What Are Cognitive Distortions?

What Are Cognitive Distortions?

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Anyone can experience cognitive distortion, which the American Psychological Association defines as “faulty or inaccurate thinking, perception or belief.” Negativity is often the defining characteristic. Distorted thinking occurs in a momentary blip. We get upset when we fail a math test. We briefly reason that we’re bad at math, instead of realizing we need to study more. Often we carry this momentary blip, this irrational thought- in our unconscious mind and it becomes a core belief, altering how we see reality, how we respond to reality, and then changing the trajectory of our life course. Because we make decisions off on too many limiting and irrational beliefs.

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Cognitive distortions are a pattern of thinking that interferes with our lives and relationships. In these cases, distorted thinking can lead to chronic anxiety, depression, and behavioral problems such as misuse of substances. Remember, we are 80% unconscious of these beliefs and it takes time to get to know ourselves, and our limited thinking, and to heal them.

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First Type of Cognitive Distortion- Catastrophic Thinking.

Catastrophic Thinking:  You expect the worst outcome in any situation.

For instance, you have a bellyache and assume it is an ulcer. Then you imagine the ulcer will require surgery. And then you think that no one will be there for you to help you recover from the surgery.

A more rational thought would be “Oh, my stomach must be upset from what I ate for lunch.”

Second Type of Cognitive Distortion- Discounting The Positive.

Discounting the positive– When something goes right — say you get a 100 on an exam. You acknowledge it but refuse to take credit. Instead, you chalk it up to dumb luck or a mistake. Or, you get a 95% on the test and focus on how you missed 5%. 

A More rational thought could be “Wow, I am skilled in this subject” or “I studied hard and it paid off.”

Third Cognitive Distortion Type- Emotional Reasoning

Emotional reasoning: You rely on “gut” feelings over objective evidence to judge yourself and the world.

For example, “I feel too mentally ill to be helped, therefore I must be too mentally ill to be helped. A more rational thought would be “This must be a shame” or “There are trained professionals who know how to treat mental challenges, I should see what they have to say.”

Fourth Type of Cognitive Distortion Labeling/Mislabeling

Labeling/mislabeling: You often define yourself and others with negative labels.

In assigning labels, you focus on one past behavior or event. Your co-worker is “lazy” because they came to work late. You’re “stupid” because you failed the math test.

A more rational thought would be “Oh, my co-worker ran late today” (this is discernment as opposed to judgment). In regards to the math test, a more rational thought could be “I should have studied harder” or “there were things on that test that we never covered in class.”

Fifth Type of Cognitive Distortion: Mental Filtering

Mental filtering: You view yourself, your life, and your future through a negative lens. You ignore anything and everything that is positive in it. Filtering can increase feelings of hopelessness and helplessness. For example, you miss out on a job opportunity and you think “What is the point in trying? Nothing ever works out for me. People don’t like me. I’ll never get what I want in life; I’m no good at anything.”

A more rational thought would be “That was a great interview. I’m surprised I wasn’t offered a position. It must be someone else’s turn and a better situation might be the next offer.”

Sixth Type of Cognitive Distortion: Jumping to Conclusions

Jumping to conclusions: you base your decisions not on what someone says or does, but on what you believe they’re thinking. You believe you can read minds or anticipate reactions. You don’t ask what the other person thinks or feels.  This ties in with Jung’s theory of “Perception is projection” and can be connected with people-pleasing codependency.

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Irrational Thought Example: You go on a date with someone and then you don’t hear back from them. You think “He must not like me because he hasn’t contacted me.”  This date could be thinking a variety of things, including their own cognitive distortions; such as “she might realize she is too good for me;” or “I must wait a few days so I don’t look desperate.”

A more rational thought would be “Maybe I should reach out and thank him for the nice evening and see how he is doing.”

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Seventh Type of Cognitive Distortion: Fortune Telling

Fortune-telling is another form of cognitive distortion related to jumping to conclusions. You insist you can predict the future, regardless of what you do. For instance: “I’ll be famous without putting in the hard work.” Or “I’ll always be a failure, so hard work is a waste of time.”

A more rational thought would be “I should try and see what happens.”

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Eighth Type of Cognitive Distortion: Overgeneralization

Overgeneralization: People who overgeneralize apply their experience from one event to another.

 Overgeneralization Example: Because you failed one math test you are now “terrible at math.” Or because your boss didn’t say hello to you one morning; your boss is rude.

A more rational thought would be “If I study more, I can be good at math.” Or “I wonder if my boss is okay that he didn’t say hello to me this morning?

Ninth Type of Cognitive Distortion: Personalization

Personalization If you have ever been told “don’t take this personally,” then you likely experience personalization.

You blame yourself for things outside of your control. You falsely believe that everything that someone says or does is a direct reaction to you. Personalization can convince you that you are being targeted or excluded. It can also cause you to compare yourself to others.

Irrational Thought Example: “My boss didn’t say hello to me when he came in today. He must be mad at me.”

A more rational thought would be “I wonder what is going on with my boss that he didn’t say hello today?”

Tenth Type of Cognitive Distortion: Black or White Thinking

Black or White Thinking is Also called “All or Nothing” thinking and “Polarized” thinking. This is when a person is thinking in extremes- such as being destined for success or doomed to failure, that people are either angelic or evil or “the best” or “the worst.” Irrational Thought Example: In an unhappy marriage, a partner may think, “My spouse is pure evil.” This usually is not true. In a marriage, we find stuck points and after continuous frustration with them, we may start to focus on the negative aspects of our partners.

A more rational thought would be, “My partner has unresolved trauma that has them do behavior” or “I need to work on why my partner’s behavior triggers ME so much” or “My partner has several character defects and his/her strengths” (Hot Tip: Working on your triggers and reminding yourself of your partner’s strengths can save your marriage).

Eleventh Type of Cognitive Distortion: “Should” statements

There is a saying “Don’t should all over yourself.”  You have a list of rules for how people should and shouldn’t behave. Constantly blaming yourself or others for what “should” have been said or done (but wasn’t) can increase stress and anxiety. You will never be happy if you always focus on what “should” have been. My parent “should have” gotten a better job so I could have an easier time with success. Or “my spouse ‘should be the sole breadwinner in the home.” Although these “shoulds” may be nice to have when we word it this way it creates resentment and entitlement.

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 More rational thought would be “there is unresolved ancestral trauma in my family that has held them back from the level of success they are capable of” or “my partner and I can work together on a vision of our lifestyle by creating a goal and an achievable way to create it.

Cognitive Distortions are irrational thoughts that increase negative emotional experiences. Remember that identifying irrational thoughts is the first step to making them more rational. If you have trouble holding on to more rational thought, it is a great opportunity to do some internal work on patterns that are holding you back.

Being familiar with the types of distortions will help you identify them. Once you realize the thought is irrational, you can replace it with more rational thought. The more rational thought can also help alleviate anxiety or depression that the irrational thought was creating if you believed it.

“Remember that identifying irrational thoughts are the first step to making them more rational.”

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