When someone treats you with disdain and uses every verbal attack they can think to use on you, do you walk away thinking “this person hates me, they think I am completely worthless?” If you have never thought this way, would you? What about if your boss walked by you without smiling or greeting you after you just applied to another job? Would you think “he completely hates me?” If so, have you considered that perhaps you were engaging in a Cognitive Distortion?
A cognitive distortion is something that you think without giving yourself time to consider alternative points of view. For example, that boss who just walked by you without smiling or greeting you might not really be angry with you, but rather, he may have just gotten off the phone with his wife who is divorcing him. That person who verbally berates you may not necessarily be angry with you, but rather, envious. We all engage in cognitive distortions from time to time and unfortunately, they control our lives and our emotions. These thoughts or cognition are called distortions because they don’t always have to be true. Distortions of thinking have a very powerful influence on how we perceive ourselves, our world, our abilities, and others around us.
Sadly, there are multiple distortions that we engage in, about 50+. Individuals with or without mental health concerns are susceptible, but individuals who suffer from severe depression, psychotic disorders, or mood disorders such as bipolar disorder can be more susceptible to these distortions of thinking than others. Here are 7 most common cognitive distortions:
Polarized Thinking (or “Black and White” Thinking)
Everything is black and white, all or nothing. If it can be option A or B, it won’t be option C. You have a difficult time being flexible and opening your mind to alternatives. You are either a failure or a winner, a beauty queen or unattractive, smart or unintelligent. There is no middle ground.
This occurs when you dwell on the negatives of a situation and ignore all of the positives that occurred. This often happens in situations where you already have a negative perception about the situation. For example, you do not agree to your daughter marrying her “high-school crush” so you go to the wedding with negative feelings about everything. You ignore your daughter’s beautiful gown, her beautiful smile, and the joy she seems to be experiencing because you cannot get over your dislike of her new husband.
This usually occurs when you make generalized conclusions based on little to no evidence. For example, your boss yells at you for making a big mistake on your company’s taxes and you go home thinking “he hates my guts, he’ll never speak to me again.” You apply for another job and the supervisor reminds you of your previous boss. You begin thinking “this man is going to hate me too.” Overgeneralizing occurs when you think that a single event will happen over and over again in your life.
This cognitive distortion can seem very identify to the above 5, 4, and 3. But the difference here is that you think everything that happens to you is about you personally. The woman who didn’t hold the door open for you, hates you. The man who didn’t smile at you thinks you’re unattractive. The man who cut you off on the highway wants to annoy you and make your life miserable. Everything is often personalized, even if it is illogical. For example, the elderly man driving 5 MPH on a 35 MPH stretch is trying to slow you down.
You think the situation is often more negative than it actually is. You get into a car accident and without looking at the so-called “damage,” you call your mom screaming and saying “I think I’m going to need a new car.” This type of thinking often occurs when you begin to exaggerate the reality of situations without considering the fact that perhaps the situation is not as bad as you thought.
Jumping to Conclusions
Your husband gets angry with you for no reason and you begin to think that maybe he wants a divorce. Without even considering the fact that he has been working 15hours a day, he is overwhelmed, and hasn’t been sleeping, you assume he wants a divorce. Your assumptions only add to his stress, so he begins staying with his brother overnight. You then assume he is cheating on you. Jumping to conclusions often leads to greater problems.
A cognitive distortion of entitlement can be very detrimental to interpersonal relationships and even co-worker relationships. Feeling entitled can lead to self-centeredness and selfishness in multiple areas of life. When someone feels entitled, there is little room for consideration of others thoughts, behaviors, or feelings. Seeing yourself in a way that is more false than true (feeling entitled), is a distortion of thinking. It influences behavior in negative ways.
It’s very easy to feel many of the above things without thinking about them. Cognitive distortions are one of the most common reasons for depression, anxiety, and lack of communication in relationships. These distortions can seem most detrimental in individuals suffering from severe or untreated mental illnesses or severe depression. Being mindful of them and knowing how to avoid them (or helping someone learn how to recognize distortions) , is the best defense against these distortions.
As always, I wish you well
Editor’s note: This article was originally published February, 9, 2014 but has been updated to reflect comprehensiveness and accuracy.