Cognitive Distortions and impact on emotions and behaviors.

Steve Oh
Steve Oh
Feb 13, 2017 · 6 min read
Visual Illusion

We have hundreds of thoughts each and every day. Thoughts ranging from the mundane and non-memorable to thoughts that reach down to our core and really impact us.

I’m wondering what I should wear today?

That dog is cute.

I hate my job.

I’m not good enough.

We all have these thoughts. Something happens in our environment to elicit us to think something. Whether you see a happy, floppy cocker spaniel walk by, to a person holding the door for you, or even the way your friend’s face looks when telling a story, or even the story itself!. The environment is always providing some sort of stimulus that makes us attempt to comprehend what’s going on.

What get’s us into trouble is when we start distorting those thoughts, where they are not really based on reality or what actually happened, and they begin to impact us deeply on an emotional and behavioral level.

Cognitive (thought) Distortions can be defined as such:

Cognitive distortions are simply ways that our mind convinces us of something that isn’t really true. — John M. Grohol, Psy.D

Here are a list of common cognitive distortions:

1. Filtering.

We take the negative details and magnify them while filtering out all positive aspects of a situation. For instance, a person may pick out a single, unpleasant detail and dwell on it exclusively so that their vision of reality becomes darkened or distorted.

2. Polarized Thinking (or “Black and White” Thinking).

In polarized thinking, things are either “black-or-white.” We have to be perfect or we’re a failure — there is no middle ground. You place people or situations in “either/or” categories, with no shades of gray or allowing for the complexity of most people and situations. If your performance falls short of perfect, you see yourself as a total failure.

3. Overgeneralization.

In this cognitive distortion, we come to a general conclusion based on a single incident or a single piece of evidence. If something bad happens only once, we expect it to happen over and over again. A person may see a single, unpleasant event as part of a never-ending pattern of defeat.

4. Jumping to Conclusions.

Without individuals saying so, we know what they are feeling and why they act the way they do. In particular, we are able to determine how people are feeling toward us.

5. Catastrophizing.

We expect disaster to strike, no matter what. This is also referred to as “magnifying or minimizing.” We hear about a problem and use what if questions (e.g., “What if tragedy strikes?” “What if it happens to me?”).

With practice, you can learn to answer each of these cognitive distortions.

6. Personalization.

Personalization is a distortion where a person believes that everything others do or say is some kind of direct, personal reaction to the person. We also compare ourselves to others trying to determine who is smarter, better looking, etc.

A person engaging in personalization may also see themselves as the cause of some unhealthy external event that they were not responsible for. For example, “We were late to the dinner party and caused the hostess to overcook the meal. If I had only pushed my husband to leave on time, this wouldn’t have happened.”

7. Control Fallacies.

If we feel externally controlled, we see ourselves as helpless a victim of fate. For example, “I can’t help it if the quality of the work is poor, my boss demanded I work overtime on it.” The fallacy of internal control has us assuming responsibility for the pain and happiness of everyone around us.

8. Fallacy of Fairness.

We feel resentful because we think we know what is fair, but other people won’t agree with us. As our parents tell us when we’re growing up and something doesn’t go our way, “Life isn’t always fair.” People who go through life applying a measuring ruler against every situation judging its “fairness” will often feel badly and negative because of it. Because life isn’t “fair” — things will not always work out in your favor, even when you think they should.

9. Blaming.

We hold other people responsible for our pain, or take the other track and blame ourselves for every problem.

10. Shoulds.

We have a list of ironclad rules about how others and we should behave. People who break the rules make us angry, and we feel guilty when we violate these rules. A person may often believe they are trying to motivate themselves with shoulds and shouldn’ts, as if they have to be punished before they can do anything.

11. Emotional Reasoning.

We believe that what we feel must be true automatically. If we feel stupid and boring, then we must be stupid and boring. You assume that your unhealthy emotions reflect he way things really are — “I feel it, therefore it must be true.”

12. Fallacy of Change.

We expect that other people will change to suit us if we just pressure or cajole them enough. We need to change people because our hopes for happiness seem to depend entirely on them.

13. Global Labeling.

We generalize one or two qualities into a negative global judgment. These are extreme forms of generalizing, and are also referred to as “labeling” and “mislabeling.” Instead of describing an error in context of a specific situation, a person will attach an unhealthy label to themselves.

14. Always Being Right.

We are continually on trial to prove that our opinions and actions are correct. Being wrong is unthinkable and we will go to any length to demonstrate our rightness.

15. Heaven’s Reward Fallacy.

We expect our sacrifice and self-denial to pay off, as if someone is keeping score. We feel bitter when the reward doesn’t come.

  • Credits to Psych Central

Each person has their own thought filtering process. This is based on our history, experience, and core beliefs about ourselves, the world, and our future. The exact same event can happen to two people, but they may have vastly different thoughts and opinions about them.

How many legs does the elephant above have? 4? 5?

Two people can look at that image and have differing conclusions. Both equally true to the person making the speculation. Having a differing opinion will have little to no impact. No person’s day will be guided by knowing how many legs the elephant had (well, I hope not). It’s when these thoughts begin to evoke emotions and drive behavior that we need to take a closer look at them. Especially, when we begin to distort the same image, event, interaction, or reality, and it makes us feel a certain way and (re)act in ways that do not match the triggering event.

What generally happens (as CBT practitioners believe it), is this:

Environmental trigger -> Thought -> Emotion -> Maladaptive behavior

And that maladaptive behavior generally confirms the original thought (distortion), beginning a new cycle of unhelpful thoughts, emotions, and behaviors, and so on, and so on. It gets messy, doesn’t it?


Getting a low mark on a test

Initial thought(distortion): I am stupid. -> Emotion: Self-loathing -> Behavior -> Not engaging in more studying

Not engaging in more studying will ultimately lead to another low mark on a test -> thought: I really am stupid, I’m worthless -> Emotion -> hate for self -> Behavior ->Not engaging in pleasurable activities.

This is obviously an expedited version of what occurs, but it happens quickly and without us being fully aware that we’re doing it. You can surmise after a few more low marks on a test that this initial thought becomes a core belief about yourself.

Core beliefs are the very essence of how we see ourselves, other people, the world, and the future. Sometimes, these core beliefs become ‘activated’ in certain situations. — Center for Critical Intervention

It doesn’t take too long for us to begin building negative core beliefs about ourselves, on the backs of distorted thought processes. The even more difficult process is changing or challenging the core beliefs once they become engrained in our lives.

The challenge today then, is for us to be aware of these maladaptive patterns of thinking. How much of an impact do they have on our daily functioning? How do I really respond to some distortions about myself, the world, or my future?

Which distortions do you struggle with on a daily basis?

Psyche Affectus