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Common cognitive distortions and how to stop them

Our ideas inform our reality. This can be a blessing, but is more often a curse. Indeed, if we were to dive into our minds and have a good hard look at the ideas and expectations rooted within, we’d most likely find a tonne of unhelpful, outdated, irrational assumptions and negative self-talk that too often wield too much power over us. In the cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) tradition, these are referred to as cognitive distortions, or cognitive errors.

These forms of self-criticism can be conscious and quite obvious to us - we know we’re doing it, we can hear ourselves saying things like ‘oh my god I’m such a loser, me’ or ‘you’ll never amount to anything, buddy’ or ‘of course this had to happen, I’ve got the worst luck in the world’. This type of conscious negative self-talk is bad enough, but what’s worse is when it’s so automatic and unconscious that we don’t realize that we’re doing it in the first place. The havoc that brutal, over-exaggerated and bullying forms of self-critique have on us when we aren’t aware of them is, perhaps, the biggest cause of mental health problems today. For this, it is vital that we push for more critical thinking, introspection and self-reflection in a society such as ours.

According to CBT, life is an interconnected experiential triangle of thoughts, feelings and behaviours, all interconnected, all influencing each other. And though we can infiltrate this triangle at any corner to influence the other parts, it is by considering our thoughts where so much of our power lies: shaping our experience of life lies in our ability to craft our philosophies and wire and re-wire our brains. This is good news to those that might consider that they are powerless to change who they are. It’s great news for people that mistakenly think all our assumptions and expectations about life are hardwired and impermeable to change.

So what are these common cognitive distortions? One that gives people a lot of grief is called ‘personalizing’. This is when a person falsely believes that everything others do or say is some kind of direct and personal reaction or affront to their person. A bird craps on your head and you think that God or the universe is punishing you because of something you did. Or some stranger that's in front of you, deep in thought about a struggling relationship perhaps, doesn’t hold the door open for you and you assume it’s because you’re a weird outcast that no one wants to help out or have anything to do with at all. Not only can this unhelpful and irrational way of thinking lead to crippling self-doubt and self-loathing, it’s almost always inaccurate: other people don’t care about our mistakes and perceived short-comings as much as we fear they do. It’s easy for us humans to lose perspective and see life through these types of tainted lenses.

Another common cognitive error is referred to as ‘catastrophizing’ – when we expect disaster around every corner, or tend to exaggerate the importance of relatively insignificant events or mistakes we make. There are many cognitive distortions - we over-generalize, ignore the evidence, are prone to black and white thinking, we jump to conclusions, we blame, we maximize the negative and minimize the positive in any given situation; these are just some of the distortions that make for a skewed view of life. And this is truly dangerous; if we aren't careful, these irrational and bullying cognitive errors burrow themselves deep into our core beliefs, or 'schemas', and firmly root themselves there.

All is not lost, thankfully. Knowing which distortions we are prone to thinking is the first step in having the ability to stop them from having too much power over us. In fact, for most people, the very act of noting these distortions when they happen creates more of a space or distance between themselves and the distorted though, which leads to more manageable emotional reactions and healthier behaviour in the individual. For some people, the awareness of the distortion is enough to end their terrible reign upon our existences. But for most of us, it’s not quite so simple and dramatic; it takes patience, practice and persistence to change our perspective, rethink our philosophies, and rewire our brains.

But the news is good. With effort, we become better and better at homing in on the automatic thoughts that are rooting our cognitive distortions, and hence become better at seeing them for the falsities that they are. Once exposed and investigated, we are better able to challenge them and update them with more helpful reasonable assumptions and philosophies upon which to live our lives. Perhaps it's time we all looked inward and made sure our ideas about life are well considered and our own.


[There are many tools that CBT practitioners use to help this process along. Thought records or journaling, interoceptive exposure, playing the script to the end, and alternative fact finding are all examples. Read more and download free materials by clicking here]

Will Groenewegen

Registered Psychotherapist

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