Cognitive distortions are simple ways that our mind convinces us of something that isn’t really true. These inaccurate thoughts are usually used to reinforce negative thinking or emotions – telling ourselves things that sound rational and accurate, but really only serve to keep us feeling bad about ourselves.
For instance, an individual might tell themselves, “I always fail when I try to do something new; I therefore fail at everything I try”. This is an example of ‘Black or White’ (or polarized) cognitive distortion. Below are a few other cognitive distortions:
- 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.
- OVERGENERALISATION: you see a single negative event as a never-ending pattern of defeat.
- 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 colours the entire beaker of water.
- DISQUALIFYING THE POSITIVE: you reject the 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.
- JUMPING TO CONCLUSIONS: you make a negative interpretation even though there are no definite facts that convincingly support your conclusions. (a) Mind reading. You arbitrarily conclude that someone is reacting negatively to you, and you don’t bother to check this out. (b) The Fortune Teller error. You anticipate that things will turn out badly, and you feel convinced that your prediction is an already-established fact.
- EMOTIONAL REASONING: you assume that your negative emotions necessarily reflect the way things really are: ‘I feel it, therefore it must be true.’
- SHOULD STATEMENTS: you try to motivate yourself with shoulds and shouldn’ts, 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 consequence is guilt. When you direct should statements towards others, you feel anger, frustration, and resentment.
- LABELLING AND MISLABELLING. This is an extreme form of overgeneralisation. Instead of describing your error, you attach a negative label to yourself: ‘I’m a loser.’ When someone else’s behaviour rubs you the wrong way, you attach a negative label to him. ‘He’s a goddam louse.’ Mislabelling involves describing an event with language that is highly coloured and emotionally loaded.
- PERSONALISATION: you see yourself as the cause of some negative external event, which in fact you were not primarily responsible for.