Cognitive distortions are irrational ways of thinking that aren’t helpful. Everyone has them from time to time, but when they become excessive, they can cause distress or negatively impact your quality of life. They can also lead to maladaptive behaviors and increase your risk for mental health disorders like depression.
It is thought that cognitive distortions develop over time. We have automatic thoughts when something happens, which then trigger specific emotions and behaviors. Over time, the thoughts-emotions-behaviors chain of events can become habitual, even if it's not entirely rational. This is how cognitive distortion develops.
There are many different types of cognitive distortions. Knowing the different types can help you identify problematic ways of thinking.
Polarized thinking is when you think in absolutes. It is very black-and-white, dichotomous thinking. Things are good or bad, never in between.
In overgeneralization, a person makes assumptions based on one occurrence. For instance, if they have one awkward job interview, they'll say that they're always awkward at job interviews. People who overgeneralize often focus on the negative and expect defeat.
Catastrophizing when you only see the worst outcome of a situation. Any minor mistake is horrible, any inconvenience ruins everything, and any small setback means you'll never reach your goal.
When someone holds themselves responsible for an act or event that is beyond their control, that is personalization. It can also take the form of thinking that everything other people do or say is about you.
Filtering can also be referred to as discounting the positive. In this cognitive distortion, a person always focuses on the negative in a situation. Any positive aspects of an event are discounted. For example, a person will ignore any praise that's given during a job performance review and will focus on one piece of critical feedback instead.
Mind Reading (Jumping to Conclusions)
With this cognitive distortion, a person will conclude a situation despite having no evidence to back it up. If a friend doesn't show up for a get-together, for example, the person may immediately think the other person doesn't want to be friends anymore without knowing the whole story.
In emotional reasoning, one’s emotions color the view of a situation or themselves. How you feel becomes the absolute reality of a situation. For example, if you felt nervous during a presentation, this cognitive distortion can make you believe that the entire presentation was awful.
Labeling is describing yourself, others, or events with broad, general statements, often based on limited evidence. The labels persist even after instances that prove they're not true—like saying you’re stupid when you are not, for example.
Using “should” statements like “I should not be nervous” only serves to put undue pressure or expectations on you.
Control fallacies are when someone thinks that things out of their control are actually in their control—even another person’s behavior or feelings. Or, it can take the form of feeling externally controlled and powerless about everything in their own life.
This cognitive distortion leads a person to feel resentful that the world doesn't operate according to their idea of what's fair. For instance, if their coworker got a promotion, they might feel that they automatically deserve a promotion as well.
Believing that other people need to change their behavior to make us happy is part of the change fallacy. With this cognitive distortion, a person often expects that others will change once they've been pressured enough.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is a kind of talk therapy that helps identify the connections between emotions, thoughts, and behaviors. A main tenet of CBT is identifying cognitive distortions and replacing them with more accurate and healthy ways of thinking.
Cognitive distortions are ways of thinking that are often habitual, negative, and not rooted in fact. They become more ingrained over time. With therapy, particularly CBT, it is possible to examine, dismantle, and reframe your thought process and break free from cognitive distortions.
It can be hard to recognize your cognitive distortions at times. Their hallmark is that they become a habit, so you don’t even realize you’re thinking irrationally. This is why CBT is so integral to treatment. A good therapist can help you change your thinking and improve your quality of life. Your healthcare provider can help you find a therapist who specializes in CBT.