What is Cognitive Distortion?

Published By: Kate

Have you ever had a negative thought?  A thought that you weren’t good enough?  That no matter how hard you try it doesn’t matter?  Those are negative thoughts and that is cognitive distortion.

Cognitive distortions are simply ways that our mind convinces us of something that isn’t really true. These inaccurate thoughts are usually used to reinforce negative thinking or emotions — telling ourselves things that sound rational and accurate, but really only serve to keep us feeling bad about ourselves. (Grohol, John M. 15 Common Cognitive Distortions, PsychCentral.com, 2018).

Sometimes you may not even know that your mind is doing this.  Particularly if this type of thinking has been going on for a prolonged period of time.

There are several different variations to Cognitive Distortions.  Most of the resources I located list ten aspects that are considered common:

  1. Dichotomous Thinking (All Or Nothing).
    1. This type of thinking leaves no room for compromise or middle ground.  Everything is either black or white.  If something isn’t perfect it is deemed a total failure. (Inner Space Team, Cognitive Distortion: Reeling You In, March 31, 2017).
  2. Catastrophizing or Magnifying.
    1. Have you ever thought the worst-case scenario about a situation? Or have you ever blown something out of proportion?  Made something seem more serious than it really was?  That is what Catastrophizing or Magnifying is according to Psych in 60 Seconds.
    2. The opposite of this is Minimizing which is also an aspect of Cognitive Distortion.
  3. Blaming or Personalization.
    1. The website, Everyday Health lists Blaming as blaming “…yourself for something you weren’t entirely responsible for or you blame other people and overlook ways that you contributed to the problem.”
    2. Having a one-sided perspective on a situation.  That is to say, you fail to look at a tense relationship from both sides (Dr. Alice Boyes, Psychology Today, 2018).
  4. Fortune Telling and Mindreading (Jumping to Conclusions).
    1. With this type of thinking it is believed that emotions about a person or situation are, in fact, the reality of the event (Inner Space Team, Cognitive Distortion: Reeling You In, March 31, 2017).
  5. Should Statements.
    1. Criticism of oneself or others.  Often the terms “should have” or “could have” are used. (Everyday Health, 10 Cognitive Distortions, 2016).
  6. Mental Filtering/Filtering/Selective Abstraction.
    1.  An individual with this thinking pattern tends to selectively pay attention only to the negatives in an event, person or situation and dwells on those instead of considering the positives too and looking at the larger picture. This may also be seen where one detail or aspect of a situation is emphasized leaving the other aspects blurred and in the background (Inner Space Team, Cognitive Distortion: Reeling You In, March 31, 2017).

  7. Overgeneralization & Perfectionism.
    1. Everything has to be perfect in all aspects of life.  Any negative event or situation is a never-ending pattern of defeat (Everyday Health, 10 Cognitive Distortions, 2016).
  8. Emotional Reasoning.
    1. You assume that your negative emotions necessarily reflect the way things really are: “I feel terrified about going on airplanes. It must be very dangerous to fly.” Or “I feel guilty. I must be a rotten person.” Or “I feel angry. This proves I’m being treated unfairly.” Or “I feel so inferior. This means I’m a second-rate person.” Or “I feel hopeless. I must really be hopeless.” (The Pennsylvania Child Wealthfare Resource Center, Managing the Impact of Traumatic Stress on the Child Welfare Professional).

  9. Discounting the Positives.
    1. Similar to minimizing anything good in an event isn’t given a high priority (Inner Space Team, Cognitive Distortion: Reeling You In, March 31, 2017).
    2. According to a Pennsylvania Child Welfare handout, called Managing the Impact of Traumatic Stress on the Child Welfare Professional, discounting the positives positive experiences are rejected because the subject can or will insist that “don’t count’
  10. Labeling Or Cognitive Labeling.
    1. Psychology Today indicates that labeling is putting a ‘label’ or judgment on someone without any evidence or information to support this opinion.
    2. This can also be done to oneself.  An example of this on the Everyday Health website indicates that “Instead of saying, ‘I made a mistake,’ you tell yourself, ‘I’m a jerk’ or ‘I’m a loser’.”

While reading this I bet you thought to yourself “Yup I totally do that” or “I know someone who does this!”  You would be correct to have those thoughts.  I know several people who have conducted one or several of these characteristics of Cognitive Distortion–I, myself, have several of these traits in my personality–but this does not mean that every person has a diagnosed mental health illness.

There is some more in-depth analysis that would be required to diagnose a single thought as full-on Cognitive Distortion.  Personally, I believe, that every person has some sort of negative thought at some point in their life that could fall into any one of these categories.  I would assume that it would require more persistent negative thoughts and thoughts that affect a person’s quality of life greatly that would be the basis for a diagnosable condition associated with cognitive distortion.

What mental illnesses are associated with cognitive distortion?

Would you be surprised if I said cognitive distortion is common amongst those who are suffering from depression?  I didn’t think you would be.  Depression is the most common mental illness that I was able to link with cognitive distortion (this is where I remind you that I am not a doctor nor a mental health professional) through my research.

Doctor Allan N. Schwartz indicated in his article titled Cognitive Distortion, also known as, regarding a study that was conducted at Ohio State University:

[What the] study showed was that depressed and non depressed people were equal in their ability to learn negative information. However, depressed people were far less capable of learning positive information. The study clearly showed that depressed people showed a bias against positive information. Everyone seems to remember negative events but those who are depressed have an easier time retaining the negative events.

Now depressed people can mean anyone who has experienced some sort of trauma.  For example: when a loved one passes away the family often goes through a depression or mourning because of the loved one’s death.  Another example would be when Katy Perry struggled with situational depression.  From what I gathered reading the sample of Dr. Schwartz article is that a person who is in a depressive mindstate will focus and remember all the negative attributes of an event (this thinking falls in an aspect of cognitive distortion, i.e. Discounting the Positive, Filtering, Minimizing, Catastrophizing).

Cognitive distortion can also be associated with anxiety and or stress.  Toni Bernhard J.D. discusses this topic in her article, How Distorted Thinking Increases Stress and Anxiety, published in Psychology Today.  In her article, Bernhard discusses how the book helped her cope with her own struggles; it also assisted her in identifying when her students had emotional struggles at UC Davis.  The best thing about this article is the suggestions that Bernhard includes for each item.  I found them interesting and may try them out if and when I identify myself thinking in one of these categories.

If anyone has a comment, idea, thought on cognitive distortion reach out to me! I would love to hear them!

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