Cognitive distortions (or thought distortions) are naturally part of the human experience. Thought distortions can show up and be disruptive even when we don’t expect them to. But we don’t have to be bogged down by their existence forever. Once we become aware of these thought distortions we can notice them in real time and work through them for more peaceful lives.
cognitive distortion – faulty or inaccurate thinking, perception, or belief.APA Dictionary of Psychology
Thought Distortions Are Both Natural & Learned
I think most of us are born with a generally neutral thought palatte. Over time, as you experience life you develop a worldview, or perspective on the world. Unfortunately, negative thinking is likely evolutionary. Therefore we are prone to developing distorted thoughts.
We all experience various forms of trauma or stress in our lives. Our brains, being the wonderful and efficient machines they are, can often develop thought distortions that are not accurate. Unfortunately, these kind of thoughts are insidious, and negatively impact mental health.
But even if you do not have mental illness, these distortions can still impact the way you live your life.
5 Common Thought Distortions
Any one can experience any or all of these thought distortions. Depending on which mental health professional you ask, there are generally about 10 or 11 that most people subscribe to, but some people think there are as many as 20+. Here I present to you five of the thought distortions that I encounter most often in my work…
If a friends says that you “jump to conclusions” then catastrophizing may be your hallmark thought distortion. Catastrophizing means that you assume the worst (or a very bad outcome) is going to happen in any given situation. Catastrophizing may look like experiencing some negative event, or slight, and not being able to see any explanation other than the worst case scenario. For instance, you schedule a date with someone new and you wait at the restaurant until you realize you’ve been stood up. You catastrophize by thinking that you will never go on a date again and you’re destined to live a life of loneliness.
tldr: You often automatically think of the worst case scenario in a situation.
Mental filtering can be difficult to figure out, especially as it most often requires someone else to point it out. Essentially, it relies on the psychological principle of confirmation bias, meaning we often look for details that confirm our hypothesis in a given situation.
With mental filtering, you ignore, or filter out, positive signs because they do not align with your assumed negative viewpoint. For example, you might be talking with your professor about your research and they give you several points of feedback. They compliment you on your procedures, your data collection and other parts of your work. They also mention that your written conclusion or summary needs some re-writing. After your meeting, you feel upset and worry about the negative feedback the rest of the day (if not longer). You have filtered out the positives and only paid attention to the one negative piece of feedback in the situation. This can often lead to ongoing worry and rumination, which are well-known precursors to anxious and depressive episodes.
tldr: You can’t help but stay stuck on the negative feedback and ignore the other positive feedback.
If you’ve ever struggled with self-esteem or confidence issues, then you may find personalization a familiar thought distortion.
Personalization means that you take an incident, seemingly unrelated to you or your behavior, and make it about you. This often looks like blaming yourself for something bad happening when there is little to no chance that you actually contributed to the problem.
For example, let’s say you’re driving your car down a street and notice a yellow light. You’re close enough to the intersection so you think you can make it through safely, and you do. The car behind you does the same, but ends up in a fender bender. You feel guilty. You personalize the incident and think, “If I hadn’t rolled through the yellow then they would have HAD to stop. They probably wouldn’t have hit the other car.” In this instance, personalization ignores the reality that each driver is responsible for their own choices.
tldr: When something goes wrong you often assume that you’re the one in the wrong and have a hard time considering other viewpoints about responsibility.
Emotional reasoning is a very powerful thought distortion that relies on your internal emotional experience as the only truth in a situation. The distortion is the assumption that your internal feeling reflects the reality of the circumstances at hand. This can be particularly insidious if you struggle with anxiety, worry or depression.
For example, you wake up one day and realize that you fell asleep early the night before and forgot to place a return call to your friend. You wake up the next morning feeling incredible guilt and think that you’re a horrible friend. You assume that your friend now thinks of you as a terrible friend, and doesn’t want to talk to you at all. In reality, your friend might be annoyed at you but very well may be happy to pick up the conversation the next day without much worry or anger.
tldr: Because you think you did something wrong, then that must be true.
Black or White (All or Nothing) Thinking
Another thought distortion that I frequently encounter in my work is black-or-white thinking. This distortion relies on the premise that a person may automatically categorize something as either-or, and have difficulty acknowledging the many shades of gray that we encounter regularly in everyday life. With black-or-white thinking, a person may not be able to hold ambiguity well and may see anything other than a complete success as a failure.
A common example of this is coming in 2nd place in a race and thinking that you are a complete failure, when the reality is that you performed extraordinarily well beating out many other competitors.
tldr: You often oversimplify things to make them cut and dry because ambiguity feels intolerable.
How to Start Working Through Thought Distortions
We all struggle with thought distortions from time to time. As a therapist I often work closely with a lot of clients on challenging cognitive distortions or automatic thoughts. This is the most powerful and useful way to adjust distorted thoughts, but it can be a long process.
It’s a simple process, but not often easy. For many of us, these thought distortions reflect long-held beliefs and thinking patterns. Sometimes they form after some relational or physical trauma. As a result, these thoughts can feel like “natural” parts of us and crystallized in our minds.
Challenging cognitive distortions is tricky territory and can often lead to developing other distorted thoughts…often in a well-intentioned effort to just be overwhelmingly positive. But, toxic positivity is no good either.
Working with a licensed mental health provider in therapy to do this work will help you emerge on the other side more capable of appropriately addressing your thoughts, and finding healthy ways to cope with the resulting worry, anxiety or depressive feelings.