How Understanding Cognitive Distortions Can Help Cure Depression
Notice and reverse distorted thinking to break through the rules that are impeding your happiness
I have spent a good amount of my life believing negative thoughts about myself and living by a set of rules based off of fear, which led to spending a lot of time depressed—feeling like I’m not good enough, pretty enough, or smart enough to do anything worthwhile. I’ve unwittingly limited myself from trying new experiences. My thought process was something like “why would I try when I am just going to fail anyway?” It felt like my fate was sealed — like there was no way out.
There were times when I even thought it would be better just to end it. There seemed to be no way to convince me that I wasn’t the world’s biggest failure.
I went from suffering from depression my whole life—occasionally even with suicidal ideations—to being at peace with who I am. I never thought that was possible for me.
Now, I am trying new experiences that before were impossible because of fear. I am writing, traveling, singing in front of people, and trying new things every day to push my boundaries.
What made the difference? To a large extent, it was learning to recognize and counteract negative thinking.
Everyone has felt the hand of sadness, self-doubt, or feelings of inferiority at some point in life. Some of us felt these things to an extreme — in the forms of depression, anxiety, self-harm, suicidal ideation, or even suicide attempts.
All of these problems have one thing in common: they start with a seed of negative thoughts.
Understanding the Types of Cognitive Distortions
Cognitive biases are ways our brain likes to distort reality so that our world around us aligns with our mindset. These cognitive distortions can include irrational thoughts and perspectives that we unintentionally start to accept as reality.
Here are 11 simplified categories of cognitive distortions according to David Burn’s Feeling Good Handbook that might, in particular, align with a negative mindset. The sooner you’re able to recognize the distortions that you may have, the sooner you’ll be able to start changing them to start seeing truth and reality.
This polarized distortion only allows the outcome to be one of the extremes — for example, you can only think of yourself as a genius or an absolute idiot. There is no grey area.
This distortion is similar to black-or-white thinking, but it’s more broad. For example, if one person is mean to you, you might say “everyone is mean to me!” It’s overgeneralizing people, situations, and feelings.
This one is also similar to the top two, but this one is like wearing the opposite of rose-colored glasses — more like seeing life through grey-colored glasses, where everything looks dark and negative. This can happen a lot in a relationship: there could be one negative situation, and the whole relationship gets darkened with the negative hue.
Discrediting the positive
Conversely, discrediting the positive is when your brains distort the positive to fit your negative reasoning. For example, if your normal chatter is that you’re a bad artist, but you get many compliments and win many prizes for your art; Then, your brain will have to figure out a way to distort the positive to fit the negative thinking by saying something like, “they’re just being nice… they don’t mean it” or “they had to give me a prize because they felt bad for me.”
Jumping to conclusions—mind reading
This is thinking that you know exactly what the other person is thinking. The distortion could be “I know he really doesn’t want to be with me, I know he’s still thinking of his ex.” Then that distortion of mind reading helps you jump to the conclusion that “I bet he still loves his ex.” All you’ve managed to do is fabricate a heartbreaking and false conclusion based off of very little evidence.
Jumping to conclusions — fortune telling
Unless you’re actually a fortune teller, you shouldn’t try to figure out the future based off of little or no evidence. This distortion can be seen as “I know I will never find someone to love.” That’s not set in stone, but since it’s distorted in your mind, it becomes truth and you’re sitting there all like you’ve just predicted the future when in reality you have no idea what the future has in store for you.
The binocular effect
This is a distortion like looking through either side of binoculars. There is the side that magnifies, making a situation or comment appear bigger than it needs to be. Then there’s looking through the side that minimizes, downplaying a comment or situation, by making it smaller than it is.
The “I feel, therefore it must be true” distortion
This is one of the sneakiest and most sinister of all distortions. The reasoning is that just because you feel a certain emotion, it’s automatically validated and must be true. Feelings have a way of being wrong but feeling right. Understanding what is true is learning emotional intelligence to practice not being led by what you feel. You might feel like an idiot, but the truth is you’re actually not an idiot. You might feel like they don’t like you, when maybe they’re just having a bad day.
These are subtle expectations we put on ourselves, “I should go to the gym.” Or “I shouldn’t eat sugar, because I’m already so fat.” Then when we don’t live up to our “should” statements, we feel like we failed. This is also true for other people: “He should call me, or it just proves I don’t matter to him.” When these expectations aren’t met, you’re left with more pain, hatred, and anger.
Labeling — name-calling
This is like overgeneralization, but it’s in the shape of labeling or name calling. The first example is if you can’t take a good picture you call yourself “an ugly pig”. It’s basically a harsh and emotionally charged way of labeling ourselves or others based off of one instance or experience.
Making it personal
This is when you cast blame on yourself for every negative thing that may happen in your life. If your significant other is in a bad mood, you automatically think that it must have been something that you did that made him that way. Or your friend is bored, you think it’s because you’re boring.
How to Recognize Your Own Cognitive Distortions
After understanding what the distortions are, you are able to watch to see what distortions you may accidentally be using in your life. Here are some techniques I’ve used to identify them, so that I can begin to remove them from my thinking.
Pay attention to what distortions stood out to you on the list
Go through the list one by one and see which ones immediately stand out to you, they’re probably the ones you use the most.
Write down the ones you feel like you might have
Be honest with yourself. You might feel embarrassed to admit how many you have, but the point is to be completely honest with yourself in order to change. Everyone has some kind of cognitive distortion.
Write some examples of you using the distortion underneath them
For example — under the Making it personal distortion, I wrote, “When my boyfriend is mad, I always think it’s something I did wrong, regardless of whether I actually did anything wrong.”
Consider why you have this distortion
Was there an experience that triggered this way of thinking? Why do you think you continue to have this distortion?
Talk to someone about the distortions you have
It might be helpful to ask someone you trust to point them out to you when you are using these distortions. It’s helped me a lot to have my mom keep me in check by telling me when I’m distorting reality.
Write down some alternatives
What is the actual truth of the situation? Question what you really know as fact, and what you think you know via assumptions or reading (and perhaps misreading) context.
Continuing with the example above, I might write, “When my boyfriend is mad, I can’t assume I know what the cause is unless he expresses that directly to me.” (I might notice, then, that I might also have some mind-reading distortions.)
If you’re not sure what the truth is, write down some potential alternatives. For example, “He might have had a bad day at work.” or “It’s possible that this has nothing to do with me.”
Identifying Negative Rules And Assumptions
Part of what cognitive distortions do is set assumptions and rules to follow. One negative opinion or assumption initiates a framework for what I can and cannot do—it becomes the rule.
Watch for patterns in your negative thinking, and explore the underlying themes to reveal the distorted rules you’re living by. Examples of rules we might have include:
- “I’m too ugly to find love.”
- “I sing way too off-key to even sing in front of friends.”
- “I’m not going to paint because I suck at it.”
- “I won’t date anymore because I screw up every relationship.”
The unconscious goal of this kind of rule-making is safety. Our brains are looking out for us, constantly trying to keep us safe. When we put ourselves in scary situations where we feel vulnerable, our subconscious mind makes up rules ensuring that painful situations won’t happen to us again. It’s a form of extreme risk aversion.
The 4 steps exercise to challenge rules and assumptions
Once you’ve identified some of these rules that you’ve bought into, here’s how you can challenge them.
- Write down the rule or assumption that you would like to change; for example, “I feel like people think I’m socially awkward, therefore, my rule is ‘I don’t go to parties’.”
- Was there a cognitive distortion involved in creating this assumption about yourself? Which one(s)? “I’m a socially awkward person” was based on the “I feel therefore it must be true” distortion ‘because I was feeling awkward’, therefore I must be an awkward person. Also, the binocular effect distortion by making the situation feel like a bigger deal than it really was.
- 3. Describe how the rule or assumption affects your day to day life. Continuing with the example, “I decided that I can’t go to parties or social functions anymore because I’m too socially awkward, so whenever there is a get-together, I decide to stay home. This sometimes makes me feel lonely or like I’m lacking a social life, and it might be stopping me from making friends or finding love.”
- When did this rule happen? What situation caused you to adopt it? Why do you continue to follow it? “I felt like I embarrassed myself when I didn’t know what to say to people at a party. I decided it was because I’m an awkward person. I went home and told myself I would never go to another party. I continue to follow it because I’m scared of embarrassing myself and feeling like an awkward person again.”
Fact or Opinion Exercise
Once you’ve started recognizing your own negative behavior and thoughts that are brought on by cognitive distortions, you can start to challenge your thoughts more naturally. Gaining this perspective trains you to be more objective about the thoughts that come in your mind.
The next exercise to try is simply to ask yourself, “Is this negative thought a fact or an opinion?”
An opinion is a judgment that you have created based off of little to no facts.
A fact is something that can be proven with tangible, quantifiable evidence.
Examples of negative facts and opinions
- I am stupid. (Opinion)
- I have no friends. (Opinion)
- He yelled at me. (Fact)
- I have gained weight. (Fact)
- I’m disgusting. (Opinion)
- I failed the test. (Fact)
- I am a failure. (Opinion)
- I will never find someone. (Opinion)
- He’s as good as I’ll get. (Opinion)
- I didn’t help my friend when she asked me to. (Fact)
- I am a bad friend. (Opinion)
Now, what thoughts are on a record player in your mind? Write down the negative ones and put your thoughts on trial — are they a fact or an opinion?
If they are facts, that’s great, it just means you have something to work on.
The opinions can be thrown out, they are not based off enough fact to be helpful.
Don’t let the distortions confuse you into thinking that the opinions are fact, try to be objective about it.
3 Step to Challenging Negative Opinions in Real Time
Once you’re able to be objective about the thought, and you’ve deduced that it’s not a fac but only an opinion, then you can begin the steps below to work through them to a more positive mindset.
1. Counter the thought immediately
Be authoritative to it. Tell your thought “no”—or my personal favorite, “shut up.”
You can go as far as to write the thought down on a piece of paper, rip it up, and throw it in the trash or burn it. But whatever you do, you must be authoritative. Be careful to not just repress the thought — acknowledge the thought as you would a stranger talking to you, but don’t entertain them more than that. You have permission to simply tell it “no” and move on.
2. Challenge the opinions disguised as facts
When a thought comes to mind, take inventory of it thought by deciding what parts of it are actually true or just as opinion disguised as truth. If there are elements that are based on truth, then great, you have something to work on and change. However, if it is in fact just a negative opinion, then make it a goal to find the truth—or at least other possible truths.
3. Counter these thoughts with actual facts
This step should be slow and steady. When you are confronted with a negative thought, go through the first two steps then once you’re feeling comfortable enough, try taking it a step further by countering it with an actual fact about yourself. The thought says that “You’re ugly and no one really loves you”, tell it “No, I am beautiful and I have ____ and ____ who love me.” This is not only stopping them, but it is also countering it with facts to back it up.
One word of caution based on my own experience: thinking positive for the first time in a long time might make you feel stupid for even trying to find facts to back it up. Your brain might even try to disprove your facts.
Don’t give in. Keep repeating the facts over and over to yourself until you don’t feel that embarrassment or until the “this is silly” feeling subsides. Keep saying it until it becomes truth.
It might be easier for you to find alternative facts for yourself if you imagine this scenario with someone else. Think of someone you care about coming to you with the same sort of negative thoughts. What would you tell them? Undoubtedly, you would compassionately counteract their negative thoughts with something more factual and loving.
Being Free of Distortions, Rules, and Opinions
It’s going to take some time to stop the cycle of negativity, but once you see the cognitive distortions and negative opinions for what they are, they will become easier to combat.
Eventually, the thoughts become fewer and further between.
In recent months since I’ve stopped letting fear and negative thought have authority over my life — I’m much more in control and much happier. I realized no one else really was thinking these bad things about me; in fact, it was as if the distortions themselves were fabricating these negative opinions about me.
I acknowledged my cognitive distortions and am in the process of changing them, and removing many unnecessary long-held rules I’d imposed on my life. I am now able to differentiate opinion from fact, learning to challenge my negative opinions with facts.
There is immense freedom in having these inner tools to change what’s holding you back from happiness.