A Distorted Reality is NOT a Necessity to Be Free: How Cognitive Distortions Hold You Back

Photo by Agung Raharja on Unsplash

Sorry, Elliott Smith. I’ve been a huge fan of yours for ages, but in this post I’m going to talk about how our distorted thoughts make us anything but free.

In last week’s post, I introduced the concept of automatic thoughts and explained the CBT principle that our thoughts lead to emotions, and emotions lead to behaviors.

Today, I’m going to discuss cognitive distortions. Cognitive distortions are irrational, distorted thinking patterns that are often found in automatic thoughts. Just like automatic thoughts, we all have them, and sometimes to an adaptive degree, but when cognitive distortions are extreme, they can cause us more harm that benefit.

There are many kinds of cognitive distortions, but here are the top ones I tend to see in the people I work with.

Take a gander and, as I tell my clients when I give them this list, highlight your personal favorites:

All or Nothing Thinking: Also known as black or white thinking, it involves seeing things in absolute terms. Example: You make a mistake at work and think “I never do anything right. I always find a way to screw up.”

Fortune Telling: Anticipating or expecting that something will turn out a certain way in the future, despite sufficient evidence to support it. Sorry, crystal balls don’t count. Example: “I just know I’m going to get passed up for the promotion this half.”

Shoulds/Musts: Thinking that things should (or should not) be a certain way. Example: “I should be able to solve my problems on my own. I must never make any mistakes.”

Catastrophizing: Focusing on only the worst, most harmful outcomes of a situation and blowing these outcomes out of proportion. Example: “If I don’t finish this project on time, my boss will be mad at me. Then I’ll be put on probation. Then I’ll get fired. I’ll have to move back in with my parents and I’ll be a miserable failure, and everyone will feel like I’ve let them down, including my dog.”

Magnification & Minimization:  To magnify is to exaggerate the importance of something, and to minimize is to, well, minimize it. Example of Magnification: “I can’t believe I didn’t catch that typo on my PowerPoint presentation. It’s so embarrassing.”  Example of Minimization: “It’s not that big of a deal that I got promoted. Everyone in this department who isn’t a total screw-up did.”

Mind Reading: Believing that you know what others are thinking and feeling despite lack of evidence. “My manager saw the typo on my PowerPoint presentation (see above). She thinks I’m a total idiot now.”

Personalization: Believing that you have control over others’ actions and behaviors. Example: “That guy in HR was so rude to me. Something I did must have rubbed him the wrong way.”

Disqualifying the Positive: Over-focusing on the negative aspects of something while under-focusing on the positive aspects. Example: getting a very positive performance review, but agonizing over the one criticism or area for improvement identified while minimizing all the positive feedback you received.

Labeling: Making a defining judgement about yourself or someone else as a whole, rather than focusing on specific behaviors. Example: “I felt too intimidated to send my meal back at the restaurant, even though the food was cold. I’m such a pushover.”

Overgeneralization: Making sweeping statements or interpretations about something based on only one or a few events. “I didn’t get the job I applied for. No one wants to hire me.”

Recognize your thinking in any of these?

If you are like most of my readers and struggle with anxiety or self-esteem issues, you will likely experience cognitive distortions that lend themselves to negative self-judgement, self-blame, and viewing yourself and/or circumstances in an unfavorable light.

But I do want to point out that the pendulum swings both ways. Sometimes cognitive distortions look like: “I always do everything right!” (All or Nothing Thinking), “I make more money, so I’m a winner and that guy’s a loser.” (Labeling) “My manager thinks that my presentation is the best he’s ever seen in his life.” (Mind Reading)

You can see how these kinds of cognitive distortions, though on the other end of the spectrum, can also be maladaptive.

Either way you swing it, these types of automatic thoughts are creating a distorted version of reality.

Fortunately, are tools you can use (in addition to mindfulness, of course) that can help you challenge your automatic thoughts. I’m going to be sharing one of them next week, allowing you to put the information from this week’s and last week’s post into action. Make sure to join my mailing list so you get notified right away.

In the meantime, I want you to spend this week practicing mindfulness – using my free guided mindfulness meditation! – in order to notice when cognitive distortions are making appearances in your thoughts.

So which cognitive distortions do you just love to use? We all have our Old Faithfuls. Feel free to share yours in the comments below!

Eight Minutes to Calm: My Free Guided Audio Meditation Delivered to Your Inbox Today!

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