Cognitive Distortions: The Faulty Glasses We All Wear
Cognitive distortions are thoughts that cause us to perceive reality inaccurately. They distort our cognitions, so the way we think, know, remember, judge and problem-solve. Every single human experiences them from time to time, and they can cause us to make serious errors in judgment.
We can think of cognitive distortions as a pair of faulty glasses. Instead of helping us see more clearly, there's multiple cracks in the glass. In fact, the more we try to view the situation through the lens, the harder it is to see it objectively. More often than not, we get frustrated, overwhelmed and end up thinking quite negatively. Imagine trying to make decisions based off what you see. It comes at a cost. So how do we take them off so we can make better decisions?
A little history
Coined by psychiatrist Aaron Beck in 1963, cognitive distortions form some of the foundational building blocks in cognitive psychology. Cognitive psychologists believe that how we think—how we interpret the world—impacts how we feel and act. In the same year, Beck put forward the idea of the cognitive triangle: how our thoughts, emotions and behaviours are all interconnected with each other. You can check it out here:
Now let's introduce ourselves to some common distortions.
In the 1980s, psychiatrist and professor David Burns built on the theory by giving them common names and examples. You may have heard of overgeneralisation: "Why am I always late?", or personalisation: "I knew they didn't like me when they rushed off". Some distortions are really common. I've modified the definitions and examples so they're easier to digest. See how many you relate to!
Black and white thinking: When we see events in extremes. Sometimes referred to as All-or-nothing thinking. e.g. I made a mistake at work. I'm so shit at my job!
Catastrophising: When we assume the worst about a situation. Sometimes referred to as magnification e.g. My manager is consistently late to our one-on-ones. They must not care about me.
Emotional reasoning: When we believe something is true because of how we feel despite empirical evidence. e.g. I feel like this person doesn't like me therefore it must be true.
Fallacy of fairness: When we measure every behaviour and situation on a scale of fairness despite everyone having different scales. e.g. Jennifer got a promotion, and I didn't! That's not fair.
Fortune telling: When we predict that something is going to turn out negatively e.g. They'll never hire me anyway, so why should I apply?
Labelling: When we put a negative label on ourselves—or others—so they we no longer see the person behind the label e.g. I didn't complete the last task. Why am I so lazy?
Mental filter (Selective abstraction): When we focus on the negatives and filter out positive experiences from a situation e.g. Even though most of the feedback was positive, I can't believe that last point!
Mind reading: When we assume that we know and understand what another person is thinking e.g. I messaged a teammate about a project idea and they haven't replied? They must hate the idea.
Minimisation (Discounting the positive): When we take something positive and minimise it in our lives. e.g. I got a promotion but it was just luck.
Overgeneralization: When we take a negative event about a situation and make it a universal truth about our lives. e.g. I stuttered at the start of my presentation, I'll never be good at public speaking.
Personalisation: When we believe we're responsible for events that are in reality—completely or partially—out of our control. e.g. My friend doesn't like podcasts and I run a podcast. They must not like my podcast.
"Shoulds": When we think in “shoulds” and “musts” which puts pressure on ourselves. e.g. I shouldn't have made that mistake.
How many do you relate to? Are there any that stand out to you more than others? Thinking about the types of cognitive distortions that might affect us is really helpful. This is where being really honest with yourself helps! I used to be really prone to personalisation, and still find "shoulds" really hard to break out of.
While cognitive distortions can affect us all, we can minimise them with certain strategies.
Build awareness. Learning about cognitive distortions is one of your best defences. Once you have an idea of what exists, you can learn to identify them. You don't need to know all of them to get started. Start with an area that you struggle in and monitor your thoughts for a day e.g. your confidence, ability to get things done, a troublesome work dynamic etc.
Learn to interrupt negative thoughts with facts. If you have a negative thought that's impacting your day-to-day, ask yourself: Is there any evidence for this? This helps ground your perspective in reality. You could even write a list of evidence for and evidence against.
Make observations, not evaluations. Try to think about the situation as objectively as possible. Many people underestimate the impact of language on the way we see situations. For example: "My manager thinks I'm inadequate" (evaluation) vs. "My manager tends to praise other team members" (observation). Next time, you find yourself drawing an evaluation of a situation try to reframe it as an observation!
Ask for feedback: Sometimes it can be helpful to ask a friend or co-worker to help you unpack a situation objectively. You can ask a handful of people you trust to test how realistic your thoughts are on a certain idea. e.g. Let's say you have a fear of public speaking, and you feel like you're ineloquent. Asking people you trust can help ground your beliefs in reality.
Do a cost-benefit analysis: Think about the cost of continuing a certain thought pattern. We tend to think in certain ways because they've proven to be beneficial to us in the past. You can ask yourself a series of questions: "If I continue to do this, how does this help me? What's the cost for not challenging or discontinuing these thoughts?"
Remember: it's perfectly normal to experience cognitive distortions. It's part of being human! However, being wary of the ways that our brain sometimes distorts how we think, know, remember, judge and problem-solve can help us make better decisions in the long run.