In my last post we talked about the Cognitive-Behavioral model and how events are not the cause of our feelings and behaviors. Instead, it’s our automatic thoughts that influence what we feel and do in reaction to an event. We talked about how automatic negative thoughts can be reflections of, and ultimately strengthen negative core beliefs. Finally, we talked about how even positive thoughts, thoughts that could disprove our core belief, either bounce off of or are distorted to fit that belief.
In this post I’ll talk a bit more about what I mean by distortion. Let’s start by talking about visual distortions. Have you ever been in a fun house at the fair? Or maybe you’re familiar with the term “fun house mirror”? As you stand in front of a mirror with a warp or a bend in it, you get a very distorted view of your reflection. You may be average weight and average height, but through a distorted mirror you appear to be much taller, or much wider. This view of yourself isn’t at all what you actually look like. It’s a result of a “flaw” in the mirror. Cognitive (thinking) distortions function in exactly the same way. The obvious difference is that they aren’t visible. They’re a product of habits in thinking that we have developed. They can feel very true even though they aren’t. Imagine if every mirror you ever looked in was distorted to make you look heavier than you are. You’d end up believing that you’re over-weight, or unhealthy, or any number of negative things when in fact, you’re nothing of the sort. The good news is, just as you can develop bad habits in thinking, you can develop good ones too. Perhaps it may help to think of thinking as a skill much like driving or cooking or anything else. The more you practice good habits, the better at it you get.
If you search for cognitive distortions on the internet you’ll find several lists with different names. The truth is, they all point back to the same type of thought habits. Presented here are the cognitive distortions from The Feeling Good Handbook by Dr. David D. Burns. I highly recommend you pick up a copy and read it!
All-or-nothing thinkers categorize strictly. Results or behaviors are either all good or all bad. When something falls short of perfect it becomes a total failure. For example, maybe a man starts a new workout but misses a day. Instead of thinking “No problem. I’ll just hit the gym tomorrow”, he thinks “I’ve blown it”, followed by “screw it” and he orders a large milk shake.
One negative event is perceived as symbolic of an endless pattern of failure. Perhaps a bad first date becomes “I’ll never find the right one.” I know I’ve found myself thinking “I always hit all the red lights when I’m in a hurry!” It’s not hard to imagine the negative emotions that these types of thoughts might bring. Thoughts based in this distortion usually contain the words “never” or “always”.
Someone with a mental filter distortion focuses on one negative detail to the exclusion of all other evidence. This focus darkens their mood, produces anxiety, and harsh self-judgment. The phrase “beating yourself up” comes to mind. A student gives a presentation in class but stammers when she forgets a key fact. Later she receives praise from her teacher on her strong research and good presentation skills. Almost as an afterthought the teacher mentions “perhaps focusing on memorizing facts a bit more” as useful feedback to help the student improve. The student hears none of the praise and focuses on the negative feedback fearing that the teacher doesn’t like her, or that her grade will suffer, or that she’s “no good at anything”.
Discounting the Positive
Did you get a raise or praise for a job well done? Someone with this distortion would discount the evidence of their mastery with a thought like “Everybody probably got a raise.” Did you pass a test or get a good grade on an assignment and think “Anyone could do what I did.” Discounting the positive can really suck the joy and color out of life.
Jumping to Conclusions
You interpret things negatively without any evidence to support your interpretation. There are two “subtypes” of this distortion.
- Mind Reading: You know what other people are thinking, and it’s always something negative. You know this even though you haven’t spoken with them or verified your conclusion in any way.
- Fortune-telling: You just “know” that things are going to turn out badly. “This plane is going to crash!” but the plane is still at the gate. “I’m going to fail the test!” may produce anxiety while “I’m never going to get anything right” may produce feelings of depression.
Also known as maximizing and minimizing, you magnify your shortcomings while minimizing your desirable qualities. Dr. Burns refers to this as the “binocular trick”. The idea is if you look through a pair of binoculars the right way at all of your shortcomings and deficiencies. Then you flip them around and look through them the wrong way, shrinking all of your strengths and virtues until they’re microscopic.
Someone who reasons emotionally assumes that their emotions are the same as objective evidence. “I feel guilty or ashamed, therefore I’m a bad person.” Or “She dumped me and I’m sad, I must be worthless.” Or “I’m so angry I can’t see straight. This is proof that I was treated terribly.” Feelings are not facts. Facts are objective truths that can be measured and observed. Facts exist whether they make us feel good or not. For instance, Jupiter orbits the sun every 4,332 `days. Jupiter doesn’t care how I feel about that, and how I feel about that will never affect Jupiter’s orbit. All our feelings tell us is how we feel, a subjective experience. They provide no proof of anything other than the feeling itself.
You tell yourself that things should measure up to the way you expected them to turn out. For example, a wife expects her husband to mow the lawn on Saturday but he never gets around to do it. She tells herself “He should have gone out there and mowed the lawn! Why is he being so lazy?” Alternatively, she could say “I should have just gone out there and done it myself. I’m so lazy!” Usually when the should statement is directed at oneself, the resulting emotion is frustration and shame. If it’s directed at other people, the emotion is usually frustration and anger. Shouldn’t is just as big a culprit “I shouldn’t have eaten that quart of ice-cream.” etc. It seems like many people think the best way to motivate themselves and others are with should statements. Paradoxically, shaming actually increases the likely hood of the behavior repeating. So shoulds, shouldn’ts, musts, oughts and have-tos are all in the same boat.
Labeling takes overgeneralization and ups the ante. Instead of saying to yourself “I didn’t get the job” you say “I’m such a loser!” Instead of saying “that person is having a bad day.” I say “what an a-hole.” Labeling is irrational. All of us know from our own experience in life that we can do and say dumb things, perhaps things we regret, but it’s an overgeneralization to equate what we do with who we are. Forgive the use of curse words, but telling oneself “I’m a piece of shit” takes everything that person is from the time they were born until now and equates everything they have ever done or said or dreamed or hoped to excrement. Does that seem even remotely reasonable? Of course not.
Personalization and Blame
Personalization takes place when someone takes responsibility for something that is outside of their control. When a child misbehaves we think “I’m a bad parent. This never would have happened if I hadn’t been at work so much.” Sometimes personalization can become so extreme that one blames themselves for enormous tragedies like an earthquake. “I had a feeling something bad was going to happen and I didn’t do anything at all to save all those people.” Even people who aren’t psychotic can have extreme feelings of guilt as a result of personally taking responsibility for enormous problems that are well out of their control.
Blame is the opposite of personalization in that it projects problems onto other people. Those that blame do so to avoid the pain of thinking about how they might be contributing to their own problems. Of course, the people they are blaming don’t like this much and blame the blamer. This can result in a seemingly endless cycle of recrimination and anger .
This may sound sadistic, you’ll just have to take my word for it that it isn’t. When I share this list with others I enjoy watching the look of surprise and recognition on their faces. I can’t think of a time when someone has said “I don’t do any of those.” Obviously I don’t enjoy their pain, but rather the recognition that other human beings just like them experience painful and inaccurate thoughts to such a degree that someone has studied them and described them. They often feel as though someone has read their minds. I assure them that this isn’t the case but the fact that they experience these thought distortions makes them very much human and part of a common experience. We all experience thought distortions. The trick is knowing how to dispute them!
I’ve posted a lot of information over the last few weeks. I can certainly understand if it’s hard to keep everything straight. To help remedy that, next week I’ll focus on a completely fabricated case conceptualization of a young man. You’ll be able to see how all the pieces fit and hopefully be better able to catch yourself thinking and believing things that have no evidence and that make you feel terrible. Sometimes just knowing these things can alleviate suffering.
What Everybody Ought To Know About Anxiety: