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May 2, 2016

List of Common Cognitive Distortions



Whether the diagnosis be depression, bipolar, anxiety, anger issues, chronic pain or _______ (insert disorder of your choice), in other word, virtually all psychological conditions, identifying cognitive distortions is a very important step in treatment.

What is a cognitive distortion? Also known as automatic negative thoughts (ANTs), these are thinking patterns that are largely inaccurate. Using ANTs repeatedly and in a variety of situations can lead to any number of symptoms including:  anger outbursts, sadness, hopelessness, mistrust, procrastination and the darling of psychotherapy, guilt.  In a previous post I give a better explanation of cognitive distortions so I invite you to click here to learn more.

Today I'd like to share lists of commonly used ANTs.  Occasionally I go online to look for lists of faulty thinking patterns as a refresher or to learn a few that I'm not familiar with.  Like earlier this month, for example.  I was writing my notes and struggling to remember the pattern used by someone I am seeing.  I came across this list of 15 Common Cognitive Distortions posted by John Grohol, PsyD, at PsychCentral:


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. In my office, this is known as "All or None 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.

Here I will add the All or Nones that I hear frequently:  

Always
Never
Every (especially when followed by, "Single. Time!")
Can't
Nothing

Listen to your words the next time you are arguing with a loved one.  Or theirs.  I bet you will here more than a few of these words sprinkled throughout.  

3. Overgeneralization.

We come to a general conclusion based on a single incident or piece of evidence. If something bad happens once, we expect it to happen over and over again. A person may see a single, unpleasant event as 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. For example, a person may conclude that someone is reacting negatively toward them and don’t actually bother to find out if they are correct. Another example is a person may anticipate that things will turn out badly, and will feel convinced that their prediction is already an established fact.

5. Catastrophizing.  This one is big, folks.

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?”).

For example, a person might exaggerate the importance of insignificant events (such as their mistake, or someone else’s achievement). Or they may inappropriately shrink the magnitude of significant events until they appear tiny (for example, a person’s own desirable qualities or someone else’s imperfections).

6. Personalization.

Thinking that everything people do or say is some kind of reaction to us. We also compare ourselves to others trying to determine who is smarter, better looking, etc. A person sees themselves as the cause of some unhealthy external event that the 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. For example, “Why aren’t you happy? Is it because of something I did?”

8. Fallacy of Fairness.  Another big one.

We feel resentful because we think we know what is fair, but other people won’t agree with us. As our parents tell us, “Life is always fair,” and people who go through life applying a measuring ruler against every situation judging its “fairness” will often feel badly and negative because of it.

9. Blaming.

We hold other people responsible for our pain, or take the other track and blame ourselves for every problem. For example, “Stop making me feel bad about myself!” Nobody can “make” us feel any particular way — only we have control over our own emotions and emotional reactions.

10. Shoulds.  One of the easiest to identify.  You hear the word?  Change it.  

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.

For example, “I really should exercise. I shouldn’t be so lazy.” Musts and oughts are also offenders. The emotional consequence is guilt. When a person directs should statements toward others, they often feel anger, frustration and resentment.

Here's an example of changing a should:  replace with a "want" or a "wish" statement.  


I shouldn't eat this candy.         ---------->      I don't want to eat this because I want to lose weight.

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.”

"Feelings are not facts" is a common phrase heard at Recovery, Inc., support group meetings for people suffering with depression and anxiety disorders.  And as I like to put it, just because I feel it, doesn't make it true.  Just because I am angry doesn't mean the person I am angry at did something to deserve my yelling or cursing at them.  

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.

For example, they may say, “I’m a loser” in a situation where they failed at a specific task. When someone else’s behavior rubs a person the wrong way, they may attach an unhealthy label to him, such as “He’s a real jerk.” Mislabeling involves describing an event with language that is highly colored and emotionally loaded. For example, instead of saying someone drops her children off at daycare every day, a person who is mislabeling might say that “she abandons her children to strangers.”

14. Always Being Right.  Anyone spot the All or None language right in the name?

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. For example, “I don’t care how badly arguing with me makes you feel, I’m going to win this argument no matter what because I’m right.” Being right often is more important than the feelings of others around a person who engages in this cognitive distortion, even loved ones.

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.

What to do about these negative thinking patterns?  Dr. Grohol was kind enough to include a link to Fixing Cognitive Distortions, another tool for helping rid oneself of these pesky, repetitious thoughts.


--Sandy Andrews, PhD 
Clinical Psychologist
Austin, TX