Cognitive distortions, a concept from Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT), refer to biased ways of thinking about oneself and the world around us. The model essentially states that there are specific (and common) ways people distort their thinking. These irrational thoughts and beliefs (i.e., distortions) can lead to problematic emotional states and behavior, like anxiety, low self-esteem, depression and relationship conflicts. That’s why you want to be aware of them, so that you can shift your thinking to more rational and objective thoughts whenever possible. More rational thinking tends to lead to more positive emotional and behavioral experiences.
Below is a list of 10 common cognitive distortions, from Dr. David Burns, author of the best seller “The Feeling Good Handbook.” All human beings use these cognitive distortions to greater and lesser degrees. See which ones apply to you.
Once you become aware of the patterned ways of thinking on this list, you can use it in conjunction with other practical psychology tools on healthy psych, including: Identifying Cognitive Distortions or Challenging Cognitive Distortions.
List of Cognitive Distortions
(Source: Burns, David D., MD. 1989. The Feeling Good Handbook. New York: William Morrow and Company)
“1.) ALL-OR-NOTHING THINKING: You see things in black-and-white categories. If your performance falls short of perfect, you see yourself as a total failure.
2.) OVERGENERALIZATION: You see a single negative event as a never-ending pattern of defeat.
3.) MENTAL FILTER: You pick out a single negative detail and dwell on it exclusively so that your vision of all reality becomes darkened, like the drop of ink that discolors the entire beaker of water.
4.) DISQUALIFYING THE POSITIVE: You reject positive experiences by insisting they “don’t count” for some reason or other. In this way you can maintain a negative belief that is contradicted by your everyday experiences.
5.) JUMPING TO CONCLUSIONS: You make a negative interpretation even though there are no definite facts that convincingly support your conclusion.
A.) MIND READING: You arbitrarily conclude that someone is reacting negatively to you, and you don’t bother to check this out.
B.) FORTUNE TELLING: You anticipate that things will turn out badly, and you feel convinced that your prediction is an already-established fact.
6.) MAGNIFICATION (CATASTROPHIZING) OR MINIMIZATION: You exaggerate the importance of things (such as your goof-up or someone else’s achievement), or you inappropriately shrink things until they appear tiny (your own desirable qualities or other fellow’s imperfections). This is also called the “binocular trick.”
7.) EMOTIONAL REASONING: You assume that your negative emotions necessarily reflect the way things really are: “I feel it, therefore it must be true.”
8.) SHOULD STATEMENTS: You try to motivate yourself with should and shouldn’t, as if you had to be whipped and punished before you could be expected to do anything. “Musts” and “oughts” are also offenders. The emotional consequences are guilt. When you direct should statements toward others, you feel anger, frustration, and resentment.
9.) LABELING AND MISLABELING: This is an extreme form of overgeneralization. Instead of describing your error, you attach a negative label to yourself. “I’m a loser.” When someone else’s behavior rubs you the wrong way, you attach a negative label to him” “He’s a damn louse.” Mislabeling involves describing an event with language that is highly colored and emotionally loaded.
10.) PERSONALIZATION: You see your self as the cause of some negative external event, which in fact you were not primarily responsible for.”
Certainly every human being can identify with at least a few of the distortions on this list, if not all of them. The ones I seem to see most often in my Northern California therapy practice are: personalization, jumping to conclusions, all-or-nothing thinking and should statements. I’d be curious to know if there’s any correlation of prevalence among certain cognitive distortions and cultural backgrounds (and here I’m defining “cultural” in the broadest sense, not just in terms of ethnicity and geography, but in terms of other types of conditioning along the lines of gender, race, class, etc.), seeing that all types of cognitive distortions are learned in some fashion or another.
Psychcentral.com also has a good, expanded list of cognitive distortions adapted from Dr. Burns and Aaron Beck, one of the founders of CBT (cognitive-behavioral therapy).
Try the exercise “Identifying Cognitive Distortions” as the next step in applying what you’ve learned here, to help increase your level of happiness, ease and well-being.