You and I have been in this moment.
We prepared hard for a presentation. Tweaked and edited it many times over. We were both anxious and excited about giving this presentation. We rehearsed. And then, it went nothing as planned.
That was just wonderful, people say to you right afterwards. So clear and so thoughtful.
You immediately think to yourself, Impossible! I know I did terribly. Lucky me, they didn’t realize it. That is your mind leading you into the land of cognitive distortions.
What are cognitive distortions?
A cognitive distortion — and there are many — is an exaggerated pattern of thought that’s not based on facts. It consequently leads us to view things more negatively than they really are.
In a cognitive distortion, our mind convinces us to believe things about ourself and our world that are not necessarily true.
“My life has been full of terrible misfortunes, most of which never happened.”
Michel De Montaigne
Mind you, we all succumb to cognitive distortions on occasion. It’s part of the human experience. This happens particularly when we’re feeling down. If we engage too frequently in them, however, our mental health will take a hit. So will our ability to perform effectively.
Once we learn to identify cognitive distortions, we will better know when our mind is playing tricks on us. Then we can reframe and redirect our thoughts so that they have less of a negative impact on our mood and behaviors.
7 common cognitive distortions
In 1976, American psychiatrist Aaron T. Beck, the father of cognitive behavioral therapy, proposed the theory behind cognitive distortions, and in the 1980s, Stanford University psychiatry professor David Burns popularized our understanding of cognitive distortions with several best-selling books.
Very specifically, Burns identified and named the 15 most common cognitive distortions. I will focus on the 7 that you will most likely recognize at once.
Self-examination is the first step toward reversing the negative thinking at the core of these mental patterns.
Mental filtering is the act of dismissing all positives in a situation and, instead, dwelling on its negatives.
Even if there are more positive aspects than negative in a situation or person, we are prone to focus exclusively on the negatives.
For example, it may be performance review time at your company, and your boss repeatedly compliments your hard work. In the end, she makes one improvement suggestion. You leave the meeting feeling miserable and dwell on that one suggestion all day long.
Polarized thinking is the act of thinking about ourselves and the world in an “all-or-nothing” way.
When we engage in thoughts of black or white, either/or, with no shades of gray in-between, this type of cognitive distortion controls us.
All-or-nothing thinking usually leads to extremely unrealistic standards for ourselves and others that will affect our relationships and motivation.
You may, for example, have decided to eat healthy foods. But today, you didn’t have time to prepare a meal, so you eat a bacon burger. This immediately leads you to conclude that you’ve ruined your healthy eating routine, so you decide to no longer even try. Your thinking has just set you up for failure.
When we overgeneralize something, we take an isolated negative event and turn it into a never-ending pattern of loss and defeat.
You may speak up at a team meeting, for example, and your suggestions are not included in the project. You leave the meeting thinking, I ruined my chances for a promotion. I never say the right thing!
Overgeneralization can also manifest in our thoughts about the world and its events. Words like “always,” “never,” “everything,” and “nothing” are frequent in your train of thought.
You may, for example, be running late for work, and on your way there, you hit a red light. You think, Nothing ever goes my way!
4. Jumping to conclusions
When we jump to conclusions, we interpret an event or situation negatively without evidence supporting such a conclusion. Then, we react to our assumption.
For example, your boss comes to a meeting looking serious. Instead of asking how he is, you immediately assume he is mad at you about something. Consequently, you stay curt and aloof. In reality, your partner boss is simply having a bad day.
Jumping to conclusions or “mind-reading” is often in response to a persistent thought or concern of yours. Because your conclusion in unsubstantiated, your behavior, in turn, exacerbates a situation or relationship.
Catastrophizing is related to jumping to conclusions. In this case, you jump to the worst possible conclusion in every scenario, no matter how improbable it is.
This cognitive distortion often comes with “what if” questions. What if he didn’t call because he got into an accident? What if she hasn’t arrived because she really didn’t want to spend time with me? What if I help this person and they end up betraying or abandoning me?
Several questions often follow in response to one event. These questions tend to invoke mental paralysis and lead to behavioral inaction.
Personalization leads us to believe that we’re responsible for events that, in reality, are completely or partially out of our control.
This cognitive distortion often results in us feeling guilty or assigning blame without contemplating all factors involved.
For example, your team member has an accident on the way to a meeting to which you sent her, and you blame yourself for insisting she attend that meeting. Or, you feel that if your partner had woken up earlier, you would have been ready on time for your work.
With personalizing, we take all things personally.
7. Control fallacies
The word fallacy refers to an illusion, misconception, or error.
Control fallacies can go two opposite ways: You either feel responsible or in control of everything in your and other people’s lives, or you feel you have no control at all over anything in your life.
You, for example, couldn’t complete a report that was due today. You immediately think, Of course I couldn’t complete it! My boss is overworking me, and everyone was so loud today at the office. Who can get anything done like that?
This is an external control fallacy. You place all control of your behavior on someone else or an external circumstance.
The other type of control fallacy is based on the belief that your actions and presence impact or control the lives of others. You may, for example, believe that your behavior vis-à-vis a colleague make him happy or unhappy. You think that all of their emotions are controlled directly or indirectly by your behaviors.
How we stop cognitive distortions
Try to remember that, in many instances, it’s not the events but your thoughts that upset you. You might not be able to change the events, but you can work on redirecting your thoughts.
Small changes can be helpful. Here are some tips:
Think about your thoughts. If an event is upsetting you, step away from it if you can and try to focus on what you’re telling yourself about the event.
Replace absolutes. Once you focus on your thoughts and recognize a pattern, consider replacing statements such as “always” and “nothing” with “sometimes” and “this.”
Defining yourself and others. Try labeling the behavior. Instead of labeling yourself “lazy” because you didn’t clean today, consider: “I just didn’t clean today.” One action doesn’t have to define you.
Searching for positive aspects. Even if it’s challenging at first, what if you find at least three positive examples in each situation. It might not feel natural, but eventually, it may become a spontaneous habit.
Is there evidence? Before concluding, consider asking, investigating, questioning yourself and others to ensure you have as many facts as possible. If you can, make an extra effort to believe these facts.
And this list, dear reader, is NOT a cognitive distortion.