Today I’d like to talk about negative thought patterns, specifically cognitive distortions. If you’ve had some experience with Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), you might have heard about this. If you’re curious, it was first explored by Aaron Beck. I first learned about them in the eating disorder program at the Douglas and they’ve come up a few times since then. We also just learned about it again in my Mental Health Psychology class. (Which is very triggering by the way, but if I want to become a psychologist I gotta deal with it…) I wanted to share it with you guys because I’ve actually found it to be a useful item in the arsenal against my inner demons. (I recommend you create an arsenal/toolbox, if you will, to have ‘tricks up your sleeve’ when things go to (pardon my language) … sh*t.
A Troubling Reality
It’s very interesting that everyone displays one or more of these distortions without having a mental disorder, but I imagine it doesn’t trouble them to the extent that it troubles us. However we are all human, and it’s in our nature to react emotionally. (Some of us more than others.) Without further ado, here are 10 cognitive distortions. You might read some and immediately think “Oh wow that’s definitely me.” Or you may think something like; “Pfft. I’m right in my belief/reaction. They don’t understand.” Let me just say, I feel you. I’ve gone through both; denying that I was wrong and sometimes admitting sheepishly that I exhibit many of the distortions. Now I’m at an in between point, which you’ll see as I go through this. I can recognize them fairly well in myself now but I still remain convinced a lot of the time that it ‘doesn’t apply to me.’ This is like a distortion in itself; the thought that things will work for other people but won’t for us because of [fill in the reason]. Funnily enough it actually ties in to the distortion of emotional reasoning, now that I think of it.
All Or Nothing: My old friend.
“I have to be perfect otherwise I’m a failure. If I don’t get 100% it means that I failed.” (Even if the grade is 90-95%) I used to have no food or super little, and if I messed up and ate over a certain amount I had already lost and might as well eat everything. Also, “I thought this person was so good and kind but how could they say that to me? They’re so mean…I don’t like them any more! They must not be my friend.” This distortion is also called polarized thinking, which is a great name for this lack of a balanced view of oneself, others, and the environment.
Overgeneralization: All. The. Time. (I even just did it now!)
“I can’t believe I made this stupid mistake. I always mess things up…I can’t get anything right.” “I said this to so and so because I was angry…I’m such a terrible person why am I so mean and selfish?” “I was so awkward in that conversation; I should have said more and acted normal. I suck at talking to people…why am I always like this?!”
The easiest way to identify this distortion when you exhibit it is to look for anything that means ‘all the time’. Think of mainly always or never, and anything else that conveys the idea that there is never an in between. This always sounds a bit like polarized thinking to me, but it’s different in the sense that you believe yourself to ALWAYS mess up or NEVER do something properly. It isn’t about severe cutoff points of terrible vs. successful with no in between. This is, as the name implies, a generalized view of yourself where you believe that any negative event means that you always do that negative thing. There is no thought of the possibility of ALWAYS doing the right thing. (In my view, anyway.) By the way this doesn’t just apply to things that you do wrong, it also applies to your view of the world around you. “I always have rotten luck.” “I’ll always feel bad.” “I will never have a good life.” “People never like me, they always hate me.” “Things never work out for me.” I think I went overboard on examples so I’ll move on.
Mental Filter: I hate this.
A person has succeeded at remaining sober for 2 weeks but one night they drink and break their ‘streak’. The thought pattern can be something along the lines of completely disregarding the two weeks of success and seeing only the current slip up. This slip up becomes everything and can lead to giving up because what’s the point, I messed up. I can’t do this. Therefore this distortion is exactly as it sounds. You have a filter in your mind that only lets the negative through…the positive ends up ignored. You can be complemented, encouraged, praised for something, but you’ll always look at what you did wrong and hence disregard the good.
Disqualifying the Positive: Oh my God yes.
This is kind of like mental filtering, but in this case the good gets through your filter but gets rationalized away immediately. I’ll give you a personal example: I recently got complemented for my consistent 94%’s in Psychology class. My response; “I should’ve done much better…I didn’t study hard enough and I’m so close to 100% that this really is all my fault. I was being lazy. My average is only 90% and my grades dropped in Statistics so I’m really stupid…I’m not going to get into McGill.” Realistically, 94% is pretty good. But I’m choosing to focus on the 6% I didn’t get, and started lumping in other grades that together make me feel like I’m going to fail.
Jumping to Conclusions: Mhmm.
People have a tendency to fill in the missing pieces when we don’t have all the information. Some people are balanced about this and merely think of the potential reasons for something, but don’t really come to a definitive answer. For others, we can be sure of our conclusion even when it could be something improbable. There are two sub-divisions to this; mind reading and fortune telling. Mind reading is mainly about assuming a persons’ intentions or thoughts without any evidence, and fortune telling involves predicting negative outcomes and consequently often deciding not to attempt the ‘thing’ at all. I’ll use an example from my psych class of what a ‘normal’ response is when filling in the blanks.
‘Normal’: “I invited my friend to come over and we’re supposed to have a girls’ night. It’s 5 but she’s still not here. Maybe she’s running late with some errands or her phone is dead so she can’t text me about being late. I’ll give her some time…I’m sure she’ll update me when she can. Maybe I’ll call in a bit in case she forgot, Susan is really busy.”
Distortion: Same example but with a different reaction- “It’s 5 and she’s late! She probably got into an accident or something…oh my God what if she’s really hurt? Or, “I thought we were friends…is she doing something with someone else? Maybe she doesn’t like me anymore. She didn’t even bother to call though. Who does that?!”
Now to be more specific:
Mind Reading: “My friend just said he doesn’t like it when people do [fill in the blank]. I do that, don’t I? He’s actually talking about me and thinks I’m a bad person.”
Fortune Telling: A person has been trying to go on dates but the last one didn’t go well. Now a friend offers to introduce the person to someone they know, but the person won’t go because they’re sure it’s going to go badly.
Magnification & Minimization: I did this all the time. Probably still do sometimes…
A basic definition is that a person tends to blow negatives out of proportion and/or minimizes positive things/successes. AKA, “a small thing or misfortune becomes a big deal when it really shouldn’t be.” Maybe I’m taking this personally, but when I hear that description with no continuation, I get insulted. Why? Because I find it implies that I’m being a big baby. For the longest time and still now (but I’ve improved), that’s exactly how I felt. With time I realized that HEY! When you’re in pain and everything is bad, dull, pointless, sad, etc., OF COURSE we’re going to magnify it! Bad is sometimes all we know and any addition to our already ‘raw state’ is NOT going to be taken well!
Before I rant as I am so apt to do, I’ll share some personal examples because even though I feel hurt about the definition, I still have to address this distortion:
Magnification: I got 77% on my assignment! (It’s worth 5% of my grade.) I’m going to fail, how am I going to get accepted for my program change? How could I have done so badly…why am I so stupid? I’m a big fat failure and I always will be. McGill is never going to accept me and this is just another example of how lazy I am. I don’t do the right thing and my habits are so bad. How am I ever going to succeed at anything or make money or have a good life? (Yes, I’m very extreme. Although with this one I’m still quite mad at myself out of principle. This happened 2 weeks ago and I still have trouble with it.)
Inverse, meaning minimization: “Great job, you got 100% on this assignment! It’s worth 10% so that’s great!” Thanks but it was easy. Besides I know I’m going to fail the test and that’s worth 25%. This grade doesn’t really mean much…and I got lucky.“
Emotional Reasoning: Me to a T!
The simplest way to describe this one would be what it says in my teachers’ notes: If I feel it, it’s true. Speaking of true, does this ring true with anyone? It’s most common in anxiety disorders, particularly panic disorder. The situation in my view looks something like having a great fear of a thing/situation, etc., and this fear is so strong that the person is absolutely sure that the fear is justified. (It can come from one really bad outcome that brings a terrible association that remains.)
I used to go from extreme anxiety to outright panic attacks at the thought of, well, many things actually. But a big example for me was during the peak of my anorexia when I was fasting entirely and ‘had’ to walk 10km every day. I was encouraged to at least have something tiny and to reduce my daily km’s just a tiny bit. My fear entirely convinced me that I would immediately gain weight if I changed my habits by the smallest degree. I was so sure that there was no possibility whatsoever of changing my mind. (Yes, I ended up in the hospital. Turns out humans don’t work that way…) Also, “I feel fat so I am.” No you’re really not. “Yes I am why are you lying to me I see and feel it myself?!”
Should Statements: I do this at least 3 times a day, no joke. Maybe more.
Should statements are pretty recognizable in the same way as overgeneralization; they both have key words that are immediate warning flags. In this case the key words are should, shouldn’t, and any variation of have to, (commonly in the form of must). So what does this look like?: (‘Lucky’ for you, I have tons of examples…I’ll try not to go overboard this time, but here’s a recurring thought pattern for me.)
“I should be achieving better grades at school. I’m only taking three courses while other students have 6 or 7 and they get better grades than me. Plus a lot of them have jobs on top of it! I shouldn’t be so weak-willed…I have to get a job and become a real adult who isn’t a cry-baby that can’t handle responsibilities! I’m so unproductive… plus I shouldn’t be anxious and overwhelmed so easily. My moods change a lot and I must get in control of them. I don’t know why I’m so weak! I shouldn’t even have to rely on my anxiety meds either…I have to get stronger as soon as possible so I can actually help my family. Of course I should also be exercising every day because I can’t get fatter. I have to lose some more weight, I’m such a pig for food and I have to stop being a lazy cow! Why am I so out of control?”
I think you get the idea.
Labelling/Mislabelling: Kind of? Sometimes? I am lying to myself?
This is another one that I’m sure many people engage in with or without a condition, as labelling / passing judgments is kind of in our nature. But this refers to labels you place on yourself, not just others. It’s kind of an extreme emotional response involving a bit of the overgeneralization we spoke of earlier. You concentrate on one detail, specifically a fault, and form a label predicated only upon that instance instead of looking at the big picture.
Examples: “Why did I make these easy mistakes on the test? I’m such a moron.” “This guy bumped into me and spilled his coffee…What an asshole doesn’t he look where he’s going?!” “That woman cut me off on purpose! I swear she saw me there, what a b*tch!” “I couldn’t help Sam move yesterday…I’m a terrible friend.”
Taking things personally…to the extreme. Look it up in the dictionary and you’ll find my picture, apparently. This distortion is about blaming yourself / feeling responsible for things even when they’re probably not your fault at all and are often completely disconnected to you. You know what I’ve heard because I do this a lot? “Stop it, it’s not all about you you know.” And then when something really is my fault, because I’m so apologetic all the time and DO repeat bad mistakes (and can often only say sorry because I feel out of control), my sorry’s mean nothing anymore. I’m just a “very sorry person.” My point is that I don’t think everything is about me…I just feel a lot of guilt due to my low self-worth stemming from depression. In other words, don’t ALSO blame yourself for feeling guilty and blaming yourself for everything. You see? I swear…can we ever win?! I’m sure this one is easy to understand but I’ll give an example anyway.
“It’s all my fault that my friend wasn’t in a good mood today. I have a negative vibe which always transfers to people around me and makes them have a bad time. I should be alone because I’m terrible company.” If you spotted 3 distortions in there, you’d be right. Why did I use this example? Because cognitive distortions often overlap in the sense that triggering one can lead to thinking in terms of other distortions. In this case I blamed myself entirely for my friends’ bad mood. Maybe I didn’t help, but she could’ve just been having a bad day. I don’t know everything that’s going on in her life, after all. What did this personalization lead to? Overgeneralization when I said that I always transmit bad vibes. And then? The should statement of “I should be alone.”
What Can We Do?
As you can see, these distortions are quite harmful. They perpetuate the loop of very high anxiety as well as the pessimism, low-confidence and self-criticism of depression. Thinking along these lines is unfortunately reinforced through repetition which makes them much harder to break! The good news is catching yourself, identifying the distortion and thinking of the realistic response to a situation / trigger, etc., goes a long way! But, as I said, I’m still struggling even though I learned this about 4 years ago. As always, it’s easier to understand and talk about than to apply. Since it’s such a challenge, keeping a thought journal can be very helpful. For now I’ll leave you to really get a sense of the distortions, and soon I’ll create a journal outline for you to write things down. I’ll also keep track of my own and keep you updated.
If you’re intimidated by all of this…you’re not alone. I know how strong these thoughts are and how easily they can be justified in our minds to the point where no one can convince us otherwise. Telling you not to worry would be useless. (I’ve heard this far too often.) Worry is normal, as is fear, doubt, uncertainty, and so much more. You have every right to feel the way you do, but I encourage that you take things slowly and realize that just as everything changes, this is changeable too. You may feel it’s changeable but not by you…you might feel too tired and powerless. One of my principle goals however is to help you regain that power!
Until next time!
You may enjoy Strategies to Beat Overwhelming Anxiety – Part 1 in the mean time.
The next article on this topic is out! Click here to learn more about tracking, identifying and correcting cognitive distortions.