Cognitive distortions are thought patters we develop over time that are inaccurate and that can contribute negatively to our mental health. The study of cognitive distortions was the foundation of Aaron Beck, who is considered to be one of the founding fathers of the cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) movement.
Beck started investigating our thinking patters after he became dissatisfied with the use of psychoanalysis for attempting to treat depression. His focus was on discovering a common set of thoughts that we tend to have that are either inaccurate or exaggerated. Over time, such thoughts impact our emotions and lead to psychological problems. Once a set of core maladaptive thoughts was identified, Beck and others in this field began creating various techniques to dismantle these thoughts, and replace them with more realistic thoughts.
CBT is used frequently in treating anxiety and depression. When you think about each of these conditions, our thinking mind is at the heart of the condition. We tend to be anxious about facing some future event, like speaking in public, or taking on a new activity. In our minds, we forms such thoughts as “I am always nervous in such situations”, or “I am not good enough to do this activity.” Similarly, depression is often rooted in some thought about the past. We think “I wasn’t loved as a child”, or “I am not good at anything”.
There are many cognitive distortions. Here is a list of some of the core ones, though not an exhaustive list:
- Black-and-White Thinking. This refers to taking a position of extremes on the matter and not allowing for an in-between scenario. Thoughts like this always include “always” or “never”. For example, “I always do poorly in social situations”. Is that really true? Chances are, even if you are very introverted, there are certain social circles in which you do just fine – perhaps, around family and close friends. By taking a black-and-white approach, you close yourself off from the reality that you do have some situations in which you are perhaps in the middle of the two extremes of “good” and “bad”.
- Using “Should” Thoughts. This type of thought can be diverted at ourselves or others. We may think that “I should have done this or that in the past”, or “he should be treating me this way or that”. When directed at others, it should be noted that we can’t really control others. By creating a “should” thought, we often set ourselves up for disappointment. When directed to ourselves, we create an unfair situation because we are often referring to something that has already happened and, therefore, we have no more control over. If it’s about the future, we may create an unrealistic expectations that can further perpetuate our frustration.
- Catastrophizing Thoughts. This is related to black-and-white thinking whereby we can only see a worst-case-scenario about some upcoming event. I may be unemployed and may entertain a thought of “I will never get a job again”. That’s quite an extreme scenario. No matter the situation, it is very unlikely that the absolute worst-case scenario will come true. Maybe you won’t get a job right away. Or maybe you won’t get an amazing job. But to think that you will never get a job again is very unrealistic. Such catastrophizing thoughts can relate to many areas of our lives, such as relationships, career, and health.
- Magnifying Thoughts. This takes place when we blow things out of proportion. You carry out a task not to your full potential and you have the thought that it was the worst performance of your life. This is related to catastrophizing and is tied to thoughts where you overamplify a certain situation.
- Minimizing Thoughts. This is the same as magnifying thoughts but on the opposite direction. You get recognition from your supervisor at work and yet you minimize the event but thinking “well, I didn’t get that much recognition”. This type of thought undermines the potential positives in an event.
- Thoughts of Discounting the Positive. This is related to minimizing thoughts and has to do with focusing unevenly on the negatives versus the positives.
- Personalization Thoughts. We are susceptible to attributing various events to something we may have done. You are in a work meeting and the supervisor leaves the meeting unhappy. You have a thought that it must have been something you said or did. And yet, you don’t really know for a fact what may have contributed to the person’s dissatisfaction.
- Mind reading and Fortune Telling Thoughts. This occurs when we jump to conclusions in our minds about what someone is thinking or about their motives. This often happens without direct evidence or external confirmation. Such a thought may spring up because we are trying to sustain a certain belief we have about a person or situation.
- Filtering Thoughts. This type of thought is related to discounting the positives and having minimizing or maximizing thoughts. A filtering thought is more generally a type of thought that filters out some information when making an assessment.
There are many others, including blaming, always being right, and various false thoughts about how the world is and what level of control we have over it. At the heart of each of these is a thought that is not grounded in reality, or at least is not backed by external evidence. Regardless of the type of distorted thought, there are some steps we can take to help loosen their grip on us.
Techniques for working with distorted thinking
In a future article, we will look at various techniques that can help identify, and address such distorted thinking.
Question: Can you relate with some of these distortions?
We all have some of these thoughts. Do you find yourself repeating some of the above on a regular basis and across a broad area of your life?
Here are the books we find to be most influential and great resources in the field of CBT and working with cognitive distortions:
- Robert L. Leahy, Contemporary Cognitive Therapy
- Aaron T. Beck, A. John Rush, Brian Shaw, Gary Emery. Cognitive Therapy of Depression
- Aaron T. Beck, Arthur Freeman, Denise D. Davis, and associates. Cognitive Therapy of Personality Disorders
- Keith S. Dobson. Handbook of Cognitive Behavioral Therapies.
Author: Dr. Seda Gragossian
Dr. Seda Gragossian is the Clinical Director at the Talk Therapy Psychology Center. She has worked in the mental health field in clinical leadership roles in private practice, at multiple outpatient facilities, as well as at large psychiatric hospital settings.
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