15 Cognitive Distortions and Easy Ways to Challenge Them
Back in 1976, the cognitive distortions theory was first proposed by Aaron Beck. Later, in the 1980’s, David Burns took the theory one step further by naming each distortion.
Today I am going to review 15 of the most popular distortions and give you suggestions on how you can challenge these thoughts by reframing your mindset and taking action.
Ready? Let’s dive in.
1. FILTERING THE POSITIVES
Focusing on the one thing that went wrong instead of everything that went right.
Keep a gratitude journal, write down all the positive things that happened at the end of the day. This will begin to train your brain to think more positively
2. POLARIZING THINKING
This way of thinking is very black and white. People with polarized thoughts tend to live in the black and white and pay no regard to the gray.
If you know you are a black and white thinker, it is important for you to take time to analyze situations that arise. Write down your thoughts on one side. On the other, write down what someone you know, who tends to live in the gray would say. This will help you to begin to see other ways of thinking.
People who over-generalize tend to draw conclusions that something bad will happen all the time just because it happened once. These people use words like always and never. For example, these thinkers might say something along the lines of, “the last time I drove on that freeway I got a flat tire, so I can’t drive that road again or I will get another flat tire.”
Stop the all or nothing thinking. Replace absolute words like always and never with words like sometimes and maybe. Changing your language will change the meaning, which will, in turn, change your thoughts to a growth mindset.
4. JUMPING TO CONCLUSIONS
When you are jumping to conclusions, you think you can read someone’s mind. For example, you may think that the only reason someone did something nice for you was to get something in return.
The counter this thought, ask yourself for evidence that this person is only doing something nice so that they can get something from you. Challenging your thought by telling yourself that maybe the person is simply trying to help with no hope of reciprocity.
This is when we assume the worst in all situations. For example, if you are interviewing for a job with other candidates, you assume that your qualifications are not as good as everyone else’s and so you will not get the job.
The simple answer to catastrophic thoughts is to think positively. To do this, exchange your emotional response with a more rational one. Instead of assuming you won’t get the job. tell yourself that your qualifications were good enough to get you this far and that you have just as good of a chance as the other candidates.
Personalization is when you think that everything someone does is somehow linked back to you, even if you had nothing to do with the situation. For instance, you might blame yourself for a deadline that was missed by a co-worker.
I know it is hard to imagine, but not everything is about you. It could be that your co-worker missed a deadline because of his own actions and not yours. To counter this, think logically. Evaluate the situation. Is there anything about it that points to personal responsibility?
7. FALLACY OF FAIRNESS
This one is similar to polarizing. Those who have this cognitive distortion operate based on things being fair. Moreso, they believe that they know what is fair and if someone deters from that, they believe that person is wrong.
Challenging this distortion requires flexible thinking. Ask yourself if you really are the keeper of all the rules. Could someone else have a valid viewpoint and see things differently? Try to open your mind and step outside of your comfort zone and know that fairness may have multiple meanings.
If you are a blamer, you tend to have a hard time taking responsibility for your own actions. Instead, you blame others for your feelings. People with this distortion might say things like, “it is your fault that I feel so bad.”
The first step to challenging this distortion is to realize that you are responsible for your own feelings. Eleanor Roosevelt put it nicely when she said that no one can make us feel bad without our consent. It is important that you separate the action of the other person and your
9. CONTROL FALLACY
This one is a bit more complicated and refers to the idea that you are in control of every aspect of life. It can present in two different ways:
External Control: this is when we see ourselves as helpless, or victims. Thoughts such as “it’s not my fault I yelled. You made me mad.
Internal Control: This is when we take responsibility for other people’s feelings. An example would be to think it is because of you that someone is unhappy.
If you suffer from this distortion, it is important to remember that you are only responsible for you. To see ourselves as helpless is to relinquish all of our control, and to see ourselves as responsible for everyone else is to see ourselves as having too much control.
The best thing to do is to ask yourself what you do and do not have control over in each situation. This can be done by internal conversation, or writing on a piece of paper so that you can visually see and be reminded to only focus on the things that you can control.
If you ever watched Sex and the City, you heard Carrie Bradshaw tell us to stop shoulding all over ourselves.
People who are “shoulders” have very rigid guidelines about the way that things should be done and how people should behave. When someone strays from this, the shoulder gets agitated.
Another aspect of the shoulder is that they tend to also feel guilty when they do not live up to what they feel should be done. For instance, if they missed a workout they will feel exceptionally guilty because they planned to exercise, and therefore they “should,” and it is unacceptable that they did not.
Rigid thoughts tend to lead to rigid outcomes. They leave little room for error, which means they also leave little room for forgiveness.
If you are a shoulder, remember that you are human, and humans make mistakes. Equally, other people may not see the world the same way that you do, and that’s okay.
Take some time to analyze what message you are sending yourself if you feel guilty for not doing something you think you should do (i.e. exercise).
If you are an external shoulder, remember that everyone is different. Notice how other people do things and take that information to help yourself be more flexible in your thinking.
11. EMOTIONAL REASONING
This one is related to personalization but goes a step further. Those who suffer from emotional reasoning think that whatever they are feeling must be true. Therefore, if a person feels like they are boring, unintelligent, or stupid, then it must be true.
This can go the other way as well. For example, if a person thinks they are the best thing since sliced bread, then they must be.
Emotional reasoning can be really damaging because it gives us a false perception of who we are.
If you are inclined to think you are stupid, or a bad person then your behavior will demonstrate these traits, and you will never notice all the great qualities that you have.
Equally, if you tend to think you are awesome in all things then you are also stunting your growth because you are less likely to take constructive criticism, or evaluate your own performance objectively.
It is really important to challenge your thoughts. A great way to do this is to write down your initial thought (I am stupid) and then write a challenging thought next to it (so I didn’t do this one thing correctly, I am human and I do a lot of things right).
12. FALLACY OF CHANGE
This is the thought that if you love someone enough, or want something enough that you can change another person.
For example, if you are dating someone who does not want kids and suffer from the fallacy of change, you will think that they will change their mind after you get married.
The truth is that the only person that you can change is yourself. Like Maya Angelou told us, when someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.
There is no amount of love, action or talking that you can do to change someone else’s fundamental belief.
13. GLOBAL LABELING
Global labeling is when you take one example and apply it to the whole of who you are. For example, if you fail one test and decide that you are a complete failure in all things.
Stop the absolute thinking. One ingredient does not make an entire cake.
Likewise, everyone has bad moments. Challenge your thoughts based on past evidence. Does this one event erase all the good events that have happened previously? Maybe all the times you passed the test are the rule, and the one time you failed is the exception.
14. ALWAYS BEING RIGHT
The need to always be right is a tough one. First, it will leave you feeling defensive when you are not right, and it creates an unsafe environment for people to express their opinions.
In this distortion, being right overrides emotions.
Take a step back and think about how you might feel if you were in a space with someone who always had to be the smartest person in the room. It probably doesn’t feel good. Well, that’s how you are making others feel.
Remind yourself that while you have valuable expertise to bring to situations, other people do as well. Hearing other’s viewpoints will make them want to listen to yours.
15. REWARD FALLACY
This is the belief that all your hard work will pay off. People with this distortion believe that sacrifice breeds reward.
Unfortunately, sometimes life is not fair. Sometimes those who do the least get all the accolades while those who do the most are rewarded with more work.
If you suffer from this distortion. ask yourself if doing good work or making sacrifices are for the right reasons. If they are, continue what you are doing. After all, character is what we do when no one is watching.
If you are not sacrificing for the right reasons, re-evaluate your motives and rethink your actions.
If you feel a bit overwhelmed and less than a useful human being after reading this post, you are not alone. But take solace in knowing that we all suffer from cognitive distortions from time to time. Putting a label on the distortion can be helpful in re-framing your thoughts. The good news is that the more you are aware of your thoughts, the more empowered you are to change them.
For more information on Aaron Beck, the founder of cognitive distortions, click here.