the chances of another $100 bill being there are, objectively speaking, negligible. Or, you always wear your “lucky” underwear when you take a test. These are harmless and very common examples of magical thinking. It becomes a problem when this thought pattern interferes with your life, for example, “I got hit by that car because I haven’t been praying enough” (rather than getting the brake lights fixed) or, “I can ignore the lump in my breast because I’m only 25.”
Overgeneralization In this cognitive distortion, a person comes to a general conclusion based on a single incident or a single piece of evidence. If something bad happens once, they expect it to happen over and over again. A person may see a single, unpleasant event as part of a never-ending pattern of defeat. “I tried applying for a job online once and never heard back. It doesn’t work, so I don’t do it anymore.”
Personalization Personalization is a distortion where a person believes that everything others do or say is a direct, personal reaction to them. They take virtually everything, good and/or bad, personally. “Several people stayed late at work today, most likely to get back at me for being late last week,” or, conversely, “Probably because I got that award last month.”
Tips for managing cognitive distortions
- Name it to Tame it
Start to notice and name the distortion when you are engaging in it. This will help you be mindful of thoughts that were previously automatic. Naming allows you to view the thought or assumption more objectively
- Say it out loud
Sometimes we need to hear our thoughts aloud to realize how unlikely they really are. “I’m only 25 so I’m NOT going to the doctor!”
- Become a detective Look for evidence for and against the thought. “What other evidence do I have that Jason is a thoughtless person? What evidence do I have that he is very thoughtful?”
- Replace it If you’ve found enough evidence against the thought to prove it is faulty, find a neutral or positive thought to replace it with:
- Perhaps I haven’t known Jason long enough to know how thoughtful he is or isn’t.
- Even though we had some mix-ups with waiters, I sure enjoyed most of my vacation.
- There could be any number of reasons my co-workers are staying late.
- Practice, Practice, Practice
Refute the faulty thought with the evidence and new thought you created over and over again; repetition leads to familiarity. After all, it took “practice” to get to where your automatic thought was distorted, and it takes time and practice to change any habit.
- Be kind to yourself!
Always practice self-compassion and give yourself a break; you are only human, and none of us sees clearly all the time. You may continue to have these cognitive distortions off and on. However, with some self-reflection and practice, they don’t have to have as much power over your feelings, decisions and your relationships.