Don’t Believe Everything You Think, Part 1
The Ten Cognitive Distortions
“I’ll never feel comfortable with his family,” Alina bemoaned as she rested her face in her hands. Nicole leaned forward across the restaurant table and patted Alina on her sagging shoulders.
“I’ve always been so self-conscious with his mother that I can’t imagine that she’ll ever view me as her daughter.”
If you’re like the rest of us, you’ve had some sort of conversation like Alina. You can probably feel the discomfort, anxiety, and distress welling up in Alina’s heart, too.
When we look more closely at what Alina is expressing, her words and thoughts are actually directly related to the emotions and even outcome of what she will experience.
Alina demonstrated what is known as fortune-teller error, one of ten cognitive distortions or irrational thoughts that infiltrate the mind and wreak havoc on emotions, belief systems, relationships, and lives.
Your thoughts significantly influence both how you feel and behave. You may think you aren’t smart enough, successful enough, attractive enough, or talented enough to feel happy and fulfilled. This thinking can make us feel like victims because we think the causes result from something beyond our control.  And this thinking can create problems at every level of our lives.
When did you last stop and evaluate what you’re actually saying to yourself? Like your parents, teachers, and associates, probably only when faced with a significant problem or life decision – or when things seem like they’ve crashed and are burning.
You can’t believe everything you think.
That’s right, your thoughts can and do lie.
Our feelings and thoughts, if distorted, create a distorted lens through which we view ourselves and the world. However, you can change how you think. You also are able to change your core beliefs and basic values. As you make these changes, you will be able to experience positive and lasting changes in your mood, outlook, productivity, and so much more in life.
We often don’t know that a thought is irrational until we understand the following 10 cognitive distortions:
1. All-or-nothing thinking
There is no “in between.” It’s completely one way or the other.
All-or-nothing thinking puts things into extremes or absolutes like black and white or good and bad. This distortion makes sweeping assumptions like, “I am right, and you are wrong.” This thinking can cause people to have difficulty accepting anything less than the best, set unrealistically high expectations of themselves or others, and have trouble acknowledging mistakes, among other thinking traps. [i] Watch out for the words always, never, everything, must, nothing, useless, awful, and totally.
Distortion: “Everyone hates me.”
Correction: “I do have some people who care about me.”
Distortion: “Some of the watercolors ran. My entire painting is ruined.”
Correction: “Even though some of my colors ran, I got the colors of my painting the way I wanted them. There is still beauty; one or two small flaws does not ruin the entire painting.”
Using limited factual evidence to hold a firm belief that actually is not true.
Individuals who overgeneralize tend to conclude that because something bad happened to them once or twice that it will repeatedly happen to them for their entire life. This distortion often holds hypothesis as fact rather than a hypothesis. Watch your vocabulary for always and never.
Distortion: “He never washes the dishes!”
Correction: “While it may not be as often as I like, he does occasionally wash the dishes.”
Distortion: “She didn’t want to go out with me. I’m never going to find a girl who will accept me and will be lonely for the rest of my life.”
Correction: “Just because she said no to going on date does not mean that all girls are like her; I am a respectable man and have a lot to offer.”
3. Mental filter
Singling out one aspect of a situation to the complete exclusion of others that should be considered.
A mental filter is like a sieve you perpetually pass events through as they are encountered. As a result, all events have meaning and context based off of past experience. Mental filters have a way of smudging, distorting, and obstructing our view of current and future experiences and can cause disappointment and make us afraid of creative, new approaches to experiencing life. Look intentionally and forcefully for evidence that supports a different way of thinking.
Distortion: “My boss’ review was full of criticism.”
Correction: “My boss gave me some positive feedback with areas to improve.”
Distortion: “My girlfriend is perfect.”
Correction: “She may do many things exceptionally, but she is still a human, just like me, and has areas to grow in.”
4. Mind reading
Having the certainty of knowing what another person is thinking without having to ask.
While being able to read the intentions of others is a useful social skill, there is risk involved. Most of us think we are way better at reading others than we actually are. It is very easy to jump to conclusions when we think we know what the other person is thinking, even though we haven’t stopped to verify ourselves. Did you know that women’s intuition is proven to be a myth? Even among those you know very well and are close to, such as a spouse, you will only be able to guess correctly up to 80% of the time.[ii] Listen to others and don’t make assumptions. Make note of what you think they are thinking, then ask them what they actually were thinking.
Distortion: “He should have known I was upset about that!”
Correction: “I cannot expect others to know what I am thinking.”
Distortion: “You’re only saying that because you feel bad for me.”
Correction: “I don’t actually know why she said that.”
5. Fortune teller error
Knowing that if THIS happens, THAT will definitely occur.
Have you ever been guilty of imagining the worst? Imaging the worst-case scenario can cast a doom and gloom mentality into our lives, create negative self-fulfilling prophecies, produce anxiety, and strain relationships. Do you ever worry about things that never actually happen? When you’re tempted to go down this distorted mental pathway, remind yourself of the mental outcome of past worries. Work on reminding yourself that you don’t really know what will happen. Try keeping track of how many times you’ve actually been right and how many times you were wrong.
Distortion: “I know he won’t do it because he will think it is too hard.”
Correction: “He may not have liked doing hard things in the past, but that doesn’t mean he won’t try this new challenge.”
Distortion: “I will probably just mess up and make a fool of myself.”
Correction: “I will do my best and be grateful for the opportunity to try.”
Majoring in minors and minoring in majors.
This distortion happens when you blow things out of proportion or diminish their true significance. Many individuals with magnification problems have a low frustration tolerance and they don’t believe that can stand discomfort, anxiety, anger, or depression. These can blow little things up to be much larger deals than they actually are. Watch out for HATs – the use of the words horrible, awful, and terrible. Replace these words with bad/inconvenient, unpleasant, and hassle. Changing your words can de-escalate emotions and reduce anxiety.[iii]
Distortion: “These new laws affecting my business are terrible!”
Correction: “I am frustrated by the extra challenge of these new laws, but I have the ability to work through the details so my business can succeed.”
Distortion: “I haven’t accomplished anything with my life since I’ve been in medical school!”
Correction: “The fact that I’m almost done with medical school is a huge accomplishment in and of itself. I don’t have to have gotten married or an amazing job to prove that I am accomplishing things with my life.”
You are totally responsible for the good or bad that happens to you.
This distortion happens with you blame yourself 100% for bad outcomes or give yourself all the credit for positive outcomes. Often personalization takes the shape of interpreting comments, questions, and behaviors of other people as attacks on your own self-esteem. As you find this distortion in your thinking, you’ll be less likely to get hurt and more likely to give others the benefit of the doubt.
Distortion: “That jerk just cut me off, I can’t believe she just did that to me!”
Correction: “She may not have been looking or has some sort of family emergency. Whatever the reason, she didn’t do it to make me mad.”
Distortion: “My son got in trouble at school again. I’m a failure as a parent.”
Correction: “While I have room for improvement as a parent, my son is responsible for his own actions.”
8. Emotional reasoning
Your feelings don’t lie.
This distortion is one primary reason why so many people don’t break addictive habits or change deleterious lifestyle habits. They feel unable to change, therefore they do not. Procrastination is also tied in with this cognitive distortion. Procrastinators allow their feelings to determine what they should or shouldn’t do. It’s easier to put off difficult tasks or decisions than face them. Work on identifying assumptions and consider what evidence you have for or against your emotions. Act on informed reasons rather than impulse.
Distortion: “I feel like eating a bowl of ice cream, so I will.”
Correction: “I want ice cream, but I don’t need it. I can drink some water and walk away from the kitchen instead.”
Distortion: “Cleaning the pantry is too overwhelming; I’m not in the mood to tackle it today.”
Correction: “The entire pantry may take some time, but I will do my best by beginning with the shelves closest to the door and see how much I get done in 30 minutes.”
Habitually defining ourselves or others with a descriptive term.
Mislabeling can lead to upset feelings, polarized relationships, damaged self-worth, and other negative consequences. Ask yourself if the label is true and completely accurate. If it is accurate, is there anything to be gained by using it? Are you labeling an error or a person? Is this label truly instructional, and does it allow for positive change?[iii]
Distortion: “A person is lazy if he doesn’t wash the dishes after he eats.”
Correction: “Washing dishes is not the definition of laziness.”
Distortion: “I’m such a disorganized person!”
Correction: “I could improve my organization skills.”
10. Disqualifying the positive
Acknowledging the good, appearing to be objective, but believing the good side has no value.
This distortion can suck you into a cycle of decreased self-worth and take the joy out of living. In fact, it can even decrease your motivation and accomplishments, causing depression. While “thinking positive thoughts” by can help, the best solution to this distortion is to believe the truth. Examine your attainable goals and keep positive consequences in mind rather than disqualifying them.
Distortion: “I made A’s on most of my exams, but I got one C. I am a bad student.”
Correction: “I try hard and study faithfully. I am doing my best.”
Distortion: “Giving up caffeine may have benefits, but those benefits will be worthless since I might have a headache for a few days.”
Correction: “Giving up caffeine will have a short-lasting downside, but the benefits will be worth the effort.”
It is worth mentioning that many of our distorted thoughts contain elements of more than one cognitive distortion. Becoming aware of what distortions are present in our thinking is the first step in learning how to combat our negative automatic and irrational thoughts. You can learn more about the ten distortions in The Lost Art of Thinking.
Dr. Nedley’s Depression & Anxiety Recovery Program™ describes the four steps to identifying and correcting thinking errors and negative automatic thoughts.
1. Hear your internal dialogue – what are you thinking?
2. Analyze your internal dialogue – identify which cognitive distortions are present.
3. Reconstruct your thinking – write true statements to replace distorted thoughts.
4. Practice, practice, practice. The more you practice, the easier it gets to eliminate distorted thinking.
These steps are a part of the choice psychotherapy used by the Nedley Depression & Anxiety Recovery Programs™, a therapy called cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). CBT follows structured steps to change thoughts. If you change your thoughts, you will naturally change your emotions and behaviors. Brain neuroplasticity allows people of any age to create new pathways as old thinking patterns are challenged and re-routed. CBT rewires the neural pathways of the brain, and it can normalize neural reactivity, such as among individuals with anxiety disorders. [iv]
Years of crooked thinking patterns intertwined with emotions and behavioral responses take time and effort to change, but the process is rewarding. We will uncover more about how CBT works and how to combat cognitive distortions in coming posts, but the information in this post is sufficient to get you started.
Learn the cognitive distortions. Download a list of the ten distortions and definitions.
Stop. Sit down. Think.
What are you telling yourself? What words are you speaking? How would you describe the thoughts and beliefs in your mind about yourself, situations, others? Take the time to assess your thinking.
Look for cognitive distortions in your thinking.
Next month we will focus more about how to take distorted thoughts and turn them into true, accurate, helpful, rational thoughts. Replacing lies and misbeliefs with truths that build ourselves and others up is incredibly rewarding and liberating. The process begins today as you take the time to contemplate the thoughts going through your mind.
About the author:
Cami Martin, MPH, is the assistant director for the residential Nedley Depression & Anxiety Recovery Program and the assistant manager for Nedley Health Solutions (NHS) and Nedley Clinic. She also works as the director and trainer for the community-based health education program, Optimize Your Brain™, and a trainer for the 8-week Nedley Depression & Anxiety Recovery Program™. Cami works closely with all NHS programs to continually enhance and expand each program.
[i] Nedley, Neil. (2016). Optimize Your Brain.
[ii] Ickles, W. Everyday Mind Reading: Understanding What Other People Think and Feel. Amherst, NY. Prometheus Books, 2003.
[iii] Nedley, Neil. (2014). The Lost Art of Thinking.
[iv] Månsson, K. N., Salami, A., et al. (2016). Neuroplasticity in response to cognitive behavior therapy for social anxiety disorder. Retrieved July 30, 2019, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26836415