It might sound like something from a science fiction movie, but a cognitive distortion isn’t a flash back to the past or a trip through a wormhole to the future. Cognitions are thoughts, and distortions are alterations of an original shape. Put together, a cognitive distortion is altering an original thought.
There are 10 common cognitive distortions that stand in the way of making positive habit changes. Have you noticed any of these thoughts when you try to make a change but end up feeling stuck?
1. All or nothing thinking: Looking at things in black and white terms.
“Because I ate one donut, I’m a total failure. I shouldn’t even try to eat better.”
2. Overgeneralization: Viewing a negative event as a continual pattern of defeat.
“There’s more and more pressure at work. I just can’t get out of this awful situation. Stress is just my life now.”
3. Mental filter: Dwelling on the negatives and ignoring the positives.
“I had dessert today because I was stressed. I'm never going to lose weight.”
4. Discounting the positives: Believing that accomplishments or positive qualities are meaningless.
"I cooked for myself tonight instead of eating out. But it doesn't count for anything because I ate out with my friends 3 times this week. It’s not worth anything if I don’t do it every night.”
5. Jumping to conclusions: (a) Mind reading - Assuming that people are reacting negatively with no basis in reality (b) Fortune telling - Erroneously predicting that things will turn out badly.
“I’ll never be able to get 8 hours of sleep. There’s no point in improving my sleep hygiene.”
6. Magnification or minimization: Blowing negative things out of proportion or diminishing positive things.
“There’s always more to do. I have so many meetings and so many tasks, I can’t keep up. I'm never going to manage my stress because I have no time to relax."
7. Emotional reasoning: Reasoning from how one feels “I feel like a failure, so I must really be one” or “I don’t feel I can succeed, so I won’t try.”
“I can’t stick to a health plan. I try to eat healthy and only last for one day. I’m hopeless.”
8. “Should” statements: Demanding that oneself or other people “should” or “shouldn’t” “must” or “have to” be different.
"I shouldn’t have messed up at work. I feel embarrassed and defeated. I shouldn’t have had so many drinks to make myself feel better. I should know better by now.”
9. Labeling: Calling oneself names. Instead of saying “I made an error,” you tell yourself, “I’m a loser,” or “stupid,” or “a failure.”
"I'm such an idiot. I let down my whole team when I made mistakes. And I'm ashamed of myself."
10. Personalization and blame: Blaming oneself or others inappropriately.
“This is all my fault. I’m drowning at work. There’s no way I can get healthy. I can’t even keep my house clean. If I could just do better, my colleagues would respect me and my husband would want to spend more time with me."
So, what should you do if you identify with some of these thoughts? First think about how they might be getting in the way of the habits you’d like to create. Identify the ones that pop up the most for you. Then, work on something called “cognitive reframing.”
Next time you experience a cognitive distortion, reframe it with a positive spin. Instead of wallowing in the negatives, try to explore the positives. Can you find humor in the situation? Laughing about the absurdity of a situation helps remove some of the dark feelings surrounding it.
- Burns, D. D. (1999). Feeling good: The new mood therapy (Rev. ed.). New York: Avon.
- The Pennsylvania Child Welfare Resource Center. (n.d.). 313: Managing the Impact of Traumatic Stress on the Child Welfare Professional (Version #15 (1-3)). Retrieved from The Pennsylvania Child Welfare Resource Center website: [http://www.pacwrc.pitt.edu/curriculum/313MngngImpctTrmtcStrssChldWlfrPrfssnl/hndts/HO15ThnkngAbtThnkng.pdf] (http://www.pacwrc.pitt.edu/curriculum/313_MngngImpctTrmtcStrssChldWlfrPrfssnl/hndts/HO15_ThnkngAbtThnkng.pdf)