When you think about your life, it is quite possible that your mind is playing tricks on you that can distort your view. Cognitive distortions -- where your mind puts a ‘spin’ on the events you see, and attaches a not-so-objective interpretation to what you experience -- happen all the time. They are especially common in people with depression and other mood disorders.
Aaron T. Beck originally came up with the theory of cognitive distortions in the 1960s, and many therapists since then have helped clients live more positive lives by hunting down their cognitive distortions and correcting them. (It’s one of the tenets of a very successful and fast-working mode of therapy called cognitive therapy.)
When you know what to be on the lookout for, it becomes rather easy to spot the cognitive distortions in others. It may be a little more challenging to spot your own, but it is possible. Doing so usually brings lasting positive change in the way you experience stressors in your life.
An interesting thing to note is that several cognitive distortions, can actually work to your advantage. The key is to know when and how to do so. See this article on traits of optimists for the secrets to cognitive distortion success.
Here are the 10 most common (and officially recognized) cognitive distortions, with examples of how they relate to stress. You might find yourself smiling as you recognize one or two as familiar "friends." If, in the coming days, you look for them and gently correct them, you’ll be well on your way to reducing your reactivity to the stress in your life.
1. All-or-Nothing Thinking
This type of distortion is the culprit when people think in extremes, with no gray areas or middle ground. All-or-nothing thinkers often use words like "always" and "never" when describing things. “I always get stuck in traffic!” “My bosses never listen to me!” This type of thinking can magnify the stressors in your life, making them seem like bigger problems than they may, in reality, be. Don’t be extremist at any context is what is suggested.
Those prone to overgeneralization tend to take isolated events and assume that all future events will be the same. For example, an overgeneralizer who faces a rude sales clerk may start believing that all sales clerks are rude and that shopping will always be a stressful experience. It’s a sort of presumption and rumination.
3. Mental Filter
Those who use mental filtering as their distortion of choice tend to gloss over positive events and hold a magnifying glass to the negative. Ten things can go right, but a person operating under the influence of a mental filter may only notice the one thing that goes wrong. (Add a little overgeneralization and all-or-nothing thinking to the equation, and you have a recipe for stress.) Pondering over negative things as especially seen in maniac and depressed is a prime cognitive distorter.
4. Disqualifying the Positive
Similar to mental filtering, those who disqualify the positive tend to treat positive events like flukes, thereby clinging to a more negative world view and set of low expectations for the future. Have you ever tried to help a friend solve a problem, only to have every solution you pose shot down with a "Yeah but..." response? You’ve witnessed this cognitive distortion firsthand.
5. Jumping to Conclusions
People do this one all the time. Rather than letting the evidence bring them to a logical conclusion, they set their sights on a conclusion (often negative), and then look for evidence to back it up, ignoring evidence to the contrary. The kid who decides that everyone in his new class will hate him, and ‘knows’ that they’re only acting nice to him in order to avoid punishment, is jumping to conclusions. Conclusion-jumpers can often fall prey to mind reading (where they believe that they know the true intentions of others without talking to them- paranoid ideations) and fortune telling (predicting how things will turn out in the future and believing these predictions to be true). Can you think of examples of adults you know who do this? I bet you can.
Negative Thinking Patterns
There are 5 more cognitive distortions to learn about that happen all the time.
Cognitive distortions and negative thinking styles are common, and they keep us stressed-out and stuck. Page 1 of this feature covers 5 common negative thinking patterns and explains how they contribute to stress. Here are the other 5 negative thinking patterns that you need to look out for:
6. Magnifications and Minimization
Similar to mental filtering and disqualifying the positive, this cognitive distortion involves placing a stronger emphasis on negative events and downplaying the positive ones. The customer service representative who only notices the complaints of customers and fails to notice positive interactions is a victim of magnification and minimization. Another form of this distortion is known as catastrophizing, where one imagines and then expects the worst possible scenario. It can lead to a lot of stress.
7. Emotional Reasoning
This one is a close relative of jumping to conclusions in that it involves ignoring certain facts when drawing conclusions. Emotional reasoners will consider their emotions about a situation as evidence rather than objectively looking at the facts. “I’m feeling completely overwhelmed, therefore my problems must be completely beyond my ability to solve them,” or, “I’m angry with you; therefore, you must be in the wrong here,” are both examples of faulty emotional reasoning. Acting on these beliefs as fact can, understandably, contribute to even more problems to solve.
8. Should Statements
Those who rely on ‘should statements’ tend to have rigid rules, set by themselves or others, that always need to be followed -- at least in their minds. They think absolutely but are not able to act absolutely. Rather they should have thought relatively and acted absolutely. They don’t see flexibility in different circumstances, and they put themselves under considerable stress trying to live up to these self-imposed expectations. If your internal dialogue involves a large number of ‘shoulds,’ you may be under the influence of this cognitive distortion. I am right and you are wrong is what they always stresses.
9. Labeling and Mislabeling
Those who label or mislabel will habitually place labels that are often inaccurate or negative on themselves and others. “He’s a whiner/complainer.” “She’s a phony.” “I’m just a useless worrier.” These labels tend to define people and contribute to a one-dimensional view of them, paving the way for overgeneralizations to move in. Labeling cages people into roles that don’t always apply and prevents us from seeing people (ourselves included) as we really are. It’s also a big no-no in relationship conflicts.
Those who personalize their stressors tend to blame themselves or others for things over which they have no control, creating stress where it need not be. Those prone to personalization tend to blame themselves for the actions of others, or blame others for their own feelings.
If any of these feel a little too familiar, that’s a good thing: recognizing a cognitive distortion is the first step of moving past it. See this article for tips on cognitive restructuring, the process of moving beyond cognitive distortions.
By Elizabeth Scott, M.S., About.com Guide
Reviewed by the Klub Psychology