Cognitive Distortions: What are they and How to avoid them?
What are Cognitive Distortions? What are their characteristics and consequences? What types of cognitive distortions are there? In this article, we will solve these questions through several examples that will allow you to identify them. In addition, we will give you some tips that will enable you to face these erroneous beliefs and increase your well-being.
What are Cognitive Distortions?
An inconceivable amount of stimuli surrounds us at every moment. We have to detect the different events that happen in our environment, pay attention to those relevant to us, make optimal decisions depending on the circumstances, remember certain data that may prove useful in the future, etc.
We need shortcuts that allow us to think and act quickly. Therefore, it is logical that we make cognitive biases, which are processing information errors or mistakes. They take place when we don’t analyze carefully a situation and overlook basic data.
For example, we will be experiencing a cognitive bias if we affirm that it isn’t necessary to study for a multiple choice type test because we can arbitrarily choose the answers and still pass. Cognitive distortions are a negative type of cognitive bias. They are trends that lead people to interpret the world in an irrational and maladaptive way. For example, if you think everyone is trying to get away from you because you are hideous, with no proof, you would be under a cognitive distortion.
Our thoughts have a great influence on how we perceive our day to day. Our attitude towards facts and life is almost as important as what happens to us. Next, we will give you recommendations so that you are able to avoid the negative thoughts that deform your reality and prevent you from being happy.
Cognitive distortions are exaggerated or irrational thought patterns that are believed to perpetuate the effects of psychopathological states, especially depression and anxiety.
Cognitive Distortions: Features or characteristics
- They are related to mental problems: These deviations of reasoning are frequent in people with psychological disorders, including phobias.
- They are not mental disorders: Any of us may have a cognitive distortion at any given time. Who hasn’t been surprised by an overwhelming catastrophic thought ever?
- They are difficult to recognize: We tend to be so focused on our way of seeing life that we sometimes find it hard to reflect on the rationality of our thoughts.
- It is possible to overcome them: With willpower, sometimes with professional help, cognitive distortions can be neutralized.
Cognitive Distortions: Causes and Consequences
Each person interprets the world through a different perspective. We can not be totally objective. However, we do have common beliefs and we can tell when someone has harmful thoughts or a misperception of reality. On the other hand, some people are more prone to cognitive distortions than others.
As for the causes of cognitive distortions, it is possible to learn to misinterpret reality. From childhood, we have built patterns that help us understand how the world works. If after a bad experience we begin to assume that every time someone laughs it is because that person is making fun of us, maybe we drag this belief for years. This situation can even lead to serious psychological problems.
Moreover, given that we are unable to process all the stimuli around us at once, it is likely that we will directly use the information provided by the cognitive distortions without questioning their truthfulness. Consequently, these deviations from the reasoning process remain in time.
Cognitive Distortions are usually translated into anger, frustration, sadness, fear, low self-esteem, low self-control, anxiety symptoms, etc. Its main effect is a deep discomfort that has repercussions in several areas of life.
This not affects the person who has cognitive distortions but can also generate tension and misunderstandings in their relationships.
For example, if we are convinced that someone is being aggressive with us (even if there is no evidence), we will probably react as if the confrontation with the other person is real. Therefore, we will be rude and maybe even a little belligerent.
Cognitive Distortions: Types and Examples
These are the 17 most common types of cognitive distortions according to Yurica and DiTomasso with an example that illustrates each one.
1. Jumping to Conclusions
Without individuals saying so, we know what they are feeling and why they act the way they do. In particular, we are able to determine how people are feeling toward us.
“My partner cheats on me because he bought a new shirt.”
We expect disaster to strike, no matter what. This is also referred to as “magnifying or minimizing.” We hear about a problem and use what if questions.
“I’m sure he hasn’t returned home yet because he had an accident on his way.”
It consists in thinking repeatedly that one is inferior to others after comparing yourself to them.
“I’m not half as talented as the people around me.”
4. Polarized Thinking (or “Black and White” Thinking)
It is based on evaluating all situations in a reductionist and rigid way. You place people or situations in “either/or” categories, with no shades of gray or allowing for the complexity of most people and situations. People who think so only conceive that circumstances are absolutely flattering or totally adverse, good or bad, etc.
“If everyone doesn’t have a good time at the party, I’ll be the worst host in history.”
5. Disqualifying of the Positive
This is an extreme form of all-or-nothing thinking in which we filter out all the positive evidence about our performance, and only attend to the negative.
“Bah, it’s the luck of the fools.”
6. Emotional Reasoning
It consists of extracting consequences through the emotions that one feels.
“Public speaking is detrimental to my health because I felt a lot of shame in that speech.”
7. Build self-worth on the basis of external opinions
It is based on judging yourself through other people’s comments (or the interpretations we give them).
“I’m a complete mess because my boss scolded me for being late.”
8. Fortune telling
These mistakes take place when a person believes that he is able to predict the future.
“I can already see how people will laugh at me if I attend the party.”
9. Labeling and Mislabeling
It is based on derogatory qualification.
“Losers like me will always remain losers forever.”
It is the inclination to focus excessively on a fact or personal trait and exaggerate its negative traits.
“Fainting at the supermarket is the worst thing that has ever happened to me.”
11. Mind reader
The tendency to assume that one knows what others are thinking without having the slightest test.
“I know he thinks I’m ugly, no matter what I wear.”
It is to underestimate the relevance of the positive events that happen to you or about your personal traits.
“All the comments I make are insignificant.”
It happens when deductions are made from events that are not representative.
“All insects are extremely dangerous because a wasp stung me when I was young.”
It is the tendency to desire and to try desperately that everything goes according to your expectations with this cognitive distortion.
“Any examination in which my grade comes down from an A is mediocre.”
Personalization is a distortion where a person believes that everything others do or say is some kind of direct, personal reaction to the person.
“Surely that lady changed sidewalks because she saw me.”
16. Selective abstraction
Detail is taken out of context and believed whilst everything else in the context is ignored. It is the tendency to value a situation by focusing only on a negative aspect.
“I made a mistake twice while giving the speech so I’m sure no one understood”
We have a list of ironclad rules about how others and we should behave. People who break the rules make us angry, and we feel guilty when we violate these rules. The emotional consequence is guilt.
“I really should exercise. I shouldn’t be so lazy.”
Cognitive Distortions: Cognitive Therapy
Aaron Beck is an American psychiatrist who created cognitive therapy in the 1960s. His dissatisfaction with psychoanalysis was one of his reasons for developing this alternative. He suffered from depression and other psychological problems. This led him to study psychological disorders through methods such as observation of his patients and even through self-observation.
Cognitive therapy is quite popular today and is a fairly effective method for modifying cognitive distortions in patients. It focuses on the impact of cognitive processes on our mental health. A pessimistic way of perceiving reality can be a basic element in the origin of a psychological disorder and one of the culprits of its maintenance.
However, cognitive therapists claim that cognitive elements are not solely responsible for mental problems, other factors such as the environment are also responsible.
Beck and his followers believe that people feel uneasy about event interpretation, rather than what the events actually are. Consequently, the goal of these specialists is for their patients to recognize their cognitive distortions and to provide them with alternatives so that they can adapt in a more realistic and positive way to the world. Several investigations have empirically demonstrated its validity.
Learn to identify Cognitive Distortions
You can begin to detect cognitive distortions today, regardless of whether you want to search them in your own thoughts or if you are especially worried about a loved one. Here are some simple exercises that will allow you to get a rational point of view.
Exercises to identify cognitive distortions
- Reflect on your thoughts: Carrying out a self-assessment is never wrong (as long as we do not judge ourselves obsessively). In fact, if you notice that there are constant cognitive distortions between your thoughts, you can register them to be more conscious about them. A diary can be a good tool for exploring these deviations from the reasoning process. Understand that you have no reason to think that “you have the worst luck in the world” or that “you should have a perfect body”. The idea behind this exercise is to rationalize these beliefs and stop them whenever they appear.
- Question yourself: Even though we are not used to questioning ourselves, it’s important to start. Question your opinions and make sure they are not rooted in cognitive distortions. This helps to not take erroneous facts from different situations.
- Try to know other people point of view: Considering other people’s perspective will enrich the way we view life. This will also allow for cognitive distortions to disappear since it’s a more objective way of looking at the world.
- Look for reliable sources of information: It is advisable to contrast the information we have with as many reliable sources as possible in order to avoid cognitive distortions such as catastrophizing.
- Develop your critical thinking: It’s never too late to start thinking more analytically. This way you will be able to see situations in a holistic way without letting yourself be carried away by the simplest and most obvious data. For example, look for the advantages and disadvantages when you face a decision or a challenge.
- Ask your loved ones: If you suspect that you may be getting carried away by cognitive distortions, you can also approach this topic with someone you trust. It will help you to look at your situation more objectively.
Of course, it is sometimes not easy to deal with people with cognitive distortions. Even so, we must remember the pain that these errors of reasoning cause and empathize with them. Anyone can have these irrational thoughts at any given time. Being too critical of others in these cases, pressuring them or getting angry with them will probably make the situation worse.
Tips to Avoid Cognitive Distortions
1. Remember that it is possible to change the way you think
The bad experiences we go through during our life can influence us. Some are especially harsh and it is impossible to forget them from one day to the next. We can’t change the past, but we can choose our attitude and what approach we want to have in the future. We will not be able to get rid of our cognitive distortions without effort, although it is possible to achieve with perseverance and much desire. You can try to look for positive arguments that contradict your negative or irrational thoughts. Surely you end up adopting another point of view more beneficial.
We won’t be able to get rid of our cognitive distortions without making an effort. Perseverance and hard work are key elements. You can try to look for positive arguments that contradict your negative or irrational thoughts. Surely you end up adopting another point of view more beneficial.
2. Take care of your language
How we express ourselves verbally has more impact on our behavior and our thoughts than we tend to believe. Too often sayings such as “what a terrible or hard life” or “I should be…. by now” predisposes us to have an inflexible and pessimistic attitude towards ourselves. Changing these expressions to others that allow us to imagine ourselves as more competent people will increase our well-being.
3. Try to keep mentally healthy habits
Our mental health is as essential as our physical health. In fact, both are necessary for complete well-being. There are certain habits that will help you take care of yourself: try to develop your intrapersonal intelligence and emotional intelligence, don’t pretend to be something that you are not, eat healthy, rest, train your cognitive skills etc. And don’t forget to dedicate time to the activities that make you happy!
4. Lean on your loved ones
You may think that your friends or family will not understand how you feel, that you don’t have time to talk about these issues, that it is not important to vent, etc. However, maintaining positive social relationships is one of the best weapons to prevent any kind of psychological distress. Expressing our feelings and talking about our beliefs is essential to feeling good and keeping our negative thoughts away.
5. If you need help, trust a professional
In some cases, although we try to follow the previous tips, it is necessary to contact a specialist. There are really effective solutions to overcome these problems. Don’t hesitate to put yourself in the hands of an expert if you need it. Improving your quality of life is possible.
Thank you very much for reading this article. Do you have cognitive distortions often? Please comment if you have any doubts or want to make any contribution on this topic.
RUIZ, M. A., DÍAZ, M. I. & VILLALOBOS, A. (2012). Manual de Técnicas de Intervención Cognitivo Conductuales. Bilbao: Desclée De Brouwer
This article is originally in Spanish written by Ainhoa Arranz Aldana, translated by Alejandra Salazar.
Redactora con formación en diversas áreas como la psicología, la sociología y la comunicación. Especialmente interesada en psicología social.