A Crash Course on Cognitive Distortions | by Raine Rivas

WHAT’S A COGNITIVE DISTORTION?

There’s a certain level of trust that we give to our brains. They dictate what goes on in our bodies, handle memories and feelings, and even provide those “gut instincts” by combining logic and emotion to help us make decisions. Over time, the brain has been wired to make us recognize warning signs or dangerous things in the world around us– or, in other words, single out what seems sketchy. What helped cavemen hunt down animals and adapt to the forces of nature ages ago continues to help all of us today in the everyday choices we make.

However, at times, we find that the first thing that pops into our heads or our immediate reaction to a situation is not the most reasonable one. We tend to jump to statements that seem ridiculous totally illogical when we take the time to look back at them. This isn’t a reason for us to blame our brains, though, since they’re used to drawing connections between events, ideas, and consequences– whether they are truly connected or not. In a sense, making these mistakes and falling into these misguided thought patterns are inevitable for us. Recognizing them is the first step, though. Let’s take a closer look at cognitive distortions, how they can negatively affect our lives, and what they can look or sound like.

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The name is self-explanatory– cognitive distortions are nothing more than errors in our cognition. Their defining trait is that they are rooted in irrationality and our biased perspective on things as individuals. The tricky thing about them is that they are already so deeply embedded in how we always tackle situations, and it can be very difficult to find them in the things you think of and tell others (or yourself) every day. “Oh,” you say. “That’s just the way stuff is. I just… think like that. Is it bad for me?”

In a while, we’ll go through a list of some common cognitive distortions and their examples. But first, to answer the question of “… Is it bad?”, these distortions tend to have harmful psychological effects on people. Cognitive distortions are commonly used to reinforce negative thoughts in a way that sounds logical, at first, but in reality, are truly misguided. They’ve even been found to have a positive correlation with symptoms of depression, meaning that they also have the capacity to make existing mental issues even worse (Burns, Shaw, & Croker, 1987). It’s important to note that a lot of what we know today regarding cognitive distortions is thanks to two renowned psychiatrists, Dr. Aaron Beck and Dr. David Burns. For years, they’ve researched on matters related to cognition and depression, as well as behavioral therapy. The list of 7 common distortions we’re about to go over is from Burns’ 1989 publication, Feeling Good Handbook.

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Here we go! Read carefully and see what applies to you.

SEVEN COMMON COGNITIVE DISTORTIONS

1. Magnification and Minimization
These two involve an extremely skewed perspective on things. Magnification is also known as catastrophizing, or blowing up a small matter and seeing it as practically the end of the world. Oppositely, minimization devalues and invalidates things are actually positive or important.
EXAMPLE: “I missed the 11:59 deadline for my paper. Noooooo, I’m such a terrible student. This is it. I’m gonna fail this sem na talaga.” // “This award? I don’t know, man. It’s just for varsity. I’m still just an athlete at the end of the day, and I suck at everything else.”

2. Overgeneralization
This happens when your brain takes one event and uses it as an example for something, leading you to believe that it’s part of a bigger pattern that applies overall. This can lead you down that slippery slope of thinking negatively about yourself, so be careful!
EXAMPLE: “My classmate snapped at me today. Ugh, I bet she hates me.”

3. Personalization
Do you ever feel like you’re responsible for the bad stuff that happens? Or that everyone seems to be smarter, better-looking, and nicer than you? That’s personalization in a nutshell. It’s good to remember that sometimes, there are some situations you just aren’t involved in at all.
EXAMPLE: “I hate this. My dad is in such a bad mood. If I had pushed my ate to get ready faster this morning, maybe he wouldn’t be so BV now.”

4. Mislabeling
Mislabeling happens when overgeneralization goes too far. Simply put, based on one experience, we immediately slap a label onto a person or situation. You can spot this distortion fairly easily– just be on the lookout for judgments that sound really emotionally loaded.
EXAMPLE: “He is such an attention-seeker. I only met him today, but I so get that vibe.”

5. “Should” Statements
These involve an overload of “should”, “must”, and “have to”. A lot of unrealistic expectations can stem from this way of thinking, which lead to disappointment when we don’t get or achieve the things that we want. There’s also a possibility that we project and impose these on other people.
EXAMPLE: “I should be able give advice to my friends all the time. They need me. I really have to.”

6. Fortune Telling
This distortion speaks for itself. Sadly, time machines haven’t been invented (yet), so we have to do our best to live in the present and avoid making negative predictions about things. It’s really hard to tell what the future holds for us, so don’t be in a hurry to figure it out!
EXAMPLE: “Dude. I am so, so single. Wala na, finish na, I’m never gonna find anyone ever.”

7. Mind Reading
Like fortune telling, mind reading also involves jumping to conclusions. Telepathy isn’t a thing (yet), so don’t be so quick to assume that other people are feeling a certain way just because they seem like it. Use this as a signal that you could try opening a clearer way of communicating with these people.
EXAMPLE: “She’s so angry right now. She thinks I’m a terrible person. She hasn’t spoken to me all day.”

It can be kind of scary to think that some of these distortions can sneak into our lives without us knowing. Personally, when I read about catastrophizing and mind reading, I actually got a little bit stressed from going “OMG, wait, that’s so me– nooooo.” I’m very grateful that I found out about them, though. Now, whenever I feel myself starting to make a giant issue out of minor setback, I can catch myself and start to correct it by replacing these with more positive and reasonable statements. Keep in mind that we’re all capable of forming answers to them whenever they pop up, and gently reminding ourselves– “hey, relax. Look at what’s happening with a clearer mind.”

How about you? Which cognitive distortions are all-too familiar to you? And how can you concretely begin your attempts to change these thought patterns for the better?

For information on even more cognitive distortions, visit https://psychcentral.com/lib/15-common-cognitive-distortions/

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