Cognitive Distortions

Sometimes, we misinterpret reality and this affects our moods, behaviors, and relationships. Discover some of the cognitive distortions that you might display in your everyday life without even recognizing it.
Cognitive Distortions
Gema Sánchez Cuevas

Written and verified by the psychologist Gema Sánchez Cuevas.

Last update: 11 December, 2022

Cognitive distortions are the wrong ways we have of processing information. They’re misinterpretations of what’s happening around us that generate multiple negative consequences. People suffering from depression have a vision of reality in which cognitive distortions play a major role.

To a greater or lesser extent, we all possess some cognitive distortions. Knowing how to detect and analyze them will help you to have a clearer mind and develop more realistic and, above all, positive attitudes. Below, are the most important ones:

Personalization

Personalization occurs when you feel completely responsible for events in which you’ve barely participated or have played no part at all.

For example, say your son has taken an exam and failed. It makes you think you’ve failed your son and that if you’d paid more attention to his education, he would’ve passed.

Selective abstraction or filtering

Selective abstraction or filtering consists of focusing attention on negative and inappropriate aspects that are consistent with your schemas while ignoring or barely taking into account the rest of the information at all.

In effect, you filter the negative and forget the positive. For example, imagine you’ve made a cheesecake for your birthday and have invited nine friends around to enjoy it. Almost all of them like your cake, except Laura who says that the jam filling isn’t very good. You feel bad and think that the whole cake is a disaster. In effect, you’ve kept the negative yet totally omitted the positive aspects.

selective

Overgeneralization

Overgeneralization is the tendency to believe that, if something has happened once, it’ll happen many times. For example, imagine your partner has left you after a two-and-a-half-year relationship. Overgeneralization means that you think that nobody else will ever love you and you’ll never again find anyone who wants to be with you.

Maximization and minimization

The cognitive distortion known as maximization and minimization consists of magnifying your own mistakes and others’ successes while minimizing your own successes and others’ mistakes. You feel like it doesn’t matter how many successes you might’ve had in the past. The only thing that matters is that you’ve now made a serious mistake.

Polarized thinking

Polarized thinking consists of valuing events in an extreme way, without taking into account the intermediate aspects. It means only seeing things as either black or white or true or false.

For example, you might think that, if you can’t do a perfect job, all your efforts will have been useless. Moreover, it’ll be a complete disaster. Or, if you’re looking for a job and can’t find one, you think you’re incompetent and useless. Polarized thinking is one of the most used cognitive distortions in discussions with others. For instance, when you use terms such as always, never, everything, and nothing.


You might also like to read Polarized Thinking: A Cognitive Distortion


Words always and never written on the blackboard

Emotional reasoning

Emotional reasoning refers to the assumption that your emotions reflect how things are. In effect, you believe that what you emotionally feel is true.

Consequently, you believe that thinking you might be incompetent means you’re certainly incompetent or, because you feel in a certain way, it must be true.

Affirmations of should and have to

Shoulds and have-tos are rigid and inflexible beliefs about how you or others should be. The demands you center on yourself involve self-criticism, while those directed toward others are more inclined to annoyance, anger, and aggressiveness.

For example, you might believe that you should’ve been more attentive to your partner, and then they wouldn’t have left you. Or, that you shouldn’t ever make mistakes. In the same way, you may feel that others should behave well toward you or that everyone must like you.

Arbitrary inference

Arbitrary inference consists of taking certain assumptions for granted, even though there may be no evidence to do so. It’s done in two ways:

  • Thought guessing. Believing you know what others think and why they behave the way they do. You might believe that someone wants to make you nervous, make fun of you, or feel sorry for you. Or, that an acquaintance of yours is only with their partner for their money.
  • Guessing the future. You expect things to go wrong, without allowing for the possibility that they might go in a neutral or positive direction. For instance, you tell yourself you’re going to fail.
Stressed perfectionist woman lying on the floor

Labeling

Labeling involves using pejorative labels to describe yourself, rather than accurately describing your faults and attributes. For example, believing you’re useless instead of accepting that you’ve made a mistake, but you don’t always do so.

Must statements

Like cognitive distortions, ‘must statements’ are strict rules that you set for yourself and others without considering the certain details of an event. You believe that things must be a certain way with no exceptions.

Where do cognitive distortions come from?

Research claims that we develop cognitive distortions as a way of coping with adverse life events. The longer and more severe these adverse events are, the more likely it is that one or more cognitive distortions will develop. This study found that an increase in life adversity was associated with an increase in cognitive distortions. In turn, it was associated with a greater number of symptoms reflecting behavioral problems.

There’s also an evolutionary theory that humans may have developed cognitive distortions as a kind of evolutionary survival method. It suggests that they’re natural consequences of the use of defensive strategies against possible threats.

This theory affirms that, in various situations, especially those of threats, the human being evolved to think adaptively instead of logically. Therefore, cognitive distortions aren’t strictly errors in the functioning of the brain, but rather a reflection of its basic design, which seeks to survive at all costs and successfully face or avoid dangers.

Other common cognitive distortions

  • Interpretation of thought. You think you know what others really think and feel and make assumptions about it. For example, when your partner tells you they love you, you believe they’re saying it because they feel sorry for you.
  • Being right. Thinking that you must be right about everything or else you’re worthless. Therefore, you perceive as enemies or threats all those who don’t think like you. Moreover, you constantly seek to impose your own thinking on every situation.
  • The fallacy of control. You either believe that you’re completely responsible for everything that happens, or the opposite is true. For example, you feel that you can’t do anything to change your situation or that everything that’s happened to you is solely down to you.
  • The fallacy of change. You think that your own well-being depends entirely on the actions of others and that, until they change, nothing can be done. For instance, you might believe that if your partner were more romantic, you’d be happy.
  • The fallacy of justice. You judge as unfair everything that doesn’t conform to your expectations. In fact, you expect reciprocity from others and life and get frustrated if it doesn’t happen. For example, you may think that everyone should work as hard as you do and that it’s unfair that they don’t.
  • Catastrophic vision. In every situation, you choose to expect the worst outcome, even if there’s no evidence for it to happen, or it’s extremely unlikely that it will. You might think, for instance, that as your partner is 15 minutes late, they must’ve had an accident.
  • Blame. You believe that you’re to blame for what happens to others. Or, that others are responsible for your misfortune.
  • Divine reward fallacy: You irrationally believe that, based on your suffering or sacrifices of today, you’ll receive a reward in the future.
  • Disqualification of the positive. You downplay or ignore positive experiences, focusing only on what’s going wrong.

How to work on cognitive distortions

Cognitive distortions lead you to interpret reality in a harmful and non-functional way. They can affect both your relationship with others and your mental health and lead you to make the wrong decisions. Therefore, it’s essential to work on them.

However, it’s practically impossible to eliminate them all. That said, you can reduce their influence in your life. For this, we recommend you seek professional help. Whatever the case, your objective is to become aware of which of these distortions are present in you and examine them. Every time you find yourself thinking in any of the ways described above, ask yourself if you really have evidence to support what you’re thinking.

By contrasting your beliefs with reality, it’ll be easy for you to realize that they’re not realistic. From that point onwards, you can explore other, more positive ways of interpreting the same event.

Seven tips for changing cognitive distortions

In addition to our previous recommendations, you can also employ the following tips. They’ll help you modify your cognitive distortions.

1. Identify your thoughts

When you realize that a certain thought is making you anxious or affecting your mood, you need to discover the type of cognitive distortion you’re experiencing. Most irrational thought patterns can be reversed once you become aware of them.

2. Reframe the situation

Try to find alternative explanations that better justify the situation. This will give you a more realistic interpretation of the event. It can be extremely helpful to write down your irrational thoughts followed by alternative interpretations.

3. Conduct a cost-benefit analysis

Determine how the distortions have helped you cope in the past. Do they give you a sense of control or allow you to avoid responsibility? By doing this, you can reflect on why you’re having a hard time coping adaptively. In effect, weighing up the costs and benefits of the distortions could motivate you to change them.

4. Replace absolutes

Instead of using words like always and everyone, try using words like sometimes. For example, instead of saying “I’m always wrong” change it to “Sometimes, I’m wrong”. This will prevent you from generalizing statements to every situation.

5. Label your behavior

Instead of labeling yourself with negative terms, it’s more useful to label your behavior in an objective way. For instance, instead of saying “I’m too lazy to clean up,” you could say “I didn’t clean up today.” After all, the label of being lazy isn’t applicable to every situation in your life.

6. Find the evidence

Ask yourself if there’s any evidence to support your cognitive distortion. Write down all the evidence for and against it. You might find that there’s a lot of evidence that disputes your irrational thinking and that there may be a lot of facts that you’re ignoring. Looking for evidence encourages you to find alternative explanations and consider how realistic your distortions are.

7. Look for positive aspects

Look positively at the situation in which you’re using cognitive distortions. For each negative aspect, find at least one positive. Eventually, looking for the positives should become a spontaneous habit, and your negative thoughts should subside.

Finally, cognitive distortions are habitual ways of thinking that are often inaccurate and negatively biased. They may be generating a strong impact on your day-to-day life. So, now that you know all about them, it’s important that you start working on them.

It might interest you...
Nine Cognitive Distortions of Depression
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Nine Cognitive Distortions of Depression

There are various cognitive distortions of depression that reinforce this psychological condition. In this article, we look at nine of them.



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The contents of Exploring Your Mind are for informational and educational purposes only. They don't replace the diagnosis, advice, or treatment of a professional. In the case of any doubt, it's best to consult a trusted specialist.