What Are Cognitive Distortions And Why You Should Be More Aware Of Them
The phrase “cognitive distortion” sounds like a scary mental illness. The term ‘distortion’ brings about notions of hallucinations, fearful shadows in the dark, or proverbial song lyrics about walls caving in.
It’s definitely not like that! Cognitive distortions, better known as ‘unhelpful thinking styles’, are biased or flawed thinking patterns that are present in everyone (including you!). As we interpret the world around us, sometimes our brains take “shortcuts” that may not be completely accurate. This can result in reactions like jumping to the worst possible conclusion, making overgeneralised assumptions, or blaming ourselves for things that aren’t actually our fault. Aaron Beck, an American psychiatrist, coined the term “cognitive distortions” in his 1963 paper on Cognitive Behavior Theory.
Cognitive distortions are generally harmless, but if left unchecked, distorted thinking patterns can cause negative thoughts, which lead to negative feelings, which shape negative behaviours. Of course, humans don’t intentionally think inaccurately. But, unless we learn to identify said cognitive distortions, they can subtly influence our lives in impactful ways. Here are a few ways cognitive distortions present themselves in our daily lives:
Examples of cognitive distortions
- Mental filters
- Jumping to conclusions
1. Mental filters
Mental filters are also known as “Selective Abstraction”. Beck noted mental filters in people that only focused on one detail taken out of context, ignoring the overall environment or experience.
For example, Aiman creates music for a living, and receives positive feedback from many of his friends; however, one of his friends provides a harsh, critical comment that causes Aiman to think of himself as a “terrible musician”.
This thought is distorted because Aiman had ended up focusing on the negative piece of feedback. He completely excluded all the positive feedback that he had already acquired prior to receiving the critical comment. This can lead to him being unable to see his present accomplishments and result in him being too hard on himself.
2. Jumping to conclusions
Known as “Arbitrary Interpretation”, Beck noted this as a person immediately assuming the severity of a situation, despite having no factual evidence to support this conclusion.
For example, Lisa enters a coffee shop wearing a new shirt, and thinks to herself: “Everyone can tell that I’m ugly”.
Despite being a simple assumption, this thought is distorted for a few reasons: It is highly unlikely that Lisa can know what ‘everyone’ is thinking. It is also highly unlikely that the average stranger in a coffee shop would take time to think negatively about another stranger’s clothing! This can cause Lisa to end up assuming the worst out of every situation, which does become draining on an individual in the long run, especially when it can impact one’s life with large trains of negative thoughts.
I’m sure you have a few friends that love saying phrases like “I’m just so lazy, I’ll never make it!”, or “I’m so bad at this subject, I’ll fail every test even if I study!”. Despite being used as a throwaway joke, these lines can perpetuate some negative thinking and make one feel more hopeless than they actually are!
For example, Ming, who was given a poor performance rating in his workplace for the month, automatically thinks: “This is nothing new. I’m used to failing at everything”.
This thought is distorted because Ming could actually do better in other fields in his workplace. Alternatively, there could have been areas for Ming to improve upon that could result in a better performance in the future. This can invariably spill over into other areas of one’s life; Ming could end up losing the motivation to pursue his hobbies or passions, giving up before he could start trying.
This cognitive distortion is also colloquially known as “taking things too personally”. Beck describes this as a person who consistently relates external events to themselves, despite having no factual evidence to make such a connection.
For example, during Siti’s journey to school, she trips into a lamppost and realises she had forgotten her lunch. In a rush, she misses her train and causes her to be late to school. Therefore, she thinks that “everyone is out to get me today”. She then retracts from speaking with her friends, and her mood deflates for the rest of the day.
This thinking is distorted as it has unwittingly put Siti as the centre of the narrative, with the world opposing her. This places a lot of burden and guilt on Siti, as she may feel as if she is alone and that “the world is out to get her”. Such emotions are also known as ‘inappropriate guilt’, especially when said guilt stems from actions beyond one’s control. These negative cognitive distortions end up damaging one’s capacity for decision making and self-esteem.
Do you recognise any of these thinking patterns in your daily routine? If so, don’t feel down about it! Being able to identify negative thinking patterns is the first step in being able to overcome said thinking patterns. It’s not a shameful process to become a better version of yourself.
How can we minimise cognitive distortions?
Remember how cognitive distortions shape thoughts, which lead to bad feelings, and consequently, bad behaviours?
1. Consider attending therapy or counselling
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (also known as CBT), is a form of psychological treatment that aims to cut off cognitive distortions from the root source: the negative thoughts. As the psychotherapy treatment of choice, CBT has been used by psychologists around the world to treat people with a wide range of mental health disorders, with much success.
Therapy is a touchy subject for many and is often portrayed with false, negative connotations on the person going. This doesn’t always have to be the case! Rather, those that seek therapy are actively trying to better themselves. Therapy is actually very useful to get one with unhealthy thinking patterns out of their echo chamber.
2. Use self-evaluation
Besides that, one could do more personal methods of self-evaluation, such as the double-standard method. If you think your thoughts are distorted, try imagining yourself saying the same thing to your close friends, or to a child. Since pointedly telling your friends or your little sister that they were “useless” or that they would “mess everything up” is an unhelpful thing to do, it would be bad to inflict it on yourself too.
You could also write out any faults that you’d assumed you’d done throughout the day, and go through them at your own pace without the hurdles of guilt or self-loathing. It will help you to highlight what you could do differently in the future. This is especially handy to catch cognitive distortions such as overgeneralisation; a particularly negative statement would be easier to catch on paper than in one’s head.
These sneaky, inaccurate thinking patterns may pervade our everyday lives. But armed with the facts to catch your own thoughts, it’ll be less likely to make negative waves in your life. Soon, you’ll make positive waves of your own! If you’d like to read more about cognitive biases, check out this article on the types of cognitive biases that could cause troubles in your relationship!