9 Cognitive Distortions and How to Challenge Them

Distorted thinking can create a great deal of stress and anxiety. Most of us do not know when we’ve distorted reality with our thoughts. Everyone distorts reality from time to time because many cognitive distortions are socially acceptable forms of thinking. For example, when emotions are high it is common to “blame others” “overgeneralize,” and engage in “mind reading.” Cognitive distortions can be difficult to challenge, especially if you do not know its happening or how to counter them.

Below is a list of 9 cognitive distortions. I’ve defined each distortion and described a way to challenge them.

1. Catastrophizing is thinking about the worse case scenario. A headache signals a brain tumor or serious condition. An email from your boss means you are getting fired. There are no limits to the “what ifs” that can occur.

The logical counter to catastrophizing is an honest assessment in terms of the realistic odds or percent of probability.  What is the probability that your worse case scenario will come true? One in a thousand (.1 percent), one in ten thousand (.01 percent), or one in a 100,000 (.001 percent)?

2. Mind Reading is making assumptions (without evidence) about what other people think about you.  For example, you might think, “I can tell by their faces that they are upset with me.” “She thinks I’m stupid or she would not ask me these questions.” These assumptions are usually born of intuition, hunches, or one or two past experiences.

The logical counter to mind reading is realizing that you are fantasizing. In the long term it is best to make no inferences about other people. You might treat all your interpretations about others as ‘hallucinations.’ We might also say to yourself, “It’s none of my business what others are thinking or feeling.”

3. Personalization involves the habit of continually comparing yourself to others. The comparisons are never ending because a perfectionistic system fosters comparisons as well as deeply engrained feelings of not being good enough. You might think, “She is so much happier than me and her life so much more interesting” or “His business is so much more successful than mine.”

The logical counter to personalization is forcing yourself to get evidence to prove what you are saying is true. It is critical to focus on the facts versus your emotional interpretation. What evidence do you have that “she is happier than you and has a more interesting life?” Did you see a photo of her on Instagram that triggered the comparison? Even if she is happier than you, does this have to take away from your happiness?

4. Overgeneralizing is taking one data point and making generalizations about it. You might make a broad generalization about a single incident or piece of evidence. For example, if you make a mistake at work, you are incompetent. If you get turned down for a date, no one will ever go out with you.

The logical counter to overgeneralization is examining the evidence for your conclusion. You might ask yourself, what is the evidence for my conclusion, what is the evidence against my conclusion, and what is an alternative conclusion.

5. Either or Thinking is viewing everything in extremes. There is no middle ground. People and things are either “good or bad,” or “wonderful or terrible.” The most destructive aspect of this thought distortion is how you judge yourself. If you are not perfect, you are a failure.

The logical counter to either or thinking is realizing there are no absolutes. There are no black-and-white judgments. The world is gray. You might think in terms of percentages. For example, “About 5% of the time I make mistakes, and the rest of the time I do not.”

6. “Should” Thinking is the result of inflexible rules and beliefs about how you and others should act. The rules are right and indisputable. The most common cue words for this thought distortion are “should,” “ought,” and “must.” “Should” thinking is a direct result of perfectionism.

The logical counter to “should” thinking is to think of at least three exceptions to your rule or belief, and then consider all the exceptions you cannot even imagine. Remember inflexible thinking makes you feel trapped and anxious. Also pay attention to the words you use and notice how “should,” “ought,” and “must” are red flags.

7. Control Thinking Fallacies occurs when people view themselves as either helpless and externally controlled, or responsible for everything that happens in life. An example of the first fallacy is believing you don’t have any real control over the outcome of your life. The opposite fallacy of omnipotent control makes you carry the world on your shoulders and feel guilty when it doesn’t work.

The logical counter to control thinking that makes you feel helpless is to learn to be responsible. Outside of natural disasters, you are responsible for what happens in your life. Ask yourself, “What choices have I made that resulted in this situation? “What decisions can I make to change it?”

The logical counter to control thinking that makes you feel responsible for everyone and everything is to remember that respect for others means letting them live their own lives, suffer their own pains, and solve their own problems.

8. Filtering is selecting one element of a situation to the exclusion of everything else. The detail you select supports your belief about your personal defectiveness or the defectiveness of others. Filtering is a way to magnify or “awfulize” your thoughts. Many of my highly successful clients are prone to filtering. They will focus exclusively on an error they made and filter out all the positives. Filtering is a direct result of perfectionism.

The logical counter to filtering is to shift your focus on how to cope with the problem rather than obsessing on the problem itself. It is also critical to stop using words such as “terrible,” “awful,” “disgusting,” or “horrendous,” etc. You might say to yourself, “this is distressing but not terrible.” It is also critical to step back to look at the big picture.

9. Blaming Others is a way to distract yourself from our own pain and responsibility. It is a way to keep you from honestly looking at yourself. Blaming also tends to lead to global labeling. For example, “My boss is crazy,” “My child is out of control,” or “My husband is emotionally unavailable.”

The logical counter to blaming is to accept responsibility for your own behavior and choices. Focus on your own problems. When you start labeling, ask yourself what you are trying to avoid. If you find you are not avoiding, be specific rather than global. You might say, “My boss has poor communication skills rather than he is crazy.”

Contact Me

If you would like coaching on how to manage distorted thinking, please contact me through my website to schedule an appointment.

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