What are your cognitive distortions?

Learning to stop the cycle of negative thinking can help to transform your relationships and help you to better cope with your feelings of anxiety and depression. Bringing awareness to your cognitive distortions is the first step in achieving more balanced thinking.

Cognitive distortions are consistent errors in thinking. In stressful times in life, it can be fruitful to examine what you are thinking. When we are challenged or unhappy our thoughts tend to be dramatic or absolute. So, you might be thinking “I’m no good” or “I can’t do anything correctly” and “nobody likes me”. These thought patterns can add to your anxiety levels and deepen your depression. A cognitive distortion is essentially a term that means the way you are thinking about something doesn’t match up with the reality of what is going on.

Cognitive distortions are important because they can be the beginning of a vicious negative loop and can fuel your state of anxiety and compound your depression. In such a loop your thought affects your feelings and bodily sensations which then combine to dictate your behaviour. Your behaviour then triggers the next thought you have which sets the whole cycle off all over again. If your first thought is negative the entire cycle tends to lead to an even more negative thought and so it goes on.

Thinking that nobody likes you can mean you begin to experience feelings of anxiety around others (feelings), which in turn can cause sweating (bodily sensations). This can entail withdrawal from others (behaviour) resulting in feeling left out and alienated, which then produces a subsequent negative thought such as “there is something wrong with me”.

Balanced thinking can help to manage your anxiety and depression. This, of course, may sound simple but the problem is that negative thinking may have become a stubborn and strong habit that is difficult to shift. The first step is to bring awareness to your cycle of negative thinking and try to spot how your negative pattern starts and how it develops.

Common cognitive distortions are:

All or nothing thinking: This can also be referred to as black and white thinking. There is little thinking in the middle ground. The language used are words like ‘always’, ‘never’ or ‘forever’ and are usually negative. If you don’t achieve an A+ grade in an exam then you are a total failure.

Overgeneralisation: This occurs when you take an isolated event and make assumptions that it will always be the same. So, you may have failed to secure a job following an interview and you then decide that you will never get a job.

Jumping to conclusions: You assume the worst about other people’s thinking, in spite of the prevailing evidence. It can, in effect, represent a form of mind-reading. You may conclude that someone is reacting negatively towards you but don’t seek to find out if there is sufficient evidence for thinking that way. This cognitive distortion can be part of some of the most extreme and intractable forms of depression.

Mental filter (or selective abstraction): This occurs when you overlook the positive and single out the negative. So, 99% of people might like your new coat but you concentrate on the 1% who expressed ambivalence about it. When you feel depressed the temptation is to filter out everything that is positive.

Disqualifying the positive: This is similar to mental filter, but with this one you discount the positive, as you think that this doesn’t count. You may have received positive reviews for a piece of work but you don’t believe them.

Should statements: This involves expecting the world to be different than it is. An example is believing that everything you do should be done perfectly.

Personalisation: This is when you blame yourself for things that are out of your control. It is often linked to guilt and shame and occurs when you think that you are responsible for something out of your control. So, you feel you are to blame for the way a party turned out, in spite of not being the organiser or party planner. It is the opposite of blaming.

Emotional reasoning: This is when you believe something to be true because you feel it strongly, and you discount any evidence to the contrary.  

Tunnel vision: Always seeing the negative in a situation. This is often present when feeling depressed.

Catastrophising: This is a form of fortune telling and is particularly potent with the escalation of feelings of anxiety. You think everything will get worse when one single event is not going according to plan.

Labelling/mislabelling: This is rigid and global thinking when you ignore reasonable evidence. So, you think of yourself as a loser when really you only failed at one specific task.

Counselling and psychotherapy can help you to spot your irrational ideas about yourself and to identify the dangers of having ‘musts’ and ‘shoulds’. Your therapist can help you to identify and address your irrational ideas (think of them as obstacles) such as believing that you must avoid disapproval from any source. Such an idea can lead to avoidance of social situations in an attempt to escape from emotional pain.  If you demand the approval from others, the risk is that you’ll always be doing what they want you to do rather than doing what you want to do in your life. Or you may believe that only good people do good things and bad people do bad things. This can be a form of inflexibility where you put people on pedestals or totally discard others.

The danger with irrational ideas is that you may believe that you should give up on a task in the future because you failed at it in the past. Counselling and psychotherapy can help you to identify your negative automatic thoughts, address your core belief system and empower you to transform your low self-esteem.

Counselling Directory is not responsible for the articles published by members. The views expressed are those of the member who wrote the article.

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Written by Noel Bell MA, PG Dip Psych, UKCP

Noel Bell is a counsellor/psychotherapist based in London who has spent the past 20 years exploring and studying personal growth, recovery from addictions and inner transformation. Noel draws upon the most effective tools and techniques from the psychodynamic, cognitive behavioural (CBT), humanist, existential and transpersonal schools.… Read more

Written by Noel Bell MA, PG Dip Psych, UKCP

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