Cognitive distortion is a term that describes messy thinking, or "mental slippage", that typically reinforces the negative thoughts and feelings that we all experience. We believe we are consistently telling ourselves things that sound rational and accurate, but when we step back and examine them with greater intention, we often find that these thought processes were anything but truthful.
Here is an example to help illustrate the concept:
A person might tell themselves, “I always fail when I try new things.” This is an example of “all-or-nothing thinking". The person is only seeing things in black-or-white terms. If they added, “I'm a total loser” to their thinking, that would also be an example of "labelling" — taking a mistake and using it to form their self-image or identity.
Psychologists that study this area have identified common patterns or "thought traps" that many of us fall into. Studying these and taking up the practice of examining our own thinking for signs of them is the foundational exercise for strengthening our mindset and our ability to respond more productively to stressful situations in life.
One way to apply this immediately in your life is to wait for the next moment in your day when you start to experience a negative emotion — whether it's anxiety, sadness, frustration or anything else. If you slow down for a moment, and avoid getting caught up in the emotion, you can turn your attention to the thoughts that you are having in association with this feeling.
What are you telling yourself? These negative thought processes are often described as "Automatic Thoughts".
Write down the automatic thought so that you can work with it. The next step is to study the cognitive distortions below, and see if any of them show up in the thought you just had.
This refers to the tendency to evaluate things — our own personal qualities or a person or situation external to us — in extreme, black-or-white categories. For example, if a proposal I just submitted after weeks of work is rejected, I might conclude, "Now I'm a total failure." All-or-nothing thinking is the foundation for perfectionism and causes us to fear making any mistake in the future because we will see ourselves as inadequate or maybe even worthless.
This perspective on things is unrealistic, however, because situations in real life are rarely completely black or white. When it comes to personal qualities, especially, no one can be entirely brilliant, or 100% stupid. The same thing can be said about external circumstances.
Look around you right now — is your desk or room perfectly clean? Is it a complete mess? Or is it partially clean?
If we try to force reality into absolutes we will continually be disappointed because absolutes do not exist, so we will never be able to measure up to our exaggerated expectations.
When we overgeneralize, we arbitrarily conclude that something that happened once will continue to occur again and again. Since the experience that occurred was negative, we are left feeling upset or even hopeless about the future because we foresee an endless pattern of negativity. The budding entrepreneur who was rejected by an early potential customer may be left feeling dejected when she concludes, "No one is going to buy my product."
But if we can see isolated events for what they are, then the experiences when we are let down or otherwise upset don't dictate our future. An alternative outlet for the energy typically taken up by overgeneralization is to accept the negative experience that has just occurred, and begin to carefully and curiously reflect on it in the pursuit of learning opportunities.
Mental filtering occurs when we pick out a negative detail in a certain situation and dwell on it almost exclusively, leading us to believe that the entire situation we are dealing with is negative.
For example, I might find myself working out in the gym and notice at one point that I feel sluggish. I think to myself, "I must be exhausted — I'm not performing as well as I usually do. I've worked so hard on my fitness, so why I am I not progressing at all?" The rest of my workout may have shown signs of progress, but a myopic focus on this one part of the workout led me to believe the whole thing was negative.
An even more potent distortion that goes one step beyond mental filtering is some people's persistent tendency to transform neutral or even positive experiences into negative ones. It's not that we ignore the positive, but that we skillfully turn positives into their negative opposite.
This is commonly observed in people who, upon receiving a compliment or praise from someone, will automatically tell themselves, "They're just being nice" or, "They're just saying that because they feel like they have to." This immediately eliminates the positive force and intention of the loving comment.
Disqualifying the positive is a destructive mental habit that so many of us have. Sometimes it seems as if the thing we are most committed to is proving the self-defeating hypothesis "I am not good enough." The negative experiences are taken as evidence for this theory, and the positives are discounted as "flukes" — they don't count.
This is quite simply coming to conclusions about a situation without justifying it with the appropriate facts. It shows up in two fundamental ways: "mind reading" and "fortune telling".
Mind reading occurs when we assume that other people are looking down on us or judging us negatively, and we are so convinced of this that we don't bother to validate it. For example, imagine you are presenting your work to a group of colleagues and one of them is using his phone the whole time. He was responding to his husband who was with their child, dealing with a health issue, but of course you didn't know this. You might have thought, "He doesn't value my work."
You might then respond to this behaviour by withdrawing or firing some sort of counterattack. Both of these reactions lead to more difficulties, and might fuel ongoing negative interactions in your relationship when non exists in the first place.
In this case, we imagine that something bad is about to happen, and we take this prediction as fact even though it is unrealistic. Coming back to the example with your colleague above, you might feel bitter and decide to not say anything to him about the issue, telling yourself, "He'll think that I am blowing things out of proportion if I call him out. I'll only look like a fool."
Because of these negative predictions (fortune telling), you avoid your colleague and it takes weeks before you learn of the family issue that has led him to be so preoccupied while at work.
With this cognitive distortion, we either blow things out of proportion, or shrink them down. Magnification typically happens when we look at our own mistakes, fears or imperfections and exaggerate their importance. Sometimes people call this "catastrophizing" because we turn everyday negative events into massive problems.
The opposite effect can be placed on positive experiences or personal attributes. For example, we might minimize the importance or value of our strengths. If we magnify our imperfections and minimize our strengths, we make it unreasonably difficult for ourselves to feel good and function optimally.
Here we fall into the trap of taking our emotions as evidence for the truth. Our thinking goes something like this, "I feel useless, so I must be useless." This is misleading because we know that our feelings are the result of our thinking and beliefs, which are often distorted. If this is the case (as it most often is with negative feelings), then we are basing our judgements on false evidence.
One example of emotional reasoning could be when we say to ourselves, "I feel guilty. Therefore, I must have done something bad." We might also say, "I feel overwhelmed. Therefore my situation is hopeless and I'm destined to fail."
This cognitive distortion is closely linked to procrastination. We say to ourselves, "I feel exhausted / anxious / overwhelmed just thinking about all the work I have to do on this project," and avoid getting started. Then, days (or weeks or months) later we finally start with the first task and it turns out to be quite gratifying, and not so difficult after all. We trick ourselves by letting our negative feelings guide our actions.
When we fall into this thinking trap, we are trying to motivate ourselves to do something by saying "I should do this" or "I have to do that" when it's not necessarily imperative. Instead of being motivated, we end up feeling resentful and blocked from taking action. We can often use these statements when thinking about others and what we'd like to get them to do. When we use should statements with others this can often lead us to feel frustrated when our wished-for actions are not carried out.
When we (or others) fall short of our expectations, saying to ourselves that we "should" or "shouldn't" do (or be) a certain way leads to feelings of guilt, shame and self-loathing. When we're habituated to using should statements, we feel as though the only way forward is to lower our expectations or continually feel let down by ourselves and others.
Labeling is similar to overgeneralization, but in this case we are forming a completely negative self-image based on our mistakes. A tell-tale sign that we are labelling is when our thought begins with, "I am a..." For example, we might have an argument with our partner and immediately after tell ourself, "I am a terrible husband / wife / boyfriend / girlfriend."
Whatever the situation, instead of simply saying, "I made a mistake" or something more specific and constructive, we tell ourself, "I am a failure."
When we label others, we don't stand to benefit in any meaningful way. In fact, we will inevitably generate hostility. If the target of our labels is labelling us in return, around and around the cycle will go as we focus solely on every weakness and imperfection in each other.
After you capture a negative thought and discover a cognitive distortion in it, you then have the opportunity to restructure that thought in a more rational, productive way. Here you are quite literally rewriting your own story.
Note that you are not trying to "cheer yourself up" or say things you don't actually believe. Instead, aim to identify the truth in the situation you are reflecting on. If what you write down is not convincing and realistic, it's not going to help you. Account for the ways in which your problematic thought was illogical — replace the distorted components with truthful and rational information.
The image below is an excerpt from the book Feeling Good, an altogether brilliant summary of the ideas behind cognitive distortions, written by one of the earlier pioneers of cognitive behavioural therapy. It provides a few short examples and a simple framework to begin this three-step thought restructuring process.
Recognize that the process of observing (not judging) your negative thoughts, identifying the cognitive distortions at play, and restructuring with more rational responses is a skill that you must practice. It may be difficult at first, but over time you will get better and better, and you will find the number of negative thoughts to analysis will start to decrease.
Also, try using the Open Dialogue app to further clarify and expand upon the thought processes that seem to be associated with your negative feelings. Many people find the prompts and questions that the program provides are very helpful in their self-reflection.
Finally, if you'd like help learning and memorizing the cognitive distortions themselves, practice identifying them with this quiz. It presents 9 unique case studies and asks you to spot the distortions at play.