Without our minds we would not get very far in life; it guides us in knowing what to say and do, it helps us recognize and solve problems and protects us from danger, but for some reason our minds can create faulty connections that automatically skew our thoughts towards negativity. This makes us believe, say or do things that are detrimental to our own wellbeing. Psychologists define them as thinking errors, or cognitive distortions, and they are heavily prevalent in people with anxiety and depression.
Cognitive behavioral therapy is based on the concept that as we experience the world we create mental representations of what the world is, called schemas, which ultimately determine how we think, feel and behave. Unfortunately, these mental representations can sometimes be wrong or faulty, which leads us to act in ways that aren't in our best interest.
Whilst there are many ways your mind can distort reality, below is a list of the most common cognitive distortions you may have experienced before.
A mental filter describes a tendency to only focus on one specific detail rather than the entire context that goes along with it, which ignores a lot of important information. Solely focusing on negativity gives a very distorted view on reality and can lead to feelings of depression and anxiety.
This refers to reaching a conclusion based on one singular event and applying it to multiple situations. For example, an individual who has a panic attack in a large shopping mall might conclude that all shopping malls will cause them to have a panic attack and as a result will avoid all shopping malls.
This type of thinking error categorizes information into two groups; good or bad/ black or white, without considering any shades of grey. For example, someone may write an essay and because they didn't get full marks they automatically believe that it was a bad essay. A more realistic and truthful thought is that it was an average essay, so they shouldn't be so hard on themselves. This type of cognitive distortion is likely to frequently occur when individuals are used to making quick decisions where time is crucial.
This distortion causes people to fear that the worst will happen when dealing with the unknown. Without knowing exactly what is happening someone may jump to the worst possible conclusions and be convinced that it will happen without having evidence to support their theory. An example of this is not getting a text back from a friend and assuming that they hate you.
Whilst it may seem like a hysterical reaction this is something a lot of people who've dealt with trauma frequently experience. If someone has grown up around traumatic events their schemas would automatically tell them to believe that the worst case scenario is happening as its consistent with their past experiences.
Personalization is a cognitive distortion that refers to taking everything other people say and do personally. This person may constantly think that what other people do is a response to something they have done. E.g, if a person you're speaking to looks bored you might assume you're boring them. Whereas, it's more likely that they are feeling tired or struggling to focus and that their body language is not in response to you.
As a result they may also feel solely or wrongly responsible for problematic events and are likely to experience false guilt, which is a trait that others may take advantage of to shift their responsibilities to someone with personalization tendencies.
Emotional reasoning is a thinking error whereby we assume our feelings are rational and therefore will react accordingly, e.g. assuming that if you feel lonely then you must be alone.
This type of thinking can manifest as an obsessive compulsion, whereby a person who feels dirty will frequently shower even though there isn't enough time to get dirty in between showers.
Disqualifying the positive
This type of cognitive distortion refers to automatically filtering out and disregarding positive experiences and instead focusing on the negatives. Someone receiving great feedback on a project may disregard all positive comments and praise after reading a single negative comment, which leads to holding a very biased view on a situation.
Control Fallacies relate to holding an extreme belief of either internal or external control.
An internal control fallacy means perceiving that your own actions determine and control your life to the point that you'll take responsibility for what other people are going through.
Whereas an external control fallacy relates to believing that you are controlled by external factors, such as other people, the government, educational systems, and luck. This distortion can lead people to believe that they are a victim of fate and completely unable to do anything that matters.
Labelling refers to making a judgement about yourself or someone else on who they are as a person based on a certain behavior, rather than seeing them as separate from their actions. For example someone may label themselves as incredibly anxious and unable to manage social situations and allow that to define who they are. People are more than their thoughts, feelings and actions, so by only seeing people in terms of a specific behavior you're unable to make a fair judgement.
If you are concerned that your perception of reality may be distorted by negative thinking errors, don't worry, you're not the only one and there are still plenty of things you can do.
The first and most important step in preventing irrational thoughts is by being aware of them. Begin by examining all the thoughts you are having and notice which thoughts cause you to feel distressed, these are the ones you should write down. Then one by one go through the list and consider whether any of them may be influenced by cognitive distortions.
Once you're aware of your cognitive distortions, start to analyze your thoughts with evidence and reason to see how likely they are to be true. Widen your thought process and find more evidence to challenge your thoughts by;
After challenging your thoughts you can now consider alternative explanations that are more realistic and beneficial. You can do this by making a list of all the outcomes that are more likely to happen. If you struggle with this think about what you would say to a close friend who is experiencing the same thoughts, how might you explain it to them?
If you are still worried or unable to manage your negative thoughts on your own don't be afraid to reach out and ask for help. By speaking to your doctor you can find out what your options are. They may put you in touch with a psychotherapist or talk to you about whether cognitive behavioral therapy is right for you.
Remember, you don't have to deal with this on your own.
Thank you to Aleksandr Ledogorov for the image.