10 Ways Your Thinkin’ Might Be Stinkin’

The Thinker
The Thinker by Auguste Rodin (French, 1840–1917) is licensed under CC-CC0 1.0

Through the House-of-Mirrors’-Glasses

Are you realizing that your negative thinking has something – if not everything – to do with your bad moods? A familiarity with the 10 Cognitive Distortions will help you get out of the funk! If you’re already familiar with CBT and the 10 Cognitive Distortions, this article will still give you some new insight, and if you are job is helping others get out of their funk it will also tell you how a familiarity with the 10 Distortions can be helpful in working with your clients even if you don’t do CBT. (More about that at the end of the article.)1

So what are they? In short, cognitive distortions are ways that your thinking is distorting reality, like looking at your reflection in a House of Mirrors. When you think negative thoughts, you tend to feel negative. The idea is, if you don’t believe the thoughts, you won’t feel bad anymore. The good news is that almost all negative thoughts that lead to stuck negative feelings are logically wrong, and more often than not examining them to see why they don’t make sense helps you see things in a new way so you don’t feel sad, mad, anxious or bad anymore! So let’s unpack this:

What’s the Difference Between the Distortions – and Why 10?

I’m jumping the gun, because you can’t ask the difference between them before they are listed, but this is a common question that clients that ask – because any negative thought may have several or all of the distortions and it gets confusing.

So I’m going to kill two birds with one stone by listing the distortions in bold as Dr. David Burns describes them in his (copyrighted) Daily Mood Log Tool, and I’ll add my own comments which will hopefully give further clarity and explanation of the unique thinking error of each distortion.

Here it goes:

1. All-or-Nothing Thinking. You view things in absolute, black-and-white categories.

This distortion is about the way you assign value to yourself, others, an action or an object. Putting all of a set into two polar opposite categories is not a clear way of viewing reality. Are all objects either “heavy,” or “light”? That’s a relative question based on who is asking who and what the situation is – two answers don’t cut it. It’s almost like asking: Are all colors either “red” or “blue”?

2. Overgeneralization. You view a negative event as a never-ending pattern of defeat: “This always happens!” 

This assumes that the quality of one event will affect all events. But David said it can also apply to an item within a set when you assume that the whole group is reflected in that one item.

This distortion is different from all-or-nothing… All-or-nothing is how you assign value; overgeneralization is when you make assumptions that one event (or thing) dictates what will always be (or the nature of anything else that fits into the same category as the item).

3. Mental Filter. You dwell on the negatives and ignore the positives.

This is about your focus. You are aware of the positives, but you are focusing and dwelling on the negatives.

It’s not the same as All-or Nothing, because although All-or Nothing can serve to inflate the significance/value of something, this thinking error discribes a distortion in how things can logically be evaluated/assigned value.

It’s different from number 4, Discounting the Positives, because you may still acknowledge that the positives are real, but you’re just ignoring them.

4. Discounting the Positive. You insist that your positive qualities don’t count.

With this distortion you are telling yourself that something positive isn’t really a positive. Unlike Mental filter – which is a distortion of focus – with Discounting the Positive you are completely negating the value of the positive by giving it a neutral (or even negative!) value. (Getting an A doesn’t mean I know the material well or that I’m intelligent, I just got lucky… Etc.)

5. Jumping to Conclusions. You jump to conclusions not warranted by the facts.

* Mind Reading. You assume that people are reacting negatively to you.

* Fortune-Telling. You predict that things will turn out badly.

(These are pretty clear cut; they both assume you have paranormal abilities.)

6. Magnification and Minimization. You blow things out of proportion or shrink them.

This is about increasing or decreasing the significance and value of something. It’s different than mental filter, because it’s not about the focus on something and not the other, it’s about giving more weight or value to that thing.

With Magnification you aren’t just focusing on it as in mental filter, you are making it bigger than it is… so it could be that you notice and acknowledge positives, but the negative in the thing you are looking at is made out to be so much bigger than it is.

Minimization isn’t exactly Discounting the Positive, because in Discounting the Positive you are giving reasons why the factor is meaningless – with minimization you see the factor as less important.

7. Emotional Reasoning. You reason from your feelings: “I feel like an idiot, so I must really be one.”

Your negative feelings dictate your perception of reality. We tend to think about reality in a negative way when we are feeling difficult feelings.

8. Should Statements. You use shoulds, shouldn’ts, musts, oughts, and have tos.

So you get frustrated or angry when you, another person, or the world doesn’t align with your rules: the way people should act or you should be. Fairly straightforward, but perhaps some insights:

A should implies that you are breaking rules and you deserve punishment. And the world not being the way you think it should results in frustration. But anger is an adaptive biological response to an attacker, why should “rule breaking” result in anger?

I would posit than when should statement results in anger it means that we are viewing others or even the universe in general as a threat – we feel that their violation of our should rules is an act of aggression. It means we are viewing the other person – or God/the universe itself (!) – as an aggressor.

9. Labeling. Instead of saying, “I made a mistake,” you say, “I’m a jerk” or “I’m a loser.”

Yup. Labeling is what we do to enemies to dehumanize them and justify our lack of compassion. And it’s also not nice to do it to ourselves!

David points out that this is a type of inflated overgeneralization. I might add that labeling is always a way of personally denigrating someone and putting them in the rejected “other or enemy” category. When we do this to ourselves we feel a sense of shame.

10. Blame. You find fault instead of solving the problem.

* Self-Blame. You blame yourself for something you weren’t entirely responsible for.

* Other-Blame. You blame others and overlook ways you contributed to the problem.

This is a great temporary stress reliever, but it’s not so helpful in the long term! 🙂 See my insights on “should statements.” Blame always involves ‘should’ rules, but it also involves assigning responsibility to someone when it isn’t clear that it is actually lies with them.

What do I do with this and what does it do for me?

So when you have a thought that causes you distress, you can examine it and ask yourself if any of these thinking errors are present. Then you can ask yourself if there is a more positive and realistic way of thinking – sometimes this can work to change the way you think and feel right away! Although this technique won’t usually completely eliminate your belief in or attachment to the thought, examining the thought in this way will almost always reduce its believability or loosen its hold on you, making it easier to feel better and/or live according to your values.

In classic CBT identifying distortions in your thinking serves to weaken your belief in a negative thought, so you can replace it with a more positive and realistic thought. Classic CBT posits that all negative emotion is the result of a negative, distorted thought, and replacing it with a positive realistic thought will result in positive emotions. Identifying the different reasons why a thought is illogical serves this end.

But I’m not a CBT Therapist..

But what if you’re a therapist, and you don’t really subscribe to the standard cognitive CBT model and don’t really want to start being a CBT therapist… how would this be useful to you?

I think examining thoughts in this way could definitely be useful for an ACT practitioner, because even if the goal is acceptance of thoughts and feelings, and not avoidance or change, still, this technique can model defusion/unhooking from a thought in order to give space for someone to act in a way that’s in line with their values. When you examine a thought and how you are thinking, it helps give you distance from the thought so it has less power over you – even if your intention isn’t to change your thoughts or feelings.

A psychodynamic therapist might use the technique as a springboard: “Why do you tend to think that way? Have you always thought this way? Can you tell me more about what that feels like? When we sit here together and you see that you think like this, how is that for you?” A trauma focused therapist might ask how thinking this way has served to protect the client as a child. Or an IFS practitioner might ask which part of themselves wants you to think in this way, ask the part what it’s trying to do for you. Etc…

In the last examples it may make more sense for the therapist to make the connection on behalf of the client – but I think it should be clear why the ideas behind the 10 Cognitive Distortions could be helpful for a therapist to keep in mind, especially with a more integrative approach.

I’m thinking it it would be great if you could give it a try! Let everyone know how it goes in the comments. 🙂

1. The 10 Cognitive Distortions have become so ubiquitous in the CBT world that people may forget the list of 10 cognitive distortions were originally developed by Dr. David Burns and presented to the public in his book Feeling Good (A best seller translated into 12 languages!).

(David is now focusing on his new framework of therapy TEAM, which adds elements and structure that augment any therapy modality – but he still loves using the “Identify the Distortions” technique. For those interested in learning about the TEAM framework, I’ll be posting about what it is, why this new therapy framework is so effective and why I’m attending weekly TEAM practice groups.)

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