In my most recent post, I talked about cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), and about evaluating the rationality of our thoughts. If, as CBT assumes, thoughts cause emotions and behaviors, then changing our maladaptive thoughts and replacing them with rational ones, can have a positive effect on our emotions and behaviors.
However, there are two difficulties. One, how to recognize these maladaptive thoughts? And two, what to replace them with?
To recognize irrational thoughts, it helps to write down all your thoughts, especially right after an emotional incident. Then, putting on your critical thinking hat, you can begin to evaluate them.
Today’s post is about finding ways to make the evaluation process easier. To help, I will be discussing some common cognitive distortions that you are likely to experience. Did I say common? These cognitive errors are very common. Chances are that you will find a few of them hidden beneath the surface of your thoughts immediately following a very stressful incident.
How many cognitive distortions are there? It depends on what you include and how you categorize these errors, but I have seen lists as short as only three items, and a couple of them longer than one hundred!
I will focus on ten items, the same ones that David D. Burns uses in his popular book, The Feeling Good Handbook. You might find that some of the cognitive errors I list are similar to each other, or less likely, that none of the ones mentioned cover a specific kind of distorted thinking you had in mind. If so, let me know in the comments section.
Also, in case you would like a more detailed analysis of these items, I suggest you obtain the book by Burns, which is available in many libraries. And if you would like a more narrative approach to understanding these errors, I am providing a link to my other blog, where I cover the same cognitive biases in the form of a story, in a series of three articles.
But if this is your first introduction to cognitive errors, I believe that these ten items will be a good start:
- Overgeneralizing: Drawing conclusions based on limited evidence
- Labeling: Labeling yourself based on some action you have taken
- Catastrophizing: Assigning a high likelihood to the worst-possible outcome
- Filtering: Filtering out the positive and focusing on the negative
- Jumping to conclusions: Mind-reading and fortune-telling
- Personalizing: Assuming that negative events are your fault
- Making “should statements”: Focusing on what you “should” do/have done
- Emotional reasoning: Assuming that your feelings are strong evidence
- Dismissing the positive: Ignoring the positives or turning them into negatives
- Dichotomous thinking: Thinking in black-and-white or right-or-wrong
The following numbered examples correspond with the above principles:
1. My blind date went badly. Therefore, I will be alone forever!
2. I do not know how to use this new photocopier. Therefore, I am stupid.
3. It would be a disaster if I happen to forget the last name of my new boss.
4. I don’t understand why people enjoy the beach; I got sand in my shoes!
5. You must hate me because I’m fat (mind-reading). My date will reject me (fortune-telling).
6. It is my fault that my spouse is unhappy.
7. I should not have felt angry; I ought to have known; I should know how to do this.
8. I have a bad feeling about the job interview so I better not even go for it.
9. My friends says I am resilient but I bet they are lying because they feel sorry for me.
10. Either I get into an Ivy League school or I will be a total failure!
Do any of these principles or examples sound familiar to you? If so, you are not alone. Simply be aware that one’s thoughts do not necessarily reflect reality. Know that there are other ways to think about things. It takes practice but it is possible.
Burns, D. D. (1999). The feeling good handbook. New York: Penguin Books