By Pierre Mouchette | Bits-n-Pieces
Have you ever been told that you think in black and white or that you leap to the worst possible conclusions? These negative thinking patterns are called cognitive distortions. These patterns develop in childhood or adulthood, but most often during stress. Fortunately, there are strategies you can use to overcome them and turn negative thoughts into less distressing ones.
What causes cognitive distortion?
We do not know for sure how people develop cognitive distortions. For some, these negative thinking patterns could have started in childhood. A child whose parent frequently labels other people might grow into an adult who labels others. For other people, the negative thinking patterns could be tied to depression. Some experts believe that distorted thinking is the root cause of depression. Cognitive distortions are also common among those who have anxiety disorders such as social anxiety.
One study suggests that people may develop cognitive distortions to cope with stressful situations. The longer a person faces the stressor, the more likely they will build unhelpful ways of thinking. Keep in mind that occasional cognitive distortion is usual for most people. It is human nature to think things like “I should have run the meeting” or “Why do they have all the luck?” It becomes a problem when they happen repeatedly rather than every once in a while. They can also become harmful when they cause significant distress.
Why are cognitive distortions harmful?
Cognitive distortions can impact your physical and mental health by:
Types of cognitive distortions and examples
Cognitive distortions can appear in many ways.
The following are some examples:
All-or-nothing thinking - There is a reason all-or-nothing thinking is also called black-and-white thinking. This type of thinking has two extreme conclusions and does not consider the range of possibilities.
Always being right - This thinking pattern does not consider other people’s thoughts or ideas. You prioritize proving you are right rather than looking for the truth or listening to someone else’s viewpoints.
Blaming - This happens when you wrongly assign blame to yourself or others when things go wrong. An example is blaming a cop for your speeding ticket.
Catastrophizing - This happens when you make the worst possible predictions based on little to no evidence. You may think, “I bet my headaches mean I have brain cancer.”
Control fallacies - A control fallacy can show up in two ways. You may believe you have no control or complete control over your situation. Someone with control fallacies may feel they are helpless. On the other hand, some people with control fallacies believe they have complete control and are responsible for everyone else’s happiness.
Emotional reasoning - When you believe your emotions reflect reality and use them to guide decisions or draw conclusions. For example, you make a mistake, feel bad about the error, and feel bad about yourself for making it.
Labeling - When you label yourself or someone else, you focus on past behavior. You may conclude, for example, that someone is lazy because they showed up late to work one morning. Or you tell yourself you are irresponsible because you forgot where you left your keys.
Mental filtering - Have you ever enjoyed an entire evening with a friend, but they said one thing that hurt you, and it became all you could think about? That is mental filtering. You dismiss all the good between you and your friend and focus on the bad.
Mind reading - It is when you assume you know what someone else is thinking. Often, mind reading leads to believing that others have negative thoughts about you.
Minimizing the positive - Do you dismiss good things that happen to you? If you won an award or a promotion, did you think someone else deserved it? If so, those are examples of minimizing the positive.
Overgeneralization - This is when you take something that happened once and apply it to all other events.
Personalization - When you personalize something, you believe it is all your fault.
Should statements - People who make “should” statements believe things are supposed to happen a certain way.
The fallacy of fairness - People who believe that all things in life should be based on equality and fairness may resent what they consider unfair. This is the fallacy of fairness. They may resent people who make more money, have happier marriages, or live in nicer homes than them because they believe they deserve those things, too. They may also resent people who are not “punished” for “wrongdoing.”
How do you stop cognitive distortions?
Cognitive behavioral therapy strategies can help you overcome cognitive distortions. The following are a few to get started:
Reframing - When you reframe, you change a negative thought into a more realistic one. Instead of thinking, “I will never get over my breakup,” say, “Some days may be hard, but eventually they will get easier, and I will move on with my life.”
Journaling - Write down negative thoughts and then reflect on what you wrote. Ask yourself, “What story am I telling?” Challenge any cognitive distortions you identify.
Looking for evidence - Consider that your thinking may not fit the facts. For example, if you think someone else deserves your promotion, remember your hard work, extra hours, and successful projects. Permit yourself to embrace your promotion.
Countering - It involves working towards a more balanced and flexible way of thinking. Say you tend to catastrophize. Consider what would happen in a worst-case scenario. Then, remember similar situations and how you managed and recovered in the past.
Talking compassionately to yourself - Sometimes, we are our worst critics. Instead of getting down on yourself, talk to yourself like you would a friend. If a friend said, “I am always messing up,” you would probably point out all the ways they do not mess up. Do the same to yourself. This is also called self-compassion.
When to talk to a mental health specialist
If you think you are struggling with cognitive distortions and they are affecting your physical or mental health, you may want to seek professional help. A mental health therapist or counselor can help you process unhealthy thinking patterns and recommend treatment.
Often, cognitive distortions are treated with cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). CBT is a type of psychotherapy that focuses on changing negative thinking patterns. Many therapists use CBT to help their clients with cognitive distortions.
To find a CBT therapist near you:
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