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Cognitive Distortions

It is surprisingly too easy to connect and perceive two separate and different events that happened coincidentally even if there are no real ties between them. These mistakes are known as cognitive distortion.


We processed information with our brain and we seemed to trust whatever that goes on in it. However, have you ever realized that our mind does trick us with something which is not true. It is not that the brain purposely lies or cheat us, it could be some developed faulty or non-helpful pathway that connected over past years. It is surprisingly too easy to connect and perceive two separate and different events that happened coincidentally even if there are no real ties between them. These mistakes are known as cognitive distortion and these inaccurate thoughts usually boosted negative thinking or emotions – making things sound rational and accurate, but in fact, it made us feel bad about ourselves.


For instance, a person might tell themselves, “I always fail when I try to do something new; I therefore fail at everything I try.” This is an example of “black or white” (or polarized) thinking. The person is only seeing things in absolutes – that if they fail at one thing, they must fail at all things. If they added, “I must be a complete loser and failure” to their thinking, that would also be an example of overgeneralization – taking a failure at one specific task and generalizing it their very self and identity.


Cognitive distortions are at the core of what many cognitive-behavioral and other kinds of therapists try and help a person learn to change in psychotherapy. By learning to correctly identify this kind of “stinkin’ thinkin’”, a person can then answer the negative thinking back, and fight back it. The negative thoughts will slowly diminish overtime and be automatically replaced by more rational, balanced thinking by disproving it again and again.


Before that, we will have to explore more on the types of cognitive distortions to be able to identify them.


1. Filtering

All negative details of a situation being taken and magnified where the positive aspects are all filtered out. For example, a person may pick out a single, unpleasant detail and dwell on it completely so that their vision of reality becomes darkened of distorted.


2. Polarized Thinking (or “Black and White” Thinking)

In polarized thinking, things are either “black-or-white.” We have to be perfect or we’re a failure – there is no middle ground. People or situations were positioned in “either/or” categories, with no shades of gray or allowing for the complexity of most people and situations. If your performance falls short of perfect, you see yourself as a total failure.


3. Overgeneralization

For overgeneralization, we often come to a general conclusion based on a single incident or a single piece of evidence. Even if something bad happens only once, we expect it to happen over and over again. A person may see a single, unpleasant event as part of never-ending pattern of defeat.


4. Jumping to Conclusions

Without individuals saying so, we made assumptions on how they are feeling and why they act the way they do. In particular, we are trying to determine how people are feeling toward us. For example, a person may conclude that someone is reacting negatively toward them but doesn’t actually bother to find out if they are correct. Another example is a person may anticipate that things will turn out badly, and is convinced that their prediction is already an established fact.


5. Catastrophizing

We expect disaster to stroke, no matter what. This is also referred to as “magnifying or minimizing”. We heard about a problem and use what if questions (e.g. “What if tragedy strikes?” “What if it happens to me?”). For example, a person might exaggerate the importance of insignificant events (such as their mistake, or someone else’s achievement). Or they may inappropriately shrink the magnitude or significant events until they appear tiny (for example, a person’s own desirable qualities or someone else’s imperfections).


6. Personalization

Personalization is a distortion where a person believes that everything others do or say is some kind of direct, personal reaction to the person. We also compare ourselves to others trying to determine who is smarter, better looking, etc. A person engaging in personalization may also see themselves as the cause of some unhealthy external event even that they have no responsibility for. For example, “We were late to the dinner party and caused the hostess to overcook the meal. If I had only pushed my husband to leave on time, this wouldn’t have happened.”


7. Control Fallacies

If we feel externally controlled, we see ourselves as helpless a victim of fate. For example, “I can’t help it if the quality of the work is poor, my boss demanded I work overtime on it.” The fallacy of internal control has us assuming responsibility for the pain and happiness of everyone around us. For example, “Why aren’t you happy? Is it because of something I did?”


8. Fallacy of Fairness

We feel resentful because we think we know what is fair, but other people might not agree with us. As our parents tell use when we’re growing up and something doesn’t go our way, “Life isn’t always fair.” People who go through life applying a measuring ruler against every situation judging its “fairness” will often feel badly and negative because of it. Because life isn’t “fair” – things will not always work out in your favor, even when you think they should.


9. Blaming

We hold other people responsible for our pain, or take the other track and blame ourselves for every problem. For example, “Stop making me feel bad about myself!” Nobody can “make” us feel any particular way – only we have control over our own emotions and emotional reactions.


10. Shoulds

We have a list of ironclad rules about how others and we should behave. People who break the rules make us angry, and we feel guilty when we violate these rules. A person may often believe they are trying to motivate themselves with should and shouldn’ts, as if they have to be punished before they can do anything. For example, “I really should exercise. I shouldn’t be so lazy.” Musts and oughts are also offenders. The emotional consequence is guilt. When a person directs should statements toward others, they often feel anger, frustration and resentment.


11. Emotional Reasoning

We believe that what we feel must be true automatically. If we feel stupid and boring, then we must be stupid and boring. You assume that your unhealthy emotions reflect the way things really are – “I feel it, therefore it must be true.”


12. Fallacy of Change

Change in others to suit or fit our favour being expected when we pressure or cajole them enough. We need to change people because our hopes for happiness seem to depend entirely on them.


13. Global labeling

We generalize one or two qualities into a negative global judgment. These are extreme forms of generalizing, and are also referred to as “labeling” and “mislabeling”. Instead of describing an error in context of a specific situation, a person will attach an unhealthy label to themselves. For example, they may say, “I’m a loser” in a situation where they failed at a specific task. When someone else’s behavior rubs a person the wrong way, they may attach an unhealthy label to him, such as “He’s a real jerk.” Mislabeling involved describing an event with language that is highly colored and emotionally loaded. For example, instead of saying someone drops her children off at daycare every day, a person who is mislabeling might say that “she abandons her children to strangers.”


14. Always being right

We are continually on trial to prove that our opinions and actions are correct. Being wrong is unthinkable and we will go any length to demonstrate our rightness. For example, “I don’t care how badly arguing with me makes you feel, I’m going to win this argument no matter what because I’m right.” Being right often is more important than the feelings of others around a person who engages in this cognitive distortion, even loved ones.


15. Heaven’s Reward Fallacy

We expect our sacrifice and self-denial to pay off, as if some one is keeping score. We feel bitter when the reward doesn’t come.


If you did notice distortions in your cognitive, rest assured that there are ways to deal and slowly reduce the occurrence of these inaccurate thoughts. These are ways (retrieved from positivepsychologyprogram.com, 2017) that might help with cognitive distortions:


1. Fact or Opinion

· Practicing over statements identifying whether they are facts or opinions. Distinguishing between opinions and facts could help a person to diminish cognitive distortions more effectively as cognitive distortions are often opinion instead of fact.


2. Putting Thoughts on Trial

This exercise uses CBT theory and techniques to help you examine your irrational thoughts. You will act as the defense attorney, prosecutor, and judge all at once, providing evidence for and against the irrational thought and evaluating the merit of the thought based on this evidence.


The worksheet begins with an explanation of the exercise and a description of the roles you will be playing. The first box to be completed is “The Thought.” This is where you write down the irrational thought that is being put on trial.


Next you fill out “The Defense” box with evidence that corroborates or supports the thought. Once you have listed all of defense’s evidence, do the same for “The Prosecution” box. Write down all of the evidence calling the thought into question or instilling doubt in its accuracy.


When you have listed all the evidence you can think of, both for and against the thought, evaluate the evidence and write down the results of your evaluation in “The Judge’s Verdict” box. This worksheet is a fun and engaging way to think critically about your negative or irrational thoughts and make good decisions about which thoughts to modify and which to embrace.


The worksheet can be download at https://www.therapistaid.com/worksheets/putting-thoughts-on-trial.pdf


By: Ms Vernice Si Toh - SOL Psychologist