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Identifying Your Cognitive Distortions

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Cognitive distortions are like bottomless mimosa brunches. They always seem like a good idea but usually land you crumpled in a pile on your bathroom floor wondering why you sent those last few texts.

Plainly stated, cognitive distortions are the way our thoughts warp reality. And when our reality is warped, so are our feelings and behaviors. So, we must learn to identify our distorted thinking before we end up in “you’re-a-failure-ville” or some other unpleasant destination. We all struggle with these distorted patterns of thinking. But we don’t have to let them take us down like that mimosa brunch. By becoming aware of our tendencies, we can catch ourselves in the act and start to dispute our thoughts.

First things first we need to determine which cognitive distortions are your kryptonite. To get you started I’ve listed the 10 most common cognitive distortions that I see in my practice. So check them out and see which are your most common culprits. Then you’ll know what to look out for and when you catch yourself in the act you can say “Gotcha! There you go ‘mind reading’ again.”

Next we need to remind ourselves that thoughts are not facts, they are just hypotheses. And what do you do with a hypothesis? Investigate it! You can start by asking yourself some of these questions: Is there really evidence to support this belief? What is it? Is it possible that my “evidence” is just the result of some of my own behaviors which spawned from my own distorted thinking? And what might be some alternate explanations for what is happening?

So get to work identifying and challenging those distorted thoughts. Oh, and stay away from the mimosas…


1.) ALL-OR-NOTHING THINKING: You see things in black-and-white categories and absolutes (always, never, every). For example, if your performance falls short of perfect, you see yourself as a total failure.

2.) OVERGENERALIZATION: You see a single negative event as a never-ending pattern of defeat. E.g., “My wife yelled at me when she came home last night. She must be unhappy in the marriage”

3.) 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 discolors the entire glass of water.

4.) DISQUALIFYING THE POSITIVE: You reject positive experiences by insisting they “don’t count” for some reason or other. You write them off to chance or luck. In this way you can maintain a negative belief that is contradicted by your everyday experiences. Michelle, who is upset about the 5 problems she missed on the test and ignores the 95 she got right. Another example: the woman who, when evaluating her performance as a mother, refuses to include the fact that she gets her kids to school on time every day as evidence that she’s a good mother because “I’m supposed to do that.”

5.) JUMPING TO CONCLUSIONS: You make a negative interpretation even though there are no definite facts that convincingly support your conclusion. Below are examples of two different types of this distortion.

5A.) MIND READING: You arbitrarily conclude that someone is reacting negatively to you, and you don’t bother to check this out. You assume you know what the other person is thinking or feeling, without any evidence. E.g. My boss is thinking that I’m a terrible employee and is contemplating firing me.

5B.) FORTUNE TELLING: You anticipate that things will turn out badly, and you feel convinced that your prediction is an already-established fact. This is often a problem because the view of the present is distorted and the view of the future then becomes distorted as well. E.g., “I got a C on the first test of the semester, I know I’m going to fail this course.” Or, “That date didn’t go well. I’ll never find a life partner.”

6.) MAGNIFICATION (CATASTROPHIZING) OR MINIMIZATION: You exaggerate the importance of things (such as your goof-up or someone else’s achievement), or you inappropriately shrink things until they appear tiny (your own desirable qualities or other’s imperfections). This is also called the “binocular trick.”

7.) EMOTIONAL REASONING: You assume that your negative emotions necessarily reflect the way things really are: “I feel it, therefore it must be true.”

8.) SHOULD STATEMENTS: The error of translating one’s wishes and preferences into moral imperatives for oneself and others. E.g., “She should be on time for meetings with me. If she’s not, she’s not a responsible professional person.” Or, “People should drive courteously and if they don’t they shouldn’t be allowed to drive.” Or, “I should always be on time.”

9.) LABELING AND MISLABELING: This is an extreme form of overgeneralization. Instead of describing your error, you attach a negative label to yourself. “I’m a loser.” When someone else’s behavior rubs you the wrong way, you attach a negative label to him” “He’s a horrible person.” Mislabeling involves describing an event with language that is highly colored and emotionally loaded.

10.) PERSONALIZATION: You see your self as the cause of some negative external event, which in fact you were not primarily responsible for. e.g. You believe that your partner cheats because you are not attractive enough or that the host of the dinner party overcooks the meal because you were late.

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