Do our thoughts always help us? Sometimes, and sometimes not! We can all develop habitual ways of thinking. If you have sat a few exams and enjoyed them, you might develop a mindset that exams are OK. In contrast, if you hated those exams, your mindset may reflect that. Often, our mindset is rational and accurate. Sometimes though, that way of thinking can become inaccurate or ‘distorted’, leading to biased perspectives about ourselves and the world around us, which then influences how we respond to situations. That response can then reinforce that distorted perspective.
There are many different types of ‘cognitive distortions’ and this blog will consider some of the common ones. In general, cognitive distortions are inaccurate patterns of thinking, which have the potential to cause disturbance. Cognitive distortions have been talked about for many years. In 1976, Aaron Beck, a psychologist associated with Cognitive Therapy, and later, Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT), explored the theory of cognitive distortions. This was developed more in the 1980s, with David Burns, who suggested many of the commonly used names for these distortions.
Always being right
Do you have a friend who will argue a point so much they risk their friendship? Someone who always has to be right, and has to be thought of or seen to be right, no matter what lengths they need to go to, in order to do so? You may find those with perfectionist tendencies and ‘Imposter Syndrome’ will also experience this distortion, following the thought that to be wrong is totally unacceptable. Obviously, this can cause difficulties in various social, work and personal situations.
Black and white thinking
People that have the cognitive distortion of black and white thinking are ‘all or nothing’. They rarely ever consider the possibility of middle ground. They may be either totally happy or totally sad. They might consider themselves to either be a success with an exam pass rate of 100%, or a failure if they were awarded 99%. Such extremes, lacking the ability to see ‘shades of grey’ can lead to great dissatisfaction in life.
Blaming others for your emotional pain, or blaming yourself for every problem, even those outside of your control is another cognitive distortion. For example, you might say to someone, “You are making me sad”. Whereas, in reality, you are responsible for your own emotions and how you feel about events in your life.
Some people always expect the worst to happen, whether it is forgetting their lines in a local drama production, or not taking a dream holiday because the airline could go on strike, or worse, the plane could crash! With someone who is catastrophising, they may undervalue significant factors, such as all their rehearsal time (drama production example), or that air travel is very safe(dream holiday example), whilst overestimating insignificant information that supports their cognitive distortion (such as news about a plane crash-landing somewhere else in the world, or a dream they had about forgetting their lines).
Demands (should, must)
How often do you hear someone say ‘should’ or ‘must’, “You should exercise more”, or, “He must always be nice to me”? When ‘absolute demands’ are made, there is an expectation for that demand to always be met. Where these absolute demands are not met every time, it can lead to emotional disturbance, such as anger, frustration, guilt or resentment. With hypnotherapy clients, it can be useful to change their absolute demands and ‘shoulds’ to preferences. Preferring something to happen rather than believing it must happen is much easier to deal with when it doesn’t happen. Life isn’t always predictable, which is why absolute demands can be very disruptive.
Someone who engages in emotional reasoning takes their emotions as fact, along the lines of, “I feel it, therefore it must be true”. For example, if someone feels fat and ugly, then they believe that they are fat and ugly (even if they are actually attractive and underweight). Their emotions are overtaking their logic and rational thought.
Fallacy of change
Have you ever heard a friend talking about wanting their partner to change for them? Perhaps he wants her to dress more femininely, or she wants him to wash more often. People with this cognitive distortion think that if they nag, pressure, manipulate or cajole their partner enough, the person will change to suit them. The problems being, that they will only be happy when the partner has changed, and where someone changes to suit someone else, that can cause long or short-term pressure on a relationship, and can lead to a reversion to the original behaviour at some point. Sometimes people are unable to change quickly (if at all), or they’re unmotivated to change. Expecting them to do so just because you want it is likely to result in problems for both parties.
Fallacy of control
This has connections with Julian Rotter’s 1966 concept of Locus of Control. Some people can take on responsibility for the emotions (positive and negative) of those around them (Fallacy of internal control). You may hear someone say to you, “Why are you sad? What did I do wrong?”. Other people can consider themselves as controlled by others, fate or ‘the universe’ (Fallacy of external control). For example, “It isn’t my fault my client didn’t stop smoking, they insisted on an appointment when I was tired”. Fallacy of internal control is common in high-anxiety clients, and Fallacy of external control can be an indicator of blaming, and in some cases even psychosis (such as believing they have been brainwashed by the government).
Fallacy of fairness
How many times have you heard someone (or you) say, “It’s not fair!”? In response, a popular phrase of some parents, is the classic, “Life isn’t always fair”. Although we may not always wish to accept it, there is no evidence that life will always be fair. Yet, if someone goes through their daily life not getting what they consider to be fair, it can lead to anger, resentment, even a lack of hope for their future.
Sometimes you will find that people generalise one or a few points into a negative global judgement or label, either about themselves or another person. For example, someone might be in a badminton league at their local sports club and have a couple of poor games, resulting in them labelling themselves as a loser. Or, it might be that you are chatting on a social media forum and someone argues a point with you. Without even attempting to explore the background to their comments, you might label them as an ‘idiot’ or a ‘jerk’. Such labelling tends to have an emotional element, and can often result in relationship issues and unhelpful beliefs.
Heaven’s reward fallacy
With this distortion a person believes that, metaphorically, there is a giant scorecard, and when you do something, your effort, sacrifice or self-denial will be rewarded in the future. Then, if that reward is not forthcoming, there can be emotional disturbance, such as anger, bitterness, frustration or resentment. This can often be down to lack of communication and ‘jumping to conclusions’.
Jumping to conclusions/mind reading
Do you ever think you ‘know’ what someone else is thinking or feeling and why they are behaving in a particular way? People who jump to conclusions often form opinions about others as though they were able to read their mind or even their future. For example, a friend might be distant in a phone call. If you were jumping to conclusions, you might think that their perceived distance related to something you had or hadn’t done, or even that they did not want to be friends with you anymore. Where, in reality, it could just be that they are worried their dinner is burning in the oven! A broader example, might be if you are unhappy in your present role, you might feel that you will be unhappy in your next job as well, so there is no point even considering a change of career (unless you’re a psychic of course).
With negative filtering, you would only be noticing the negatives about a situation and ignoring the positive details. For example, a partner might make lots of positive comments about something you are wearing, and offhandedly suggest they don’t like it quite as much as your other outfit, and you then ignore the positive comments and take that single negative as a condemnation of your current outfit. Such negative filtering tends to create (or uphold) a pessimistic world view and low mood.
Do you ever come to a conclusion based on just one piece of evidence or a single event, and expect it to happen again the next time, and the next? For example, if you sit your driving test and fail, then you might think that you are a terrible driver and never attempt your driving test again. Overgeneralisation is a cognitive distortion that can cause people to have unrealistic expectations about events and people.
Do you take things personally, even when they are not directed to or meant for you? Some people think that everything others say, or do, is directly related to themselves in some way. For example, if you are late to work and your manager is in a bad mood, you think it is your fault, and if you hadn’t been late, they would have been fine. Again, this can tie in with the Locus of Control scale mentioned previously, as well as being common in clients with high anxiety.
Changing cognitive distortions
How can you change cognitive distortions? The very first step you can take to fix a cognitive distortion is to notice it. Then, you can look at the thinking process and consider the response to the situation. A good way to start is to look for any evidence to support that way of thinking, whilst separating opinions and facts. For example, “my boyfriend shouted at me” is a fact, whilst, “my boyfriend must be angry with me” is an opinion. As well as considering any evidence, it can be good to consider how rational (or not) your response might be. A good way would be to ask yourself, would 100 people all respond in the way you have, or would some have responded differently. This helps you look for alternative ways of responding (those shades of grey, rather than black or white). With these possible responses brought to light, you can now consider whether your present way of responding is helpful or whether another response may give you a better outcome (a cost-benefit analysis).
For more information on how to challenge and change cognitive distortions and other unhelpful beliefs, check out my online course ‘Working with beliefs‘.
We hope you’ve enjoyed this blog about cognitive distortions, and if you have any more questions about this topic, or anything else for that matter, do please get in touch, because we’re always happy to help!
– written by Dr Kate Beaven-Marks