When we are young we learn to think about the world from our family, school, friends and our community. The messages we get contribute greatly to how we think as adults. Unfortunately, many of the things that adults say to children can be negative and can contribute to what we call cognitive distortions which are, essentially, errors in thinking.
These errors in thinking often underlie our bad moods and anxieties. It is most helpful at these times to focus on our thinking. We can begin to feel better if we follow these three steps:
1.) Recognize the thought we are having
2.) Identify the distortion
3.) Replace the negative thought with another more positive and realistic thought
I will cover the first seven most common cognitive distortions in Part 1. They are:
We take one negative aspect of a situation and focus on that rather than on the other more positive aspects. For instance, you may put an emphasis on the one person in the room who did not acknowledge you at a party when the other 25 people greeted you warmly.
More realistic thought: Josh hasn’t said hi to me yet but most of the people here have said hi or smiled at me tonight.
2. Polarized thinking
This is also called “black and white thinking”. If something is not perfect or done perfectly it is not worth anything. There are no grey areas. For example, if you have the second highest test scores you are a failure because you did not have the top score.
More realistic thought: My test score is in the top 10 of all the scores in class.
A single negative event or situation leads to a generalization that this event or situation will always be negative. An example would be assuming that all therapy sessions will lead to anxiety based upon one session.
More realistic thought: I felt anxious today in therapy but it was my first time so that is to be expected.
4. Jumping to conclusions
There are two subtypes.
Mind reading: We think we are able to know what people are feeling towards us without consulting them. We might say to ourselves, John just doesn’t like me.
More realistic thought: John doesn’t seem that interested in me but I really don’t know if that is the case; he could be reacting to something else that’s going on.
Fortune telling: We assume that a situation will turn out negatively. Using the party example, we walk into the party assuming that things are going to go badly and we won’t have a good time.
More realistic thought: I don’t know if I will have a good time at the party but I’ll go anyway and see how it goes.
We imagine the worst possible thing that could happen will happen. For example, if we get a grade of C on a test we go on to assume that we will fail the course.
More realistic thought: I got a C on the test but I have the rest of the semester to improve my grade.
We feel directly responsible for an event that isn’t under our control. This error in thinking can be the cause of much guilt and shame. For example, we think that it is our fault that our partner drinks.
More realistic thought: It is my partner’s choice to drink. I can only control my own behavior.
7. Control fallacies
We feel externally controlled in which case we feel we are the victim of fate. For example, we think we cannot have a successful business on the internet because too many others have a successful business. Or there is the fallacy of internal control by which we feel responsible for the negative or positive feelings of others. We think that if people we are with are unhappy it is our fault.
More realistic thoughts: I can have a successful business on the internet if I put enough hard work and effort into it.
Just because Jackie seems unhappy today, I am not responsible for her unhappiness.
Next week we will explore the other cognitive distortions. During this week see if you can become more conscious of your thoughts and how they are linked to times when you are feeling anxious or depressed.
There is more about how these errors in thinking are related to Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) here.
If you want to delve further into this I highly recommend Dr. David Burns’ books. They are available through his website:
Beck, Aaron T. (1972). Depression; Causes and Treatment. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
Burns, David D. (1989). The Feeling Good Handbook: Using the New Mood Therapy in Everyday Life. New York: W.
Grohol, John. “15 Common Cognitive Distortions”. PsychCentral. Retrieved 30 June 2014.
This information is for educational purposes only and should not in any way be considered a substitute for professional help.If you are in need of immediate help please contact your local psychiatric emergency services.