As we all know, most of our thoughts and reactions are automatic. Think of all the times when you’re watching TV and your mind randomly drifts into that project you haven’t finished at work, or think of when you instantly get annoyed at that driver who isn’t moving when the traffic light turns green. The good thing about this process is that we don’t get overwhelmed by the amount of information our mind is processing. The bad thing, however, is that this process has some hiccups. According to David Burns’ book on mood therapy, there are ten cognitive distortions that many of us suffer from:
- All-or-Nothing Thinking. This flawed type of thinking is when we see things as black and white. Either you succeeded or you failed, nothing in between. You’ve succeeded if you got a 4.0 GPA, but anything less and you’ve failed. All-or-nothing thinkers are perfectionists. The slightest mistake or flaw and they assume the worst of themselves or their performance. These thinkers are too hard on themselves (and possibly others as well). Their expectations are unrealistic, and as a result, they’re almost always going to fail to meet their expectations.
- Overgeneralization. This flawed type of thinking is when you treat a singular occurrence as a common occurrence. For example, you’re working on a project on your computer when the computer randomly restarts. You lost your work as you did not save it and say “This always happens to me! I’m always unlucky!” In actuality, this may have been the first time that it ever happened to you, or maybe it happened once before. It’s not an every day occurrence but you are treating it as if it is. When a friend doesn’t respond back to your text message, you might say “she never responds back” even though it was a rare occurrence for your friend to not respond to your message.
- Dwelling on the negative. This is when you identify a negative detail from a situation or occurrence and you dwell on it. For example, you have your performance review at work and get heavily praised, but are given one small piece of criticism. Rather than appreciating that you did so well, you dwell on that negative piece. As a result, you question how you messed up, or maybe you get annoyed at your supervisor because you felt that piece of criticism was unfair. Either way, you fail to put the situation into perspective because all you can focus on is the negative.
- Disqualifying the positive. This is when you take a positive situation and either fail to acknowledge that it’s positive or you disqualify it. For example, if someone gives you a compliment, rather than believing it, you might say “They’re just being nice” or “anyone could have done it.” If you do something well, you might say “I was just lucky.” This could be perceived as humility as well, however, what matters is the intent behind it. A humble person would say “I did well, but I acknowledge that there were other factors involved too and I was fortunate to be in the right situation at the right time” whereas someone who is disqualifying the positive would say “Anyone could have done it. I was just lucky.”
- Jumping to conclusions. This is when you make assumptions that are not justifiable by any type of facts or information. For example, if you’re talking with a friend who seems disengaged, you assume that you’re boring him, when in actuality he might just be stressed or tired and is finding it difficult to concentrate. Burns refers to this as a “mind reading” error. Another type of thinking error in the realm of jumping to conclusions is the “fortune teller error.” This is when you make an assumption by predicting something that is unrealistic. For example, if your left arm is hurting, you say to yourself that you must be having a heart attack even though you’ve had left arm pains before and it was never a heart attack.
- Magnification and minimization. You catastrophize small negative occurrences whereas you minimize positive occurrences. You make a small mistake at work and think that you’re going to get fired, or maybe you get into a small argument with your girlfriend and think she’ll never forgive you. Magnification and minimization is sometimes also called ‘unfavorable comparisons’ because this type of distorting thinking often happens when comparing yourself against others. For example, you might think “John’s so successful because he’s a lawyer (magnifying another’s strengths) whereas I’m not because I’m just an accountant (minimizing your own strengths).”
- Emotional Reasoning. This is when you think your emotions are the ultimate truth. This is when you say “I feel stupid, so I must be stupid” or “I feel guilty, so I must have done something bad.” You might think that you do not do this because the examples I have shown are a bit extreme, but ever think that you can’t solve a problem because you’re feeling overwhelmed? That’s an emotional reasoning flaw. “I feel overwhelmed so I must not be able to solve this problem.”
- Should/Must Statements. This can be either self-directed or other-directed. When it’s self-directed, you assume that you should or must do something and add pressure on yourself. You say “I must go to the gym” or “many people have it harder than I do so I should be happy and not sad.” Alternatively, when it is other-directed, you make assumptions as to how others should behave. You might say “He’s already overweight, he shouldn’t have eaten that brownie” or “she should’ve been here five minutes ago.” As you see here, you create somewhat of a faulty logic for yourself and others and operate under the assumption that you know what is right and how things should be done for yourself and/or others.
- Labeling. Burns states that labeling is an extreme form of overgeneralization. It’s when a negative occurrence happens and you label yourself for it. It’s when you say you are a certain why because of something you did. You don’t get the job and say to yourself “I’m a failure.” The labels are generally oversimplified and just wrong.
- Personalization. What defines this distortion is guilt. This is when you blame yourself or conclude that a negative occurrence resulted because of you. Your child got detention because he yelled at this teacher and you think to yourself that it’s your fault because you are the parent. In this circumstance, you’re operating under the assumption that you control others and other situations. You can influence others, but you cannot control them.
In all of these distortions, you’ll notice some overlap. For example, most of these distortions are a result of faulty assumptions, false logic, and based on no real evidence. Furthermore, most of these have a tendency to either (a) fixate on the negative or (b) negate/ignore the positive. What Burns and most psychologists don’t usually talk about is individuals who have a tendency to do the opposite. These individuals are those who generally are overconfident with possibly an overinflated ego and are those who (a) assume everything they do is positive or (b) everything others do is negative. Either way, cognitive distortions exist and we are all guilty of them.
Which ones are you guilty of?