Cognitive Distortions

Understanding the problem to understand the solution. People do the things they do, because they BELIEVE the things they believe. This is the key principle for the counselor to use in guiding the client to a healthy mental and spiritual life. However, to ignore this principle, is akin to running around in circles but expecting to go down a straight road anyway. It will not make sense. You cannot fix a problem that you do not know exists. Once you identify a faulty belief, for example, then you are better able to identify the distorted thinking process (relating to that belief) and replace the faulty belief with the truth. It is putting the truth into practice that will actually bring about the necessary changes in the client. Therefore, we will consider ten beliefs that adversely affect people.

The Ten Forms of Self Defeating Thoughts

1. All or nothing – thinking

You see things in black-and-white categories if a situation falls short of perfect; you see it as a total failure. When a young woman on a diet ate a spoonful of ice cream, she told herself, “I’ve blown my diet completely.” This thought upset her so much that she gobbled down an entire quart of ice cream!

2. Overgeneralization

You see a single negative event, such as a romantic rejection or a career reversal as a never-ending pattern of defeat by using words such as “always” or “never” when you think about it. A man and his wife were arguing and he decided that to keep arguing would be fruitless, so she gets even angrier and yells, “you never talk to me,” when he obviously was talking to her up to that moment.

3. Mental filter

You pick out a single negative detail and dwell on it exclusively, so that your vision of all of reality becomes darkened, like the drop of ink that discolors a beaker of water. Example: You receive many positive comments about your presentation to a group of associates at work, but one of them says something mildly critical you obsess about his reaction for days and ignore all the positive feedback.

4. Discounting the positive

You reject positive experiences by insisting they “don’t count.” If you do a good job, you may tell yourself that it was not good enough or that anyone could have done as well. Discounting the positive takes the joy out of life and makes you feel inadequate and unrewarded.

5. Jumping to conclusions

You interpret things negatively when there are no facts to support your conclusion. This includes the following.

Mind reading: Without checking it out, you arbitrarily conclude that someone is reacting negatively to you.

Fortune telling: You predict that things will turn out badly. Before a test, you may tell yourself, “I’m really going to blow it. What if I flunk?” If you are depressed, you may tell yourself, “I’ll never get better.”

Self-fulfilling prophecies: Like fortune telling, you predict that things will turn out badly, except in this case you end up contributing to the problem. For example, you tell yourself that people are not going to like you at a new job you are starting. Therefore, you go to work the first day with a chip on your shoulders because of what you are expecting, therefore the people at the new job think you are just a jerk. This, to you, becomes proof of what you were expecting.

6. Magnification

You exaggerate the importance of your problems and shortcomings, or you minimize the importance of your desirable qualities. Also known as the “binocular trick.” Kind of like looking through the binocular from both ends.

7. Emotional reasoning

You assume that your negative emotions necessarily reflect the way things really are: “I feel terrified about going on airplanes, so it must be very dangerous to fly.” “I feel guilty, so I must be a rotten person,” or “I feel angry, so this proves I am being treated unfairly,” or “I feel so inferior, and this means I am a second-rate person,” or “I feel hopeless, so I must really be hopeless.”

8. “Should statements”

You tell yourself that things should be the way you hoped or expected them to be. After playing a difficult piece on the piano, a gifted pianist told herself, “I shouldn’t have made so many mistakes.” This made her feel so disgusted that she quit practicing for several days. “Must,” “ought” and “have to” are similar offenders. Should statements” that are directed against yourself lead to guilt and frustration. Should statements that are directed against other people or the world in general lead to anger and frustration, “He should not be so stubborn and argumentative.” Many people try to motivate themselves with should and should not, as if they were delinquents who deserved punishment before they could be expected to do anything. “I should not eat that doughnut.” This usually does not work because should and must can make you feel rebellious and you get the urge to do just the opposite.

9. Labeling

Labeling is an extreme form of all-or-nothing thinking. Instead of saying, “I made a mistake.” you attach a negative label to yourself: “I’m a loser.” You might also label yourself “a failure” or “a jerk.” Labeling is quite irrational because you are not the same as what you do. Human beings exist, but “fools,” “losers,” and “jerks” do not. These labels are useless abstractions that lead to anger, anxiety, frustration, and low self- esteem.

You may also label others. When someone does something that rubs you the wrong way, you may tell yourself: “He’s a jerk!” Then you feel that the problem is with that person’s character or essence instead of with their thinking or behavior. You see them as very bad. This makes you feel hostile and hopeless about improving things and leaves little room for constructive communication.

10. Personalization and blame

Personalization occurs when you hold yourself personally responsible for an event that is not entirely under your control. When a woman received a note that her child was having difficulties at school, she told herself, “This shows what a bad mother I am,” instead of trying to pinpoint the cause of the problem so that she could be helpful to her child. When another woman’s husband beat her, she told herself, “if only I were better in bed, he wouldn’t beat me.” Personalization leads to guilt, shame, and feelings of inadequacy.

Some people do the opposite. They blame other people or their circumstances for their problems, and they overlook ways that they might be contributing to the problem: “The reason my marriage is so lousy is because my spouse is totally unreasonable.” Blame usually does not work very well because other people will resent being made the scapegoat and they will just toss the blame right back in your lap. It is like the game of hot potato – no one wants to be stuck with it.

A Poem on Giving Up A Cognitive Distortion

Letting Go

To “let go” does not mean to stop caring,

it means I can’t do it for someone else.

To “let go” is not to cut myself off,

it’s the realization I can’t control another.

To “let go” is not to enable,

but to allow learning from natural consequences.

To “let go” is to admit powerlessness,

which means the outcome is not in my hands.

To ” let go” is not to try to change or blame another,

it’s to make the most of myself.

To “let go” is not to care for, but to care about.

To “let go” is not to fix, but to be supportive.

To “let go” is not to judge,

but to allow another to be a human being.

To “let go” is not to be in the middle

arranging all the outcomes,

but to allow others to affect their own destinies.

To “let go” is not to be protective,

it’s to permit another to face reality.

To “let go” is not to deny, but to accept.

To “let go” is not to nag, scold, or argue,

but instead to search out my own shortcomings

and correct them.

To “let go” is not to adjust everything to my desires,

but to take each day as it comes, and cherish myself in it.

To “let go” is not to regret the past,

but to grow and live for the future.

To “let go” is to fear less and love more.

– Anonymous

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