Distorted Thinking

Today I want to talk about one of my favorite teaching topics, which is called “Distorted Thinking” though I must give credit to Aaron Beck (who developed the theory behind cognitive distortions) and David Burns who further defined these common distortions.

Cognitive therapy basically says that thoughts are the origin of our feelings, action impulses and ultimately our behavior. In other words, it is not what happens to us that determines our experience, it is our interpretation of what happened that causes our feelings and ultimately our response.

Your thoughts and beliefs determine just about everything about your life and your experience living-from how you dress, to where you live, how you communicate, what kinds of relationships you attract, and how happy you are. When Yoda said “Be mindful of your thoughts” to the Jedi Masters in Star Wars, he was not mincing his words.

When you master your thoughts and beliefs, you will see extraordinary changes in yourself and ultimately your life. I think that the first step going about taking charge of your thinking is recognizing what those subtle thought distortions are and how they are toying with your sense of reality.

Here are some very common tricky thought distortions;

1. Black and White Thinking: It’s basically the fallacy that it is all this or all that (no in between). I am either all good or all bad. They are either the good guys or the bad guys. I must be totally perfect or I am a total failure. It’s all or nothing.

Here’s an example;
A person was raised by parents who were critical or had high ideals. They never really felt like they measured up. They may have said to themselves “If I’m not perfect, I’m no good”. So for many years they try and try to do everything right and so they can finally reach the ever elusive ideal. But as time goes by, many perfectionists realize that the summit of perfection is always a little bit higher, a little bit better, a little bit more. And because they feel that they need to be perfect or else they are no good, they fall into despair (often depression).

Someone who has this belief that they are either all good or all bad, may turn to scapegoating. One might see scapegoating as a coping mechanism against a deep-seeded fear of being rejected or being bad. On a societal level, one could argue that black and white thinking is at the root of war, racism, and the urge to be judgmental.

A more balanced way of thinking is to recognize that life comes in all shades. We all come from a variety of experiences and backgrounds, part personality, part chance. And because we are highly complex, we can’t help but all be in the middle somewhere trying to make our way up the mountain.

2. Catastrophizing: Lying in bed at 1 am thinking about all of the awful things that could (however remotely) happen and how AWFUL that would be.
“What if…(insert catastrophe here).”
“And then if (said catastrophe) happened, then (another catastrophe) would happen, and then (an even worse catastrophe) would probably happen and that would be the end of me”.

This is a good way to lose sleep and give yourself anxiety attacks. As I said before, thoughts create emotions. Fear-provoking thoughts create fearful feelings. Often this type of thinking comes from early experiences that made the catastrophic thinker feel unsafe. It can be seen as a coping mechanism-a way to feel in control or prepared.

One way that I have found that works well to get rid of fear-provoking thoughts (and their resulting feelings) is to shift my attention to loving thoughts. Wishing good things for people I love, wishing good things for people who have slighted me and the world in general. Focus on happy memories and cheerful moments.

3. Overgeneralization: “He cheated on me, therefore, all men are bastards”. Basically this distorted thinking style takes one incident and makes a broad sweeping conclusion. The survival aspect of your brain (or as eastern philosophies would call your ego) is constantly concerned with avoiding harm, whether it’s harm to your body, your things, your reputation, or your self-image. Often, overgeneralization is the mind/ego’s way of trying to protect you by eliminating anything remotely related to what may have harmed you in the past.

So if you find yourself thinking in terms of “always”, “never”, or “all” after having a negative experience, try to see if you can narrow down your conclusion to something that won’t narrow your opportunities for happiness in the future. Instead of joining a nunnery and swearing off men, perhaps you can just be a little bit pickier next time.

4. Mind Reading: Just by the way she is looking at you, you know she doesn’t like you. He says you look nice, but you know he is thinking you have put on a few pounds. If he really loved you, he would already know what you wanted him to do. Mind reading is just that. It is assuming that you know what someone else’s motivations or thoughts are before bothering to ask.

Does he (or she) know what you want without you telling him? Don’t count on it!!
Can you read other people’s minds? I doubt it!!

5. Personalization: It’s all about you!!!
Whatever happens, whatever someone says, it’s all because of something YOU said or did. If things went wrong, no matter how remote your part, it’s all YOUR fault.

This form of thought distortion is believing that whatever happens around you is a direct reflection or result of something that you did or said or didn’t do or say. What an awful responsibility that would be wouldn’t it? One could say that this is also a self-protective coping mechanism, giving the thinker the illusion that they have more control than they do over events that occur around them.

“If I would have just (done such and such a thing)…then (the event to be avoided) would have never happened. It’s all my fault”.
“She divorced her husband? Oh no, probably because I wasn’t there when she called that one Saturday to talk her through their problems.”

Imagine a world filled with people, each person the center of their own little universe. To an extent, we all think we are at the center of everything, at least we are to ourselves right? But the truth is, there are many reasons why other people do the things that they do, or why things happen the way that they happen…things that have nothing to do with us. Humbling perhaps, but freeing all the same.

6. Fallacy of Fairness:
This is the belief that everything in life should be fair, at least what we see as fair. A person who practices this form of distorted thinking may go about judging all sorts of situations to determine whether it is fair or unfair, perhaps becoming very upset when something is deemed unjust.

True, the list of things that seem unfair about the world has no end, but taking the time to reflect upon all the things that shouldn’t be that are, or the things that should be that aren’t tends to accomplish little more than generate angry and resentful feelings. To be blunt, regardless of how the world “should” be, it is what it is and the sooner you can accept that, the happier you’ll be.

7. Emotional Reasoning: “I feel rejected, therefore I am being rejected”.
Emotional reasoning is turning feelings into facts. Perhaps you feel anxious while flying, so decide that you must be in immediate danger. Perhaps you feel insecure about the one you love, so you decide they must not love you anymore.

Feelings are feelings. They can come from intuition, sure, though intuition is more of a still, quiet knowing than a feeling. They can also come from thoughts, lack of sleep, poor eating, mood altering substances (or withdrawal from). They can come from past experiences, automatic thoughts, misunderstandings, and allergies. They can come from the phase of the moon, hormones, and illness.

8. Needing To Always Be Right
I think of Brainy Smurf when I think of this one, going to great lengths to prove that he is competent, smart, and right in everything that he says. Sometimes people believe that it is so important to be right, they will sooner burn bridges than admit defeat, fighting to the bitter end for their side, no matter what the cost.

Perhaps Brainy Smurf was a middle child, neglected unless he was helping Papa Smurf look up a spell or fix a problem and he came to believe that his only worth was in having all the right answers.

9. Filtering: Filtering out all of the positive and enhancing the negative.
What actually happened: “It was a sunny day, I had a nice cup of coffee and sat down to work. I got a nice email from my sister and began to write back when I spilled my coffee down my lap. I managed to clean it up, had a nice lunch with Brenda and had salad, saw a really funny video on Youtube during my break and got three compliments on my shoes. Unfortunately on the way home I was speeding 10 miles over and got a ticket.”

Filtered Version: “It was the worst day ever. I went to work (on a sunny day no less, and you know how few of those we get around here) and spilled coffee all over myself. I was like, totally covered. It took me 45 minutes just to get slightly out and I swear everyone was laughing at me behind my back. Then to make matters worse some &^*%()* cop pulls me over and gives me a massive ticket just for going a few over. I swear they live just to make me suffer.”

10. Shoulds, Musts, and Oughts:
A little like the fair/unfair fallacy, this fallacy relates to our preoccupation with what should, shouldn’t, must, must not and ought or ought not be.
“I should go to the gym” (guilt).
“He should have taken out the trash” (resentment).
“She shouldn’t have done that” (anger).
“I really ought to visit so-and-so even though they constantly criticize me” (guilt and resentment).

In my experience, the more focused on the shoulds and oughts a person is the more angry and guilty they tend to feel (and ironically less productive). The more the person can embrace and work with what is, the happier and more productive they will become. It doesn’t matter what they should or shouldn’t do, they will do what they will do. It doesn’t matter what you should or shouldn’t do, what matters is what you will or will not do.

11. The Blame Game: “It’s all your fault!!!…or is it all my fault?!”
You can go to either extreme here, either blaming everyone else for your actions (ie “Why did you make me angry so I had to break the chair?” or “Well if I never would have talked back to him, I wouldn’t have made him angry. It’s all my fault he broke the chair”).

It can feel a little self-satisfying to blame other people for what are partially your mistakes (believe me, I know). It’s not as fun to take the full blame for what is only partially your fault.

At any rate, most arguments and situations have multiple errors involved on multiple sides. The sooner they can all accept a partial amount of responsibility for the problem, the sooner everyone can start agreeing about something.

12. Fallacy of Change: Should they change to suit you? Does your happiness depend upon them becoming who you would like them to be or doing what you would like them to do?

The fallacy of change is the illusion that others should change to suit you, or that your happiness depends upon them taking a certain course of action.

Spouses tend to do this to each other quite regularly. So do parents to children.

I think the most important thing to remember here is that no one is responsible for your happiness but you. If you aren’t satisfied in any aspect of your life, it is your job to fix it (or fix the way you view it so that you can find peace). Stay and accept it, or go and find something that suits you better.

13. Heaven’s Reward Fallacy: Sacrifice, self-denial, you gave it all away and then what were you left with? A bum deal, that’s what!!

Now I believe in good karma, but the universe works in mysterious ways-who knows how long it may take? I don’t think this one is saying you shouldn’t do nice things for other people. I do think it is saying.
a.) Don’t keep score when you give,
b.) Take good care of yourself in the meantime.

Thanks for reading.


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One Response to Distorted Thinking

  1. VideoPortal says:

    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.


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