When you think about your life, your brain is likely to deceive you and distort your opinions. Cognitive distortions—your brain “rotating” the events you see and less objective explanations of what you experience—occur all the time. We all have cognitive distortions, which are just tendencies or patterns of thinking or beliefs. They are especially common in people with depression and other emotional disorders.
Psychologist Aaron T. Beck first proposed the theory of cognitive distortions in the 1960s. Since then, many therapists have helped clients lead more active lives by tracking and correcting cognitive distortions. (This is one of the principles of a very successful and fast and effective treatment model called cognitive therapy.)
When you know what to pay attention to, it is easy to spot cognitive distortions in others. Finding yourself may be more challenging, but it is possible. Doing so will usually bring lasting positive changes to the way you experience stressors in your life.
One interesting thing to note is that some cognitive distortions can actually work to your advantage. The key is to know when and how to do this.
Here are the 10 most common (and officially recognized) cognitive distortions and examples of how they relate to stress. When you recognize one or two familiar “friends”, you may find yourself smiling. If you look for them and correct them gently in the following days, you will be able to reduce your response to life stress well.
All or nothing thoughts
This type of distortion is the culprit for people’s extreme thinking. There are no gray areas or middle areas. All-or-nothing thinkers often use words like “always” and “never” when describing things. “I am always stuck in traffic!” “My boss never listens to me!” This way of thinking will magnify the stressors in your life and make them look bigger than they actually are.
Those who tend to overgeneralize tend to take isolated events and assume that all future events will be the same. For example, the overgeneralization of a rude salesperson may begin to believe that all salespersons are rude, and shopping will always be a stressful experience.
Those who tend to be psychologically filtered may cover up positive events while holding a magnifying glass on negative events. Ten things can be done right, but people operating under the influence of psychological filters may only notice that one thing is wrong. (Add a little overgeneralization and all-or-nothing thoughts to the equation, and you have the secret to stress.)
Disqualification of positive
Similar to psychological filtering, those who remove positive factors tend to view positive events as fluke, and thus adhere to a more negative worldview and low expectations for the future. Have you ever tried to help a friend solve a problem, and every solution you put forward was overwhelmed by a “yes, but…” response? You have witnessed this cognitive distortion with your own eyes.
Skip to conclusion
People always do this. Instead of letting the evidence lead them to a logical conclusion, they focused on the conclusion (usually the negative), and then looked for evidence to support it, ignoring the evidence to the contrary. If the child thinks that everyone in the new class will hate him, and “knows” that they are just behaving well to him to avoid being punished, then he will jump to conclusions hastily. Conclusion Jumpers often fall prey to mind reading (they believe that they know the true intentions of others without talking to them) and fortune telling (to predict future developments and believe that these predictions are true). Can you think of some examples of adults you know doing this? I bet you can.
Zoom in and minimize
Similar to psychological filtering and disqualification of positive qualifications, this cognitive distortion includes placing more emphasis on negative events and downplaying positive events. Customer service representatives who only notice customer complaints without noticing positive interactions are the victims of amplification and minimization. Another form of this distortion is called catastrophization, where people imagine and anticipate the worst. It can cause a lot of stress.
This is a close relative who is eager to draw conclusions because it involves ignoring certain facts when drawing a conclusion. Emotional reasoners will treat their emotions about a situation as evidence, rather than looking at facts objectively. “I feel completely overwhelmed, so my question must be beyond my ability,” or, “I am angry with you; therefore, you must be wrong here,” are all examples of wrong emotional reasoning .
Understandably, acting on these beliefs as facts may lead to more problems to be solved.
Those who rely on “should state” often have strict rules set by themselves or others, and these rules always need to be followed-at least in their minds. They cannot see flexibility in different situations, and in order to live up to these self-imposed expectations, they put themselves under considerable pressure. If your internal conversation involves a lot of “shoulds”, you may be affected by this cognitive distortion.
Labeling and mislabeling
People who label or mislabel themselves and others will habitually label themselves and others with inaccurate or negative labels. “He’s a complainer.” “She’s a liar.” “I’m just a useless worry.” These labels tend to define people and promote a one-dimensional view of them, paving the way for overgeneralization. Mark people as roles that are not always applicable and prevent us from seeing people (including ourselves) in a real way. This is also a taboo in relationship conflicts.
Those who personalize stressors tend to blame themselves or others for things they cannot control, thereby creating stress where they are not needed. Those who tend to be individual tend to blame themselves for the actions of others, or blame others for their own feelings.
If any of them feel a bit too familiar, that’s a good thing: recognizing cognitive distortion is the first step in overcoming it.