The Reality of Cognitive Distortions

Graphic by Hemakshi Vaswani

The way a person deals with different circumstances in their life depends on their thinking patterns. At times, even a stubbed toe can ruin someone’s entire day. Yet there are also the ones who do not cease to hope and persist even in the face of a dire suffering. Psychologists and other mental health experts use the term “cognitive distortions” to describe irrational or negatively biased ways of interpretation.

These are unhelpful thinking patterns that distort an individual’s perception of reality. Cognitive distortions are common and almost always happen automatically. They are so habitual that the person often doesn’t notice them, which can hence result in powerful repercussions for the mood and overall life of a person. Cognitive distortions can deeply impact one’s mental health, often leading to excessive stress, anxiety and in some cases, depression.

Research suggests that people develop these cognitive distortions as a coping mechanism for adverse life events. While these ways of thinking can be useful for immediate relief or survival, they won’t prove to be healthy in the long run. Identifying cognitive distortions forms the core of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) to effectively treat mental disorders such as depression, anxiety and addiction.

The concept of cognitive distortions was first propounded by Aaron Beck, the founder of cognitive behavioural therapy, in his 1963 paper ‘Thinking and depression: 1. Idiosyncratic content and cognitive distortions’. During his research into the treatment of depression in the 1960’s, Beck noted that the depressed patient perceived his present, future, and the outside world (the cognitive triad) in a negative way and accordingly shows a biased interpretation of his experiences including a massive amount of self-criticism. Beck observed a sense of ‘faulty information processing’ in his patients.

Dr David Burns, a pioneer in CBT, was an early student of Aaron Beck who has immensely popularized CBT. He created and used language that made cognitive distortions more engaging and comprehensible. In his 1999 bestselling book, “The Feeling Good Handbook”, Burns identifies 10 forms of unhelpful thinking styles as elaborated below:

  1. All-or-nothing thinking

All-or-nothing thinking or black and white thinking involves viewing things in extremes or in absolute terms. This is a polarized way of thinking in which people believe that they are either destined for success or doomed to failure, or that the people in their life are either angelic or evil, among other things.

  1. Overgeneralization

Overgeneralization happens when people reach a conclusion about one event and apply that conclusion across the board. Words such as “always” and “forever” frequently appear in the statements of a person who overgeneralizes.

  1. Mental filter

A mental filter is the opposite of overgeneralization, but gives the same negative outcome. As described by Burns, instead of generalizing one small event inappropriately, the person picks out a negative detail in any given situation and dwells on it exclusively, consequently deeming the entire situation as negative.

  1. Disqualifying the positive

Quite similar to mental filters, discounting the positive includes a negative bias in thinking. Individuals having this kind of distorted thinking don’t ignore or filter out the positive information, rather they dismiss it as a ‘fluke’ or sheer luck. They assume good outcomes to be nothing but an accident or some kind of an anomaly.

  1. Jumping to conclusions

It is essentially the process of arbitrarily jumping to a negative conclusion that is not backed by evidence or justified by facts. This way of distorted thinking has two variants. The first is the ‘mind reading’ variant in which a person assumes that others are thinking negatively about them. The other one is the ‘fortune teller’ variant in which a person predicts that future events will unfold in a negative manner.

  1. Magnification & minimization

This distorted way of thinking causes people to assume the absolute worst when faced with the unknown or unprecedented. Burns describes magnification and minimization as the ‘binocular trick’ because of the way fears, shortcomings, or imperfections are exaggerated while strengths and achievements are regarded as trivial or unimportant.

  1. Emotional reasoning

Emotional reasoning is when emotions are taken as evidence of truth, that is believing that the way one feels about a situation is a reliable indicator of reality. Though it is important to validate and express emotions, judging reality on the basis of rational evidence is the right approach. Emotional reasoning is known to be a very common cognitive distortion.

  1. “Should” statements

I should do this” or “I must do that” are self-defeating ways of talking to oneself that create unattainable standards. It is rarely favourable to chastise oneself with what one “should” be able to achieve or do in a given situation. Such thoughts are often rooted in internalized cultural expectations which might be harmful for an individual.

  1. Labelling

Labelling is an unhelpful thinking pattern in which individuals reduce themselves or other persons to a single descriptor or label, which is usually negative, such as “failure” or “idiot”. Burns strongly condemns labels as he perceives humans to be too complex to be defined by a single descriptor.

  1. Personalization and blame

A person may be engaging in personalization when they blame themselves for a negative event that wasn’t their fault, or was beyond their control. People in this thinking pattern arbitrarily conclude that whatever wrong happened was their responsibility or fault. Burns describes personalization as “confusing influence as control over others”.

Final Thoughts

In my opinion, one should always try to look for signs or rather psychological alarms present in oneself and in others. I consider myself an emotional and intuitive person and I can assuredly say that I have come across many instances of cognitive distortions in myself and in the people around me. I believe that these are certain tendencies of the mind that are present to a limited extent in all human beings.

All of us have, at some point in our lives, become dejected and lost hope after just one small failure. Each of us have jumped to all sorts of bizarre conclusions when a loved one was late from work. I think that individuals are wired in a way that they always cling to survival instincts in the face of challenges. No matter how commonplace they are, cognitive distortions still remain negative for the mental health of people.

I don’t think each one of us needs to be a therapist to understand them. We can easily identify these thoughts in ourselves and in our loved ones. Talking to people and sharing such thoughts, I believe, can be a great start towards the healing process. However, it becomes important to note here that while friends and family can help in healing, if interpreted the wrong way, they can also contribute to the destruction and worsen the situation.

Cases of casual bullying among friends or being called a ‘failure’ or ’embarrassment’ for the family can quickly escalate to suicidal thoughts in youngsters. I have always looked at the institution of family as a cocoon or a safe haven for people. But if loved ones stop empathizing and start blaming, then an individual is not left with a lot of hope. Hence, I believe that empathy, affection and patience are qualities that we must always harbour in ourselves.

One must also acknowledge the fact that there can be cases of cognitive distortions too severe to be handled at home and among loved ones. If left unchecked, these distortions can take a serious toll on an individual’s mental health. Hence, in such serious cases, individuals should resort to the more widely recognized way of dealing with cognitive distortions which is cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). 

Sometimes people can be averse to the idea of therapy or the acceptance of a mental disorder. When this is the case, their close ones must encourage and support them throughout this process. CBT is quite useful in helping people identify, and change unhealthy thinking patterns to view the world in a more rational way.

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