Cognitive distortions

Something I often hear in my office is, "am I normal?" Some people get really angry and judgemental with themselves for having thoughts that are irrational or illogical, and to that I say, quit it! It is very 'normal' (and inevitable) to sometimes have patterns of thought that don't make sense.

What kind of thoughts am I talking about? Here are some examples:

"I just had a fight with my girlfriend; our relationship must be over."

“My boss didn’t seem interested during my presentation; she must hate my work.”

“I failed my entrance exam; I guess I’m not cut out for this.”

“I’m feeling sad; I must be weak.” 

“My mom is sick; something bad is going to happen.”  

It is my pleasure to tell you that having thoughts like these is 100% normal!  You don’t have to have a psychological diagnosis to have irrational thoughts. All high-functioning adults have distorted thoughts from time to time and the sooner you accept this, the better! We cannot expect that our minds and bodies will react seamlessly and logically to every-and-all of life’s situations forever more. We will all experience, what we psychologists call, cognitive distortions (also known as limited thinking patterns).

When I teach my students and clients about distortions, I sometimes mistakenly assume that everyone is aware of their cognitive distortions and that everyone accepts the existence of distorted thining. I sometimes forget that an introduction to, and explanation of, limited thinking patterns is necessary. So here goes:

Cognitive distortions are patterns of limited thinking. In triggering situations, our minds evaluate, assess, and conclude in ways that may not reflect reality. For example, we may jump to inaccurate conclusions (“my boyfriend didn’t kiss me goodbye, he wants to break up”), or personalize social interactions (“it’s my fault my colleague is upset today”), or excessively focus on the negative (“I failed this last math test and all of my other good grades don’t matter anymore”). An important thing to consider before determining that you have a pattern of limited thinking is to ask yourself how often you exhibit this pattern. If you rarely take things personally for example, or if you rarely overestimate negative outcomes, you do not have a habitual cognitive distortion. However, if you consistently resort to a particular distortion of reality, it’s time to consider that you are engaging in a pattern of thought that does not serve you!

When my clients initially discover limited thinking, in a general sense and in a personal sense, they often exhibit an interest in reading through the list of cognitive distortions. I’ll provide a list below. (Important references to consider here are Beck (1964) and Burns (1980). These readings are classic and include the fundamentals of cognitive distortions and cognitive restructuring.)

All-or-Nothing Thinking: “Do it right, or not at all.” “If I’m not perfect, I’ve failed.”  “My boss is either kind or he is mean.” This is a type of black or white thinking that is not healthy. If you engage in this type of thinking, it will be important that you begin understanding and accepting the abundance of options that exist in the grey zone.

Filtering: Only noticing a certain type of outcome. For example: only remember bad evaluation and ignoring all previous positive evaluations of your work. 

Jumping to Conclusions: Assuming to know things without proof or verification. This distortion includes: Mind Reading: Assuming to know what people are thinking, and Fortune Telling: Claiming to know what the future holds often overestimating the likelihood of a particular outcome (often overestimating a negative outcome).   

Catastrophizing: Assuming that something catastrophic will happen.  Often times, individuals with generalized anxiety disorder hold this type of thinking. Feeling unsafe and being afraid of the unknown are common characteristics of individuals who have this distortion.   

Emotional Reasoning: Assuming that you ARE what you are feeling. “I am feeling stupid therefore I must be stupid.” 

Personalization: Put simply, personalization is taking things personally. “My girlfriend didn’t want to have sex last night, I must have done something wrong or she must no longer be attracted to me.” Individuals who take things personally in a consistent fashion must realize that not everything is about them. Other people are often too concerned with their own stuff to relentlessly point the finger at you.

Should-ing: There is a lame therapist joke that advises clients to stop “should-ing” all over themselves. When you have exceptionally high standards for yourself that are not reasonable, you will often hold yourself accountable in meeting those standards: “I should do three hours of homework a night,” or “I should work through my lunch hour,” or “I should get the best grade in the class,” are all examples that you might be “should-ing” aka pushing yourself too hard. Your work will be about decreasing perfectionism and increasing self-worth, self-compassion and acceptance.    

If this intrigues you, I encourage you to read this over a few times and research cognitive distortions on your own. I can’t tell you how liberating it is to uncover your unhealthy thinking patterns and create a goal to work on them with self-help tools or with the help of your social support and/or therapist. Once you become a pseudo-expert, you will also begin seeing the cognitive distortions of those around you. As a result, you will have a better understanding of the ones you love and a more informed conflict-resolution style.

Beck, A. T. (1964). Thinking and depression. Archives of General Psychiatry, 10, 561-571. 

Burns, D. (1980). Feeling good: the new mood therapy. New York: Morrow

Anna-Maria Tosco, or our Sassy Psychologist, has two masters degrees in the field of psychology and has studied and worked coast to coast. She has worked in both psychiatric and community settings in some of Montreal's most respected healthcare organizations and institutions, and has also given a variety of talks and workshops on neuroplasticity, meditation, and uncovering barriers to love.

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