Cognitive distortions or ‘unhelpful thinking styles’ are blips in our thinking that have us drawing conclusions that are often not remotely accurate. These conclusions can create a range of unhelpful behaviours. Unless we learn to notice and manage these thoughts they have a tendency to hijack us.
Psychologist Aaron Beck was the first to discuss this idea (he turns 100 this year!). Today these ideas are used in therapies such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT).
Cognitive distortions are common, entirely normal, and not our faultDr Whalley
- All or nothing thinking e.g. “this always happens”, “I never get a break”.
- Overgeneralizing: Taking one bit of ‘evidence’ and extrapolating the sh*t out of it e.g “I’ll be lonely forever”. Linked to this is the idea of global labelling of self and others e,g “he is a jerk”, “I am unlovable”.
- Mental Filter/selective abstraction: or as I like to call it the tendency to “accentuate the negative and eliminate the positive”.
- Emotional Reasoning: e.g. feeling hopeless and concluding the problem is ‘unsolvable’ or feeling angry and assuming someone else must be ‘wrong’.
- Jumping to conclusions (mind-reading) e.g. “She hates me”, “she is holding a grudge” (actually maybe she’s just holding an uncomfortable pooh).
- Should statements.
- Self-blaming “I blew my chances”.
- Other blaming e.g. blaming someone else for your emotional pain.
- Personalization – that thing where someone is grumpy and you think it must be at you.
- Catastrophizing – making a mountain out of a mole hill.
How to manage unhelpful thinking
- Most important is realising we have slipped into a distortion and even better naming which one we fell into. You can do this through journaling, support from others, and paying attention.
- Become a detective – look for evidence that does not support the conclusion you have drawn.
- Be your friend, talk to yourself the way you would do a dear friend, which is usually compassionate, kind etc.
- Employ semantics. Try potentially powerful tweaks in your language e.g. “I should ….” to “it would be nice if..”
- Shift the blame. If you are a self-blamer, consider what or who else was involved? Other blamers, ask yourself – what role did you or outside circumstance play?
- Check what you are or are not getting out of the conclusion you have drawn e.g. “how is the believe helping me”.
At times these thinking patterns can begin to run or ruin your life, especially when experiencing anxiety or depression. The world events of the last year are also compounding this tendency in some.
Do please reach out to a qualified professional to get support if you think it might help you. If your thinking is getting you down, it does not need to be this way.