“Nothing good ever happens to me.”
“People are just out for me, so I can never trust anyone.”
“I’m just an unlucky person.”
“I’ll never find what I’m looking for, so why try?”
Have you ever thought that the world was against you and that success seems impossible for you? Do you worry that only bad things will happen? You aren’t alone. Most people have experienced catastrophic thinking and other types of thinking errors.
Thinking errors are specific ways of thinking that hide, obscure, or distort reality. Also referred to as cognitive distortions, these are flawed beliefs people hold about themselves and the world around them, which are based on previous life experiences (both lived and observed), and can be learned.
Cognitive distortions are often rooted in the core belief system of the individual, and as such, can be observed in intermediate beliefs (rules, attitudes, long-standing beliefs) and automatic thoughts (initial thoughts, quick, fleeting).
Why do we use them?
Cognitive distortions serve two main purposes: for protection and to make sense of the world (past, present, and future).
When we become emotionally activated, the prefrontal cortex, or “thinking brain” becomes inhibited. If we are unable to distinguish between a triggered sense of danger and real danger, we can’t be really sure we are safe. Without the prefrontal cortex fully online, our ability to rationalize logically, prioritize, organize, make good decisions, or remember things accurately is compromised. When stress arousal is high in this way, our brains rely on efficiency and will make quick choices to either “fight or flee” in the moment.
In this respect, cognitive distortions protect us and defend us from feeling vulnerable. They also give us a false sense of control by supporting maladaptive thoughts or engaging in harmful and unhealthy behaviors.
What do they look like?
Cognitive distortions take a number of forms and most often come up in situations when we feel threatened, afraid, hurt, or angry, because those are the times when we feel the strongest need to hide from reality. Reality may often include facts that make us frightened or unhappy, and cognitive distortions allow us to hide from those facts.
Unfortunately, cognitive distortions are like putting duct tape on a leaking pipe. It works for a short while, until it doesn’t. If we don’t address the leak or damage fully by examining the root of the problem and dealing with the reality, the consequences can be severe.
“When you know better, you do better”- Dr. Maya Angelou
One of the most important reasons for learning to identify our thinking errors is that it can help us to better examine our interpretation of situations, which in turn can improve our relationships and life in general.
To help in identifying cognitive distortions, here are some of the most common types used by people, along with examples of what they may sound like when used.
1) ALL OR NOTHING THINKING – also referred to as “black and white” thinking, “polarized thinking,” or “splitting.” The belief that things are all one-way or the other, either all good or all bad. People are either friends or enemies, either complete successes or total failures, either saints or monsters. This distortion ignores the complexity of situations and individuals and reduces everything down to a single judgmental quality.
Example: “I didn’t do everything perfectly, so I’m a total screw-up.” Or “That guy said something that made me angry, he must be a narcissist.”
2) “CATASTROPHIZING” (DOOMSDAY THINKING) – Grossly exaggerating the potential negative consequences of a situation. Any bad thing that happens becomes the end of the world, and you can’t think about anything else or keep things in perspective. This can result in “doomsday thinking,” when you become so focused on the possibility of a terrible crisis that you become paralyzed and cannot respond to a negative situation with any positive solutions.
Example: “My boss said I made a mistake—now I’m going to be fired and I’ll get evicted because I can’t pay my rent, I should just quit before that happens.” Or “That person said they didn’t want to go out with me—I must be ugly and I’ll never be with someone, I shouldn’t even try.”
3) MIND READING – Believing that you know what someone is thinking based on their behavior, or based on what you expect them to be thinking. There is also the reverse of this, assuming that other people know what you are thinking without you telling them. This distortion ignores the fact that a guess is not the same thing as knowing, even if that guess is partially correct, and also ignores the fact that the human mind is complex and often contains more than one thing at a time.
Example: “I saw that dirty look you gave me; you must hate me.” Or “My boyfriend should know what I need if he truly loves me.”
4) FORTUNE TELLING – Believing that you know in advance what will happen in a situation, or that you know how things would have turned out if someone had done something differently. Just like Mind Reading, this distortion ignores the fact that a guess is not the same thing as knowing; we can all guess a specific outcome once in a while, but there’s a big difference between guessing an outcome and knowing the future. This distortion ignores the fact that anyone can be wrong, even when they’re sure they’re right.
Example: “Every time I talk to my friend about my work they get annoyed, therefore everyone I mention my work to in the future will always get annoyed.” Or “This only happened because my coworker screwed up; if they had just stayed out of it everything would have been fine.”
5) PERSONALIZATION – Believing that you are the cause of events which may have nothing to do with you, or believing that you were the target of events which may have not been directed at you specifically. This distortion ignores the fact that we are not the center of the universe, no matter how much we may feel that we are. There can be a number of reasons why something happens or why someone does something, and just because we were there or were affected by it doesn’t mean that we were the cause.
Example: “My dad is angry, therefore I must have done something to make them angry.” Or “The teacher yelled at the whole class, but I know they were really yelling at me.”
6) FOCUSING ON THE NEGATIVE (MENTAL FILTERING) – Only paying attention to things that affect us negatively. Also called “invalidating the positive”, because when you are so focused on bad things, you may forget to notice the positive events, or may believe that they are unimportant. This distortion ignores the fact that situations often have both positive and negative elements at the same time, and that positive things are just as important as negative ones.
Example: “When I made that speech, I got some words wrong and some people laughed. Sure, they all clapped at the end, but I’m sure I looked like an idiot because I made a mistake.” Or “Every relationship I’ve ever been in has ended badly for me. Sure, there may have been some good times too, but in the end relationships are nothing but pain.”
7) DENIAL/MINIMIZATION – Believing that certain things are unimportant when in fact they may be quite important. This often takes the form of comparing things to bigger things so that they seem smaller by comparison. Each person has their own experience of what is important and what is not, and this distortion ignores the fact that each of those experiences is valid.
Example: “I only hit my son once; some people hit their kids all the time. Therefore what I did wasn’t so bad.” Or “I feel proud of what I’ve accomplished but no one besides me cares; I guess compared to what others have accomplished it’s not a big deal after all.”
8) ‘SHOULD’ STATEMENTS – Focusing on the difference between the way the world is and the way you want it to be, even when it is not within your power to change the world. Besides “Should”, these statements also take the form of “Must”, “Ought to” and “Have to” statements. This distortion makes us waste our time focusing on problems that we cannot solve instead of directing our energies towards problems we can solve.
Example: “When I do everything right I should get rewarded; it’s not fair that I am punished when I don’t deserve it.” Or “That isn’t the way I would have handled that situation; that person should have handled it the way I would have.”
9) EMOTIONAL REASONING – Believing that your negative emotions reflect a negative reality—literally, that if you believe something bad is true, therefore it must be true. Like Mind Reading, this distortion ignores the fact that anyone can be wrong even when they’re certain they’re right. This distortion also ignores the fact that negative feelings will change with time, and that no negative feeling lasts forever. This distortion is particularly difficult to deal with because often our negative feelings really do feel true, even when there is no evidence to support them other than the feeling itself.
Example: “I feel hopeless, like nothing will ever work out right. That must be true—nothing will ever work out right, so why even try?” Or “I feel afraid that people don’t like me, and I worry that they think I’m stupid and ugly. That must be true—they don’t like me, and I am stupid and ugly.”
10) IMMEDIATE GRATIFICATION – Believing that if you want something, you have to fill that need right away. This can also manifest as a desire to end negative emotional states right away, without considering the consequences. This distortion ignores the fact that most needs don’t actually have to be filled right away and that trying to immediately fill a need often comes with negative consequences that could have been avoided by showing self-restraint.
Example: “I wanted to have sex, so I couldn’t stop myself even when she said no.” Or “I can’t stand being anxious so I have to drink everyday to keep the edge off.”
11) UNREALISTIC EXPECTATIONS – Believing that the only solutions to problems are perfect ones, and that these solutions solve the problem for all time. This distortion ignores the fact that no solution is ever perfect, and even problems that have been solved tend to recur over time. This distortion puts us in danger of being frustrated with ourselves because we can’t live up to our own expectations, or disappointed when others don’t live up to those expectations.
Example: “I can’t get married until I find a partner who will never get angry with me or criticize me for anything.” Or “They told me the medication would help my symptoms, but I still have some problems, so I guess the medication is worthless.”
12) VICTIM STANCE – Believing that if you were hurt, someone must have done it on purpose, and the fact that you were hurt means no one else’s feelings matter. This often manifests as believing other people were in control of things you do or were responsible for your actions. This distortion ignores the fact that, even when we are hurt, we are still responsible for our own actions, and just because someone hurts us doesn’t mean they were doing it deliberately.
Examples: “What she said really hurt my feelings, so I had to hit her; she was trying to get me mad and she deserved what she got.” Or “I don’t see why anyone else is complaining, since I’m the one who was hurt by this—they were the ones responsible, not me, so what do they have to complain about?”
13) JUSTIFYING – Believing that if there is a good reason for doing something, that negates all the reasons for not doing that thing. This can also manifest as “explaining away” the negative consequences of an action by focusing on the intent of the action. This distortion ignores the fact that the intent behind an action does not necessarily dictate the outcome.
Examples: “Yeah, I was driving drunk, but my friend really needed a ride and she didn’t have any other way to get home.” Or “I was stealing to feed my family—no one can blame a man for doing whatever it takes to look out for his loved ones.”
14) DESIRE FOR FAIRNESS – Believing that the world needs to be fair, and any time it isn’t, that justifies acts of revenge or retribution. This is really a combination of Should Thinking, Unrealistic Expectations, and Justifying, and can contain elements of Personalization or Immediate Gratification as well. This often manifests as feelings of being hurt by something unfair and feeling entitled to “balance the scales” or “tit for tat”, either by hurting someone else or taking something to make up for the hurt feelings. This distortion ignores the fact that the world does not come with a set of rules that say that everything has to seem perfectly balanced to everyone at all times.
Examples: “I didn’t do anything wrong, but I got punished anyway, so if I go down everyone who punished me is going down too.” Or “I grew up without the advantages wealthier people had, so if I steal from them it’s just getting back what I’m owed.”
What can we do about them?
As you can see from the examples above, cognitive distortions are often used to defend us from some fact that seems painful or hard to comprehend. Because they are defensive and give us the perception of feeling safe, cognitive distortions can be very hard to change, since taking away our defenses leaves us feeling vulnerable and afraid. We can’t go through life defenseless, after all, and we don’t like giving up the things that protect us.
To change our cognitive distortions and start thinking more realistically, we have to face the distortions head on and create more realistic ways of thinking, while also at the same time feeling safe and confident in ourselves.
Here are some ways to do that:
Ask yourself, “is this a fact or an opinion?” Many of our thoughts are assumptions and differentiating facts from guesses is a great way to check in with yourself.
Replace the distortion with a counter-statement or counter-thought that provides a more realistic description or assessment of the situation. Ask yourself, “what else could be true?” This form of self-talk could help us to see things from other perspectives.
Develop skills to cope with the emotions that accompany challenging your distortions. Remember the “thinking brain” is not at optimal functioning when stressed, so taking coping strategies such as deep breathing, movement/exercise, and therapy can help clear our mind before re-assessing a situation.
Be consistent in challenging your thoughts. Thought work, including challenging your thoughts, takes hard work and feels uncomfortable. Many of these thinking patterns were conditioned decades ago, so have patience in understanding it will take time, but will almost always work with continued practice.
Practice self-compassion. Many cognitive distortions carry themes of negative self-talk and high self criticism. Being kinder to yourself as you learn to make changes. Self compassion can alleviate us from the suffering that often accompanies an already painful state.
What cognitive distortions are most common for you? What have you tried to manage these unhelpful thinking patterns?
If you want to learn more about what to do about cognitive distortions, cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is an evidenced-based form of treatment that specifically works with thoughts, including cognitive distortions, to treat a number of psychological and physical conditions.
Message me if you are interested in working with me one on one, or explore other options to live a more optimal life.