Did you know that our brain has what I call “bugs” that can cause distorted thinking? Just like software bugs can cause programs to produce erroneous results, cognitive distortions are like bugs of our brain that lead to distorted and negative conclusions about events.
Cognitive distortions are irrational thoughts or beliefs that can negatively affect our emotions, behaviors, and overall mental health. These thoughts are often automatic and may be based on inaccurate information or biased perceptions of reality. They can cause individuals to feel anxious, depressed, or even develop mental health conditions such as anxiety disorders or depression.
In this blog post, we will discuss the various types of cognitive distortions, how they impact our thoughts and behaviors, and what we can do to address them.
What are those “bugs of our brain”?
- All-or-Nothing Thinking: This type of cognitive distortion involves seeing things as either black or white, without any shades of gray. For instance, someone who engages in all-or-nothing thinking might think, “If I can’t do it perfectly, then why bother at all?” This type of thinking can lead to a lack of motivation and a fear of failure.
- Overgeneralization: This involves making sweeping conclusions based on one or two isolated incidents. For example, if someone has a bad experience with a particular restaurant, they might overgeneralize and believe that all restaurants are terrible.
- Mental Filter: This cognitive distortion involves focusing on one negative detail or aspect of a situation while ignoring all of the positive elements. For instance, someone who receives a positive performance review but is criticized for one small mistake may ignore all of the positive feedback and focus solely on the criticism.
- Discounting the Positive: This type of cognitive distortion involves dismissing positive experiences or events as meaningless or insignificant. For example, someone who receives compliments on their work might discount them as being insincere or undeserved.
- Jumping to Conclusions: This involves making assumptions or drawing conclusions without any evidence to support them. For instance, someone might assume that their friend is angry with them without any evidence to support that assumption.
- Magnification and Minimization: This involves exaggerating the importance of negative events while minimizing the significance of positive events. For example, someone who gets a small blemish on their skin might magnify it as a major flaw while ignoring all of their positive features.
- Emotional Reasoning: This involves assuming that our feelings are based on reality, even if there is no evidence to support this belief. For example, someone who feels anxious might assume that something terrible is going to happen, even if there is no evidence to support this belief.
- Should Statements: This involves setting unrealistic expectations for ourselves and others. For example, someone might say, “I should be able to handle this on my own,” even if the situation is beyond their control.
- Labeling: This involves using negative labels to describe ourselves or others based on a single behavior or event. For example, someone who makes a mistake might label themselves as a failure.
- Personalization: This involves taking responsibility for events that are outside of our control or influence. For example, someone who is laid off from their job might assume that it was their fault and that they could have done something to prevent it.
Let’s say that someone is at work and their boss tells them that they need to redo a project. This person might engage in various types of cognitive distortions:
- All-or-Nothing Thinking: “I’m a failure because I couldn’t get the project right the first time.”
- Overgeneralization: “I’m never going to be good at this job.”
- Mental Filter: “My boss only cares about the negative aspects of my work.”
- Discounting the Positive: “My boss said that I did a good job on most of the project, but I don’t believe him.”
- Jumping to Conclusions: “My boss is never going to trust me again.”
- Magnification and Minimization: “This mistake is going to ruin my entire career.”
- Emotional Reasoning: “I feel terrible about this, so it must mean that I’m not cut out for this job.”
- Should Statements: “I should have been able to get this right the first time.”
- Labeling: “I’m a failure.”
- Personalization: “It’s all my fault that the project wasn’t good enough.”
As you can see, these types of cognitive distortions can lead to negative emotions, behaviors, and beliefs that are not based on reality. It’s important to recognize when we are engaging in these distortions and challenge them with more realistic and rational thoughts.
Practical tips against cognitive distortions
- Keep a thought journal: Write down your thoughts as they come to you throughout the day, and identify any distortions that you may be engaging in. This can help you become more aware of your thought patterns and identify areas where you need to work on.
- Challenge your thoughts: Once you have identified a distortion, challenge it with evidence that contradicts the distorted thought. Ask yourself questions like “What evidence do I have to support this thought?” and “What evidence do I have that contradicts this thought?”
- Practice mindfulness: Mindfulness can help you become more aware of your thoughts and feelings, and develop a more objective perspective on them. By practicing mindfulness regularly, you can become better at identifying and recovering from cognitive distortions. Here is a nice video explains what mindfulness is.
- Use positive affirmations: Positive affirmations can help you replace negative thoughts with more positive and empowering ones. For example, if you are struggling with the distortion of overgeneralization, you might say to yourself, “Just because I failed at this one thing doesn’t mean I’m a failure in all areas of my life.”
- Get feedback from others: Sometimes, it can be helpful to get feedback from others to challenge your cognitive distortions. Ask a trusted friend or family member to help you identify areas where you may be engaging in distorted thinking, and listen to their feedback with an open mind.
- Seek professional help: If you are struggling with cognitive distortions and are unable to recover on your own, consider seeking professional help. As a mental health professional I can provide you with additional support and guidance as you work to overcome these distortions.
A great question: What evidence do I have that contradicts this thought?
Cognitive distortions can have a significant impact on our mental health and well-being. By learning to recognize and challenge these thoughts, we can improve our emotional regulation, reduce stress and anxiety, and develop a more positive outlook on life. If you find that you are struggling with cognitive distortions, consider seeking support from a mental health professional who can help you develop coping strategies and work through underlying issues. Remember, you have the power to change your thoughts and beliefs, and in turn, change your life for the better.