Cognitive distortions are the unhelpful thoughts we have about ourselves, our circumstances and the people around us. These thoughts are not only negative, but they are inaccurate, warped or based on faulty logic.
While many people have negative daily thoughts, cognitive distortions tend to be much more harmful because they are patterns that form, eventually interfering with relationships, work or school and daily life in general.
Distorted thinking can build up, contributing to poor mental health and a person’s self image. These patterns can make anxiety, depression or other disorders worse, too.
What are examples of cognitive distortions?
Psychologists have studied these patterns, categorizing and defining them so that we can better understand how and why we think the way we do. Here are some of the most common examples of cognitive distortions.
Black and white thinking
This style of negative thinking always occurs in extremes. People who struggle with black and white thinking tend to consider outcomes that are wildly successful or catastrophic. Often, a person will sway between the two extremes. For this cognitive distortion, there is no middle ground.
Black and white thinking tends to leave a person with false hope of an ideal result, or guilt over a supposed failure. Someone who says “this is the worst thing that could have happened” is likely facing this pattern.
This style of cognitive distortion is characterized by assumptions applied to an overarching category. For example, someone who overgeneralizes might have experienced one or two bad dates, and exclaim “dating is always terrible, I’m never going on a date again!”
The outcome of one or a few instances will seem to summarize all outcomes of a person’s mind when this thinking pattern is present. While we might all exaggerate our experiences in this manner at times, someone who overgeneralizes may not notice this pattern on his or her own.
Invalidating the good
When this cognitive distortion is present, someone will be unable to see any silver lining in an experience, or discount it with negative thoughts. Positive outcomes are excused as luck or explained away, rather than enjoyed.
People who invalidate the good will have trouble accepting compliments for their own hard work or talent. Many times, these cognitive distortions build up until someone feels that every event is out of their control, and therefore their own personal agency is irrelevant. Motivation quickly dissipates as negativity becomes chronic.
What are the causes of cognitive distortions?
According to Stress and Health: the Journal of the International Society for the Investigation of Stress, dysfunctional thinking stems from times of high stress. The more dysfunctional structures exist in a person’s environment, the more likely a person is to develop cognitive distortions.
Moreover, the same journal reports that anxiety, depression, hyperactivity and behavioral problems are all linked with increased cognitive distortions. Generally, cognitive distortions that develop in childhood were also present later in life, as this pattern of coping continued into adulthood.
How do I challenge cognitive distortions?
Challenging cognitive distortions is something that you can start doing at this very moment. When you’re ready to nix the negative and engage with the positive, here are tips for how to challenge cognitive distortions so you can start to live on the bright side of life.
In order to change the thinking patterns that bring you down, you’ll need knowledge of your own cognitive distortions. Think of it as if you’re developing an outsider’s perspective on your own thoughts. If you were in someone else’s shoes, would your thoughts seem harmful or constructive?
One of the best methods to reflect on your own thoughts is to write them down and revisit them later. Through journaling, it can be easy to identify patterns when you’re emotionally removed from the circumstances, say a few days or a week later.
Try this: as an exercise in identifying cognitive distortions, spend 10 minutes journaling after an event that causes you to feel emotional. A few days later, return to your journal, highlighting any negative remarks in one color and positive remarks in another. Which are there more of? Then, try to identify which one or two cognitive distortions you tend towards.
In order to leave negative thoughts in the past, you’ll need to replace them with something: positive self-talk. The practice of training your inner voice to give frequent self-affirmations until it becomes a subconscious behavior is self-talk, and it can be the antidote to overwhelming negativity when you put in the effort.
Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is the major framework used to counteract cognitive distortions. In CBT, a psychologist or other trained professional guides a person to reflect on his or her thinking styles, and replaces emotion-based reasoning with logic-based reasoning.
While our emotions can serve as important tools to guide us, someone who struggles with cognitive distortions will have an imbalance in thinking that can be corrected by replacing the negative styles with positive or reality-based patterns of thought.
Identifying and reversing cognitive distortions is a tricky task, one you don’t need to deal with on your own. At Pyramid Online Counseling, mental health professionals can help you undo the damage of your own thoughts and find healing. Get the help you need in a judgment-free environment. Reach out today.