What are ‘cognitive distortions’ and why do so many people have them? Cognitive distortions are ways that our thought patterns can convince us that something is true or false. These are typically thoughts that occur automatically, and are usually used to reinforce negative thinking or emotions. Our automatic thoughts can feel rational and accurate, and most of all, they can feel factual. But if we look closely enough, we can often find evidence that our thoughts are not factual, but based on a set of negative thought patterns that have developed based on our feelings. Imagine this as a pair of glasses: if the lenses are dirty and smudged with cognitive distortions, it impacts how we view the rest of the world.
By learning to correctly identify distorted thoughts, a person can then respond by balancing them with thoughts that are more realistic, and based on fact/reality rather than negative feelings. By refuting negative thoughts over and over again, they will slowly diminish overtime and be automatically replaced by more rational, balanced thinking.
9 Cognitive Distortions + Their Antidotes
Catastrophizing: Immediately assuming the worst case scenario. For example, a simple headache means you have a brain tumor or serious condition, or an email from your boss means you are getting fired. There are no limits to the “what ifs” that can occur.
Antidote: Make an honest assessment of the realistic odds or percent of probability. Ask yourself: What is the probability that your worst case scenario will come true – one in a thousand (.1 percent), one in ten thousand (.01 percent), or one in a 100,000 (.001 percent)?
Mind Reading: Making assumptions about what other people think about you. For example, you might think, “I can tell by their faces that they are upset with me” or “She must think I’m stupid if she’s asking me these questions.” These assumptions are usually born of intuition, hunches, or one or two past experiences.
Antidote: Realize that you are fantasizing. It is best not to make inferences about other people – you simply don’t know what you don’t know. You might also try saying to yourself, “It’s none of my business what others are thinking or feeling.”
Personalization: The habit of continually comparing yourself to others. You might think, “She is so much happier than me and her life so much more interesting” or “His business is so much more successful than mine.” The cycle of comparison is a perfectionistic system that creates a never-ending cycle of comparison, which leads to deeply ingrained feelings of not being “good enough,” which feeds back into even more comparison.
Antidote: Force yourself to get evidence to prove what you are saying is true. It is critical to focus on the facts versus your emotional interpretation. What evidence do you have that “she is happier than you and has a more interesting life?” Did you see a photo of her on Instagram that triggered the comparison? Even if she is happier than you, ask yourself if this has to take away from your happiness?
Overgeneralizing: Taking one piece of information/evidence or a single incident and applying it to everything in your life. For example, if you make a mistake at work, you believe that you are incompetent. If you get turned down for a date, you believe that no one will ever go out with you.
Antidote: Examine the evidence for your conclusion. You might ask yourself: What is the evidence for my conclusion? What is the evidence against my conclusion? What is an alternative conclusion?
Either/Or Thinking: Viewing everything in extremes and believing there is no middle ground. People and things are either “good or bad,” or “wonderful or terrible.” The most destructive aspect of this thought distortion is how you judge yourself: “If I’m not not perfect, then I must be a failure.”
Antidote: Realizing there are no absolutes; there is no black and white, and the world is gray. You might think in terms of percentages. For example, “About 5% of the time I make mistakes, and the rest of the time I do not.”
“Should” Thinking: The result of inflexible rules and beliefs about how you and others should act. The most common cue words for this thought distortion are “should,” “ought,” and “must.” “Should” thinking is a direct result of perfectionism.
Antidote: Think of at least three exceptions to your rule or belief, and then consider all the exceptions you cannot even imagine. Remember that inflexible thinking makes you feel trapped and anxious. Pay attention to the words you use and recognize that “should,” “ought,” and “must” are red flags.
Control Thinking Fallacies: Occurs when people view themselves as either helpless and externally controlled, or responsible for everything that happens in life. An example of the first fallacy is believing you don’t have any real control over the outcome of your life. The opposite fallacy of omnipotent control makes you carry the world on your shoulders and feel guilty when it doesn’t work.
Antidote: When you feel helpless, learn to be responsible. Outside of natural disasters, you are responsible for what happens in your life. Ask yourself, “What choices have I made that resulted in this situation? What decisions can I make to change it?” On the other hand, when you feel responsible for everyone and everything, remember that respect for others means letting them live their own lives, suffer their own pains, and solve their own problems.
Filtering: Selecting one element of a situation and excluding everything else. The detail you select supports your belief about your personal defectiveness or the defectiveness of others. Filtering is a way to magnify or “awfulize” your thoughts. Even highly successful people are prone to filtering. They will focus exclusively on an error they made and filter out all the positives. Filtering is a direct result of perfectionism.
Antidote: Shift your focus on how to cope with the problem rather than obsessing on the problem itself. It is also critical to stop using words such as “terrible,” “awful,” “disgusting,” or “horrendous,” etc. You might say to yourself, “This is distressing, but not terrible.” It is also critical to step back to look at the big picture.
Blaming Others: Distracting yourself from your own pain and responsibility. It is a way to keep you from honestly looking at yourself. Blaming also tends to lead to global labeling. For example, “My boss is crazy,” “My child is out of control,” or “My husband is emotionally unavailable.”
Antidote: Accept responsibility for your own behavior and choices. Focus on your own problems. When you start labeling, ask yourself what you are trying to avoid. If you find you are not avoiding, be specific rather than global. You might say, “My boss has poor communication skills, but that doesn’t mean he is crazy.”
The first step to combating cognitive distortions is understanding what they are. Now that you are aware of these distortions, I challenge you to pay attention to your thoughts and use the antidotes to shut them down. Stop letting cognitive distortions sabotage your brain! If you need assistance with this, give us a call – our therapists will be happy to help.
Maigen Pham, LPC, CST-Candidate
Maigen has worked with children, adolescents, adults, and couples – in addition to providing behavioral therapy to children with autism. Her approach to counseling is holistic, eclectic, and collaborative in order to help individualize sessions for each person. Additionally, as a Certified Sex Therapist-Candidate, Maigen provides therapy for individuals experiencing problems with sexual intimacy.