What Are Cognitive Distortions Anyway?
What are cognitive distortions and why might you be interested in them? The term cognitive may sound pretty intimidating or overly intellectual, but it has a simple meaning. Cognition is just a fancy word for a thought. It’s the way you think about what’s happening. Right now, you’re probably having some thoughts about me and what you’re reading, and possibly some thoughts about yourself as well. Your thoughts create your feelings every minute of every day.
For example, right now you could be thinking that I’m a con artist or that this will be just another superficial self-help book. If so, you probably feel skeptical, suspicious, or even annoyed.
Or you may be thinking that nothing could possibly help you because your problems are so severe. If so, you probably feel hopeless, discouraged or demoralized.
Or this may all sound really interesting and exciting to you, and you may be thinking that this book could actually help you. If so, you’re probably excited and hopeful.
Do you see what I mean? Everyone reading this book is reading the exact same words, but how they feel about this book can differ greatly. Your feelings result entirely from how you’re thinking right now. It is your thoughts, and not the circumstances of your life, that create all of your feelings. You FEEL the way you THINK.
Sometimes, though, we think about ourselves and our lives in ways that are pretty illogical and even unfair to ourselves. We make interpretations about what’s happening that are twisted and misleading, but we don’t realize it. That is what cognitive distortions are: a highly misleading way of thinking about yourself and the world. It’s a way of fooling yourself. And when you feel depressed and anxious, you will nearly always be fooling yourself. This means that your negative thoughts do not reflect reality. Depression and anxiety are the world’s oldest cons.
The following are ten of the most common cognitive distortions:
1. All-or-Nothing Thinking. You look at things in absolute, black-or-white categories, as if shades of gray do not exist, and you think of yourself as either a complete success or total failure. This dichotomous way of thinking can make life pretty miserable and make you feel like a zero, or nothing, most of the time. In addition, you can’t accurately describe yourself or the world in black-or-white categories. Things are rarely totally horrible or absolutely perfect.
2. Overgeneralization. You generalize from some specific flaw, failure, or mistake to your entire self. Or you may generalize the way you feel right now, or some negative experience you’ve just had, to the future. You should suspect overgeneralization whenever your negative thoughts contain global labels (like bad mom) or words like always or never. For example, if you were ever rejected by someone you loved, then you may have told yourself that you were “unlovable” and that you’d be alone forever. In this case, you’d be overgeneralizing the breakup of one relationship to your entire self. You’d also be overgeneralizing from the present to your entire future.
Of course, this distortion isn’t limited to matters of the heart. If you’ve ever failed at something you were trying to accomplish, then you may have thought of yourself as a failure and felt like you’d never be successful. Once again, you’re overgeneralizing from some specific failure to your entire self and from this moment to your entire future.
The next two cognitive distortions typically go hand in hand:
3. Mental Filtering. You filter out or ignore the positives and focus entirely on the negatives. It’s like a drop of ink that discolors the entire beaker of water.
4. Discounting the Positive. This is an even more spectacular mental error. You tell yourself that your positive qualities or successes don’t count. You convince yourself that you’re completely bad, inferior, or worthless.
For example, if someone compliments you, you may tell yourself, “Oh, she’s just saying that to be nice. She doesn’t really mean it.” Or you may notice what’s great about other people—how successful or attractive they are—and overlook their flaws. You may also dwell on your own flaws, thinking you’re “too short” or “too tall,” and obsess about your appearance, all while insisting your own positive qualities are just “average.”
Even I find myself slipping into these two distortions from time to time. For example, if I’m feeling vulnerable or insecure, and I get a negative or critical comment or email, I’ll tend to dwell on it while ignoring a whole host of positive comments from fans filled with praise. It sometimes feels like the criticisms are valid and the positive comments don’t really count. Feelings of inferiority nearly always result from mental filtering and discounting the positive.
5. Jumping to Conclusions. This is where you jump to painful and upsetting conclusions that aren’t really supported by the facts. There are two common versions of this distortion:
a. Fortune Telling. You make arbitrary and disturbing predictions about the future. It’s as if you had a crystal ball that only gives you bad news!
b. Mind Reading. You jump to conclusions about how others are thinking and feeling without any clear evidence.
Fortune telling can trigger feelings of hopelessness. For example, if you’re depressed, then you may tell yourself that things will never change, that your problems can never be solved, and that you’ll be depressed forever. These thoughts cause feelings of hopelessness and can sometimes even lead to suicidal urges.
Fortune telling can also trigger feelings of anxiety. For example, if you have anxiety about public speaking, then you might worry that your mind will go blank, that you’ll blow it, and that you’ll make a total fool of yourself when you get up in front of the audience.
Mind reading also causes social anxiety, especially shyness. For example, when you’re at a social gathering, you may tell yourself that other people will see how nervous you are, judge you, and be uninterested in what you have to say. You may also tell yourself that everyone else is confident and relaxed and that no one else ever struggles with insecurities.
6. Magnification and Minimization. You exaggerate the negativity in a situation and minimize the positives. I call this the “binocular trick” since magnifying is like looking through a pair of binoculars (which makes everything much bigger) and minimizing is like looking through the opposite end (which makes everything much smaller).
Magnification plays a huge role in anxiety because it causes you to greatly exaggerate danger. Consider the fear of flying. As you know, there’s an extraordinarily small probability that you’ll die in a commercial air flight. I think you’d have to fly all day every day for about 600 years to be in significant danger. However, people who are afraid of flying massively magnify the actual danger and wrongly believe it’s incredibly risky to fly.
Similarly, panic attacks always result from magnification in combination with fortune-telling. During a panic attack, you misinterpret normal bodily sensations, like dizziness or tightness in the chest, and become irrationally convinced that something catastrophic is about to happen, such as a massive heart attack, when you’re actually magnifying the significance of fairly common and innocuous physical sensations.
Minimization, of course, is the opposite. You tell yourself that something isn’t very important—when it is. For example, I just did my “slogging” today, which is my word for super slow jogging. And I only went two miles. I could tell myself that my super slow two-mile “slog” doesn’t count because so many other people run a lot farther and faster. But my slogging does count, and I’m darn proud of myself for getting out and paying my dues. I’ve never enjoyed running, but at least I’m getting some fairly decent exercise almost every day.
7. Emotional Reasoning. This involves reasoning from the way you feel, such as: “I feel like an idiot, so I must be one” or “I feel hopeless, so things are never going to get better.” Or in the case of panic attacks, “I feel like I’m on the verge of a nervous breakdown, so I must be in a lot of danger.”
For decades, mental health professionals have urged patients to get in touch with their feelings. But your feelings are not always a reliable guide to reality and can sometimes be incredibly misleading, especially when you feel depressed, anxious, or angry. That’s because feelings result from thoughts, and as you’re learning, negative thoughts are often distorted. When this is the case, your feelings do not reflect reality any better than the curved mirrors you see in amusement parks that create distorted images of how you look.
8. Should Statements. You criticize yourself or other people with shoulds, shouldn’ts, musts, ought tos, and have tos. There are several types of should statements:
a. Self-Directed Shoulds lead to feelings of guilt and inferiority when we don’t live up to our self-imposed standards (“I shouldn’t have screwed up!”).
b. Other-Directed Shoulds lead to feelings of anger and frustration when others don’t meet our expectations (“He shouldn’t feel that way” or “She shouldn’t have said that!”). Other-directed shoulds cause conflicts with others, such as marital problems, arguments, and even violence and war.
c. World-Directed Shoulds lead to frustration and anger when the world doesn’t meet our expectations. For example, I sometimes tell myself that this or that software program shouldn’t be so dang complicated and hard to learn!
d. Hidden Shoulds are not expressed explicitly with terms like should, ought, or must, but they’re implied by your negative thoughts and feelings. For example, if you berate yourself whenever you make a mistake, you’re essentially telling yourself that you should be perfect and should never goof up.
When you see this distortion in someone else who feels upset, you can probably see how unrealistic it is and how hard that person is being on him- or herself. But when you tell yourself that you shouldn’t feel the way you do, that you shouldn’t have made that mistake, or that you should be better than you are, it’s much harder to see that you’re fooling yourself.
9. Labeling. Labeling is an extreme form of overgeneralization in which you try to capture the “essence” of yourself or another person with a one-word label. For example, when you make a mistake, you call yourself a “jerk” or “loser” instead of saying, “I made a mistake.”
Labeling is very common in political and religious battles. For example, we may label people who disagree with us politically as “lefties” or “righties.” Hitler used this type of labeling to achieve power in Germany when he described Jewish people (and others) as “rats” and identified Aryan people as being part of the “superior” race.
Labeling tends to fire up strong negative emotions, like severe depression and intense rage. In addition, it’s mean. When you label yourself or another person, it’s like taking a jab at someone. It also distracts you from what’s important because you use all your energy ruminating about how bad you are instead of pinpointing your error—assuming you’ve actually made an error—so you can learn from it and grow.
Labeling is also highly irrational. Humans are not objects that can be captured with a single positive or negative label. There’s really no such thing as a “jerk” or a “loser”—although plenty of jerky behavior exists. I know that I often do “jerky” things no matter how hard I try to be “good.” And if I told you about all the losses I’ve experienced and things at which I’ve failed (including just recently), we’d have a pretty long conversation. Does that mean I’m a “loser”?
10. Self-Blame and Other-Blame. You find fault in others or yourself instead of solving the problem or identifying the true causes of the problem.
a. Self-Blame. You blame yourself for something you weren’t entirely responsible for, or you beat up on yourself because of some mistake you made. For example, an attorney blamed himself for losing a case in court, but the evidence against the man he was trying to defend was overwhelming.
b. Other-Blame. You blame others and overlook ways you might have contributed to the conflict.
For example, a wife complained that her husband was constantly critical of her and said things like “You never listen!” She wanted to know why men were like that.
I asked her how she typically responded, and she said, “Oh, I just ignore him and say nothing!”
When you feel depressed or anxious, there’s a good chance you’re blaming yourself and telling yourself you’re no good because of some flaw or failure. When you’re angry or not getting along with someone else, the odds are high that you’re blaming the other person for the conflict.
You don’t need to be diagnosed with depression or anxiety to experience these cognitive distortions. We all fall into black holes of insecurity and depression from time to time, including me…
About the author: David D. Burns, MD, is a renowned psychiatrist, award-winning researcher, and author of the phenomenally successful “Feeling Good” and “Feeling Good Handbook,” which have sold 5 million copies worldwide. More than 50,000 American and Canadian mental health professionals have attended his popular training programs, and his weekly Feeling Good podcasts are approaching 3 million downloads. “Feeling Great” is available on Amazon and in bookstores.