“We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” –Albert Einstein
Do you ever have negative thoughts about yourself? Do you ever discount your talents and abilities or think you are destined to fail? When some of us fail a math test, we briefly reason that we are bad at math, and then ultimately admit we need to study more, others may see this failure as permanent–a label. They may tell themselves, “I am bad at math,” “I will never pass this class” “I am too dumb to learn this.” The American Psychological Association defines the latter thought process as cognitive distortions, and I want to dive into this topic further today.
Cognitive distortions are exaggerated patterns of thought that although not based on facts, lead us to view ourselves and our experiences negatively. We all fall prey to cognitive distortions, and when left unchecked, they can affect our mental health. The following is a list of common distortions:
- Mind reading. Assuming you know what people think without having sufficient evidence. “She must think I am a horrible person because I am not vegan.”
- Catastrophizing. Predicting utter failure. “Whatever happens will be the worst.”
- Labeling. Defining ourselves and others with negative traits based off of a single event or behavior. “I am fat.”
- Discounting the positives. Not necessarily overlooking positives altogether, but simply explaining them away as a fluke or sheer luck. “Sure, I made this beautiful cake but it’s no big deal–I just followed a recipe.”
- Negative filtering. Not seeing the positives or discounting them for trivial reasons. “My good review at work was only because of political correctness and nothing to do with performance.”
- Overgeneralizing. Perceiving a global pattern of negatives. “I got a C once so therefore I am stupid.”
- All or nothing thinking–black and white thinking dealing in polarized extremes. “I am either destined for success or doomed to fail.”
- Shoulds. How things should be instead of what is. “I should be able to control my temper and never get impatient with my kids.”
- Personalizing. Taking things personally when they are not connected to or caused by you at all. “I’m sorry the snow made it hard to get to my house!”
- Blaming. Focusing on the other person as the source of your feelings; refusing to take responsibility for changing yourself. “I yelled at my kids because my wife was frustrating me.”
These distortions, though painful, are not life sentences. In the 1960s, psychiatrist Aaron Beck pioneered research on cognitive distortions in his development of a treatment method known as cognitive behavioral therapy or CBT. Once you recognize the cognitive distortions you lean towards, CBT helps you to reverse the distortions in your thought processes. You can learn to identify cognitive distortions so that you know when your mind is playing tricks on you. Then you can reframe and redirect your thoughts so that they have less of a negative impact on your mood, behavior, thoughts and actions.
There are several at-home CBT techniques we can do to keep up from getting stuck in a cognitive distortion loop. Journaling, a CBT technique, is a way to gather information about one’s moods and thoughts. These journal entries can include the time of the mood or thought, the source of it, the extent or intensity, and how we reacted, among other factors. This technique can help us to better identify our thought patterns and describe, change, adapt, or cope with them. Another simple CBT technique is one you are familiar with (though maybe not in this context) is fact checking. This simple exercise helps us examine when our thoughts are emotionally charged and not actually truthful. Whether or not we fail a test is a fact. Claiming to be a bad person because we fail a test is not a fact. Recognizing the difference between fact and opinion can help us challenge the dysfunctional or harmful opinions we have about ourselves and others.
All of us experience cognitive distortions. When this way of thinking pervades the majority of our thoughts, it can affect our overall mental health in a very damaging way. There is, however, a way out of this spiraling process, and that is through some simple cognitive behavioral therapy techniques–whether practiced at home or with a trained, experienced therapist. Let me help you challenge these distortions so you can experience more joy in your life. Contact me today to get started!
Melissa Cluff is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist based in North Texas, providing face-to-face and telehealth therapy options to clients in Texas.
- Cluff Counseling: THE BEAUTY OF JOURNALING
- Cluff Counseling: CBT TECHNIQUES YOU CAN DO AT HOME!
- Cluff Counseling: Choosing the Right Therapist for You
- Healthline: How Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Can Rewire Your Thoughts
- Healthline: What Are Cognitive Distortions and How Can You Change These Thinking Patterns?
- Positive Psychology: 25 CBT Techniques and Worksheets for Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
- Positive Psychology: Cognitive Distortions: When Your Brain Lies to You (+ PDF Worksheets)
- PsychCentral: All About Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
- Psychcentral: Stuck in the Negatives? 15 Cognitive Distortions To Blame
- Verywell: 10 Cognitive Distortions Identified in CBT