Lets just get all the blurb out of the way — you can skip it if you want and just scroll down a few paragraphs to the thinking errors (cognitive distortions).
In 1972, psychiatrist, psychoanalyst, and cognitive therapy scholar Aaron T. Beck, who focussed his attention mainly on depression, published his book Depression: Causes and Treatment.(1)
The cognitive approach believes that mental illness stems from faulty cognitions about others, our world and us. This faulty thinking may be through cognitive deficiencies or cognitive distortions (processing information inaccurately). During his work, Beck developed a list of “errors” (cognitive distortions) in thinking that he proposed could maintain depression.
Cognitive deficit is an inclusive term used to describe impairment – when a person has trouble remembering, learning new things, concentrating, or making decisions that affect their everyday life i.e. dementia. (Outside the scope of this post).
Cognitive distortions are exaggerated or irrational thoughts that cause individuals to perceive reality inaccurately. Whilst Beck laid the groundwork for the study of these distortions, his student David Burns (2) continued research on the topic and further developed the cognitive distortions to a list of ten.
The cognitive distortions listed below are categories of automatic thinking, and are to be distinguished from logical fallacies:
- All-or-Nothing Thinking: You see things in black-or-white. If a situation falls short of perfect, you see it as a total failure. When you ate a big spoonful of ice cream, you told yourself, “I’ve really blown my diet now.” This thought upset you so much that you finished the entire tub!
- Over generalisation: You see a single negative event, such as a romantic rejection or a career reversal, as a never-ending pattern of defeat by using words such as “always” or “never” when you think about it. A depressed salesman became terribly upset when he noticed bird poo on the windshield of his car. He told himself, “Just my luck! Birds are always crapping on my car!” Of course the don’t always crap on his car.
- Mental Filter: You pick out a single negative detail and dwell on it exclusively, so that your vision of all reality becomes darkened, like the drop of ink that discolors a beaker of water. Example: You receive many positive comments about your presentation to a group of associates at work, but one of them says something mildly critical. You obsess about his reaction for days and ignore all the positive feedback.
- Discounting the Positive: You reject positive experiences by insisting they “don’t count.” If you do a good job, you may tell yourself that it wasn’t good enough or that anyone could have done as well. Discounting the positive takes the joy out of life and makes you feel inadequate and unrewarded.
- Jumping to Conclusions: You interpret things negatively when there are no facts to support your conclusion. Your partner’s late coming in from work and you think, “Oh no. He must have had an accident.”
Mind Reading: Without checking it out, you arbitrarily conclude that someone is reacting negatively towards you. Your friend passes you on the other side of the road and you think,”Huh, she’s ignoring me!” She might not have seen you or she might be fretting over her own worries.
Fortune-telling: You predict that things will turn out badly. Before a test you may tell yourself, “I’m really going to blow it. What if I flunk?” If you’re
depressed you may tell yourself, “I’ll never get better.”
- Magnification: You exaggerate the importance of your problems and shortcomings, “Look at the size of my nose.” or you minimise the importance of your desirable qualities. This is also called the “binocular trick.”
- Emotional Reasoning: You assume that your negative emotions necessarily reflect the way things really are: “I feel terrified about going on airplanes. It must be very dangerous to fly.” Or “I feel guilty. I must be a rotten person.” Or “I feel angry. This proves I’m being treated unfairly.” Or “I feel so inferior. This means I’m a second-rate person.” Or “I feel hopeless. I must really be hopeless.” Just because you feel like crap, it doesn’t mean that you are.
- “Should statements”: You tell yourself that things should be the way you hoped or expected them to be. After playing a difficult piece on the piano, a gifted pianist told herself, “I shouldn’t have made so many mistakes.” This made her feel so disgusted that she quit practicing for several days. “Musts,” “oughts” and “have tos” are similar offenders. “Should statements” that are directed against yourself lead to guilt and frustration. Should statements that are directed against other people or the world in general lead to anger and frustration: “He shouldn’t be so stubborn and argumentative.” Many people try to motivate themselves with should and shouldn’ts, as if they were delinquents who had to be punished before they could be expected to do anything. “I shouldn’t eat that doughnut.” This usually doesn’t work because all these should and musts make you feel rebellious and you get the urge to do just the opposite.
- Labeling: Labeling is an extreme form of all-or-nothing thinking. Instead of saying “I made a mistake,” you attach a negative label to yourself: “I’m a loser.” You might also label yourself “a fool” or “a failure” or “a jerk.” Labeling is quite irrational because you are not the same as what you do. Human beings exist, but “fools,” “losers,” and “jerks” do not. These labels are just useless abstractions that lead to anger, anxiety, frustration, and low self-esteem. You may also label others. When someone does something that rubs you the wrong way, you may tell yourself: “He’s an S.O.B.” Then you feel that the problem is with that person’s “character” or “essence” instead of with their thinking or behavior. You see them as totally bad. This makes you feel hostile and hopeless about improving things and leaves little room for constructive communication.
- Personalisation and blame: Personalisation occurs when you hold yourself personally responsible for an event that isn’t entirely under your control. When a woman received a note that her child was having difficulties at school, she told herself, “This shows what a bad mother I am,” instead of trying to pinpoint the cause of the problem so that she could be helpful to her child. When another woman’s husband beat her, she told herself, “If only I were better in bed, he wouldn’t beat me.” Personalisation leads to guilt, shame, and feelings of inadequacy. Some people do the opposite. They blame other people or their circumstances for their problems, and they overlook ways that they might be contributing to the problem: “The reason my marriage is so lousy is because my spouse is totally unreasonable.” Blame usually doesn’t work very well because other people will resent being scapegoated and they will just toss the blame right back in your lap. It’s like the game of hot potato – no one wants to get stuck with it.
Cognitive therapy (CT) is a type of psychotherapy developed by Beck based on the cognitive model. This states that thoughts, feelings and behavior are all connected, and that individuals can move toward overcoming difficulties and meeting their goals by: identifying and changing unhelpful or inaccurate thinking, problematic behavior, and distressing emotional responses.
This involves the individual working collaboratively with a therapist to develop skills for testing and modifying beliefs, identifying distorted thinking, relating to others in different ways, and changing behaviors
My next post will look at ways of restructuring some of these unhelpful distortions.
I know I’ve had all of these thought distortions at some point in my life? Have you had any? Which ones?
- Beck, Aaron T. (1972). Depression; Causes and Treatment. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
- Burns D. (1989). The Feeling Good Handbook. Harper-Collins Publishers. New York.
If you are interested in learning more about this book, you can find it on Amazon (I have no affiliation with Amazon) with over 1,400 reviews to help you evaluate its effectiveness.