Cognitive distortions hurt mood and behavior, but they can be overcome
Here’s a troubling truth about the human mind: It loves to be negative — it’s nature’s way of keeping us alert to danger — and those negative thoughts are often automatic and full of distortions.
That means you may find yourself being dragged down by thoughts that have little basis in reality, without even being fully aware what’s to blame. Such distorted negativity has consequences, sometimes leading to depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, conflicts in relationships, and a turn to alcohol or other drugs.
Cognitive distortions, as they are called, were identified through the work of pioneering psychiatrist Aaron T. Beck, MD, back in the 1960s. What he discovered was the negative messages we tell ourselves affect our moods and behaviors, but that we can learn to identify and overcome them. It was an idea later expanded upon and popularized by David D. Burns, MD, in his book Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy.
A variety of cognitive distortions have been identified, but these 10 are among the most common. How many look familiar to you?
1. All-or-nothing thinking
You overlook nuances and evaluate the world in black and white. You might plan an event that succeeds on multiple levels, for example, but if one element goes wrong, you see the entire effort as a failure.
Rather than judging events on their own merits, you see them as proof of a broader pattern. Not being invited to a party becomes a sign that “no one likes me.” Or the salesperson who gives you incorrect change signals “you can’t trust anyone.”
You focus only on the negative, which then contaminates the good. If you make one misstep at a social gathering, for example, it ruins the entire evening. Or if you get a promotion, you immediately start worrying about the increased workload or measuring up to the task.
4. Disqualifying the positive
Somehow, the good things around you — and in you — just don’t count. If complimented, you find yourself explaining why the praise is not really deserved. Your default mode is self-deprecation.
5. Jumping to conclusions
This tendency to assume the worst in advance of the facts can take a couple of forms, such as mind-reading and fortune-telling. With mind-reading, you allow yourself to presume the thoughts of others. Rather than assuming the friend who doesn’t return your text is probably just busy, for example, you wonder what you’ve done to offend him. In fortune-telling, you look pessimistically into the future. You just know you’re going to mess up your presentation, for example, or that no one in your new neighborhood will like you.
6. Magnification or minimization
This is sometimes referred to as the binocular trick. In magnification, the importance of things is exaggerated to the point of catastrophe. That cough, for example, must mean you have lung cancer. With minimization, all the positives — including your own qualities and achievements — shrink to insignificance. For example, you may have done great things for your company, but you still feel overshadowed when someone else in the firm chalks up a success.
7. Emotional reasoning
Your emotions guide your concept of reality. For example, a too-critical parent may have made you feel unlovable and worthless. Because you feel this way, you assume you are unlovable and worthless.
8. “Should” statements
You try to whip yourself and others into shape with “should,” “must” and “ought to” language that spells out the proper path. If you fail to live up to these rigid beliefs, you feel guilty. If others fall short, you feel frustrated and resentful.
When things go wrong or something or someone bothers you, you turn to labels rather than acknowledging complexities. For example, if you forget it’s your turn to pick up the kids for the carpool, you don’t see it as a regrettable mistake, you see it as proof that you’re a bad parent. Or if others support a different political candidate than you, they don’t just have a different ideology, they are idiots.
You hold yourself responsible for negative events that aren’t wholly within your control or that evolve out of a complex chain of events. You might tell yourself, for example, that if you had spent more time with your child, she would never have become sick.
Embracing a New Mindset
It’s the rare person who can say that none of the above hits home. So what can you do to stop feeding the distortions and embrace healthier and more realistic ways of thinking and reacting?
1. Cultivate awareness
It’s all too easy to go through life on autopilot, never realizing that the choices you make and the feelings you have about certain situations are influenced by the running dialogue in your head. So stop and pay attention the next time you’re feeling anxious, frustrated, inadequate or stressed. What are you saying to yourself? That you never do anything right? That no one will ever love you? That your goals are foolish? The first step toward changing that negative internal conversation is realizing you are having it.
2. Question your thoughts
When you’ve identified what you’re thinking, challenge those cognitive distortions. Is it really true that you never do anything right? It’s probably a safe bet that you can come up with multiple examples of times you’ve succeeded. Acknowledge them. Examine the evidence you have for how you are feeling. Are you working with facts or are you factoring in only negative information or jumping to conclusions? What’s really behind the harshness you express toward yourself or others? If your mind tends toward the worst-case scenario, ask yourself how likely such an outcome is. And if the worst does happen, does it really spell doom?
It can be helpful to write down such thoughts as you become aware of them, so you can more clearly see which distortions you are prone to and work out strategies for addressing them.
3. Explore the root of your distortions
Your past experiences influence the cognitive distortions you develop, so getting to their source can help you better understand and deal with them. You may have always thought of yourself as socially awkward, for example, when the reality is that it may just be a message that a middle school bully put in your head and that continues to replay to this day. Over time, you come to see this distorted reality as true.
If you need help with the process of connecting with your inner self, reach out to a mental health professional. Cognitive behavioral therapy, a technique created by Dr. Beck, can help you uncover the relationships among your thoughts, feelings and behaviors, identify distortions, and structure new ways of thinking and reacting.
4. Move ahead
As you put your awareness into practice, you’ll be arming yourself against automatically defaulting to the negative, and in time, you’ll carve new channels along which your thoughts can run.
Instead of seeing missing a deadline as proof you’re hopeless, for example, you’ll be better able to realistically assess the situation, determine what you can and should change and what remains outside your control, and move forward. You’ll no longer be using your energy to dwell on all that’s wrong in your life, you’ll be using it to make things right.