Just as we all have Automatic Thoughts, we also all fall prey to certain styles of distorted thinking that inevitably end up making us feel miserable, and/or sabotaging our lives and relationships. Look through the list below, and see if you can identify the types of cognitive distortion that most frequently ensnare you. There will probably be two or three that stand out.
- All or nothing thinking: You see things as either black or white. There is no middle ground, no shades of grey. Anything less than perfection is utter failure. And if you can't have things exactly how you want them, what's the point?
- Overgeneralization: You draw general conclusions based on a single incident or piece of evidence. If something bad happens once, you assume it will happen again and again. You use the words always and never a lot.
- Filtering: You take the single negative detail of any situation and magnify it out of all proportion, while filtering out all of the positive aspects. You will dwell on a word of criticism and ignore heaps of praise.
- Discounting the positive: You reject positive results or experiences by insisting that they don't count. If you do something great, you tell yourself anyone could have done it. Meanwhile, the negative stuff is yours alone.
- Catastrophizing: You expect disaster. You take a small problem or event, and imagine extreme and horrible consequences that could ensue. Or you hear about a problem and start with the what ifs. What if that were to happen to me? What if the results were tragic? Such fear can be crippling.
- Personalization: You think that everything people do or say is some kind of a reaction to you. If they laugh, it's you they're laughing at. If they whisper, they're whispering about you.
- Mind reading: You think you know what other people are thinking or feeling, or why they act the way they do, especially with regard to yourself. You tend to focus on negative interpretations.
- Blaming: You hold other people responsible for your pain. Or you blame yourself for everything that happens to yourself and others. Either way, the finger has to point at someone.
- Shoulds: You tend to carry around a list of ironclad rules about how you and other people should act. You tell yourself things should be the way you hope or expect them to be. You are thus continually disappointed by yourself, other people, and life in general.
- Fallacy of fairness: You cannot get over the fact that the world is not always fair. And you feel resentful when other people's idea of fairness does not match up with your own.
- Control fallacies: You either see yourself as a helpless victim of fate (external control fallacy), or you hold yourself responsible for the pain and well-being of everyone around you (internal control fallacy).
- Emotional reasoning: You automatically assume that what you feel must be true, and that your negative emotions reflect the way things really are. If you feel stupid and boring, then you must be stupid and boring.
- Fallacy of change: Rather than change yourself, you tend to want to change other people, and expect that they will change to suit you if you just pressure them enough.
- Global labelling: You tend to take one or two of a person's qualities, and generalize these into a global (and usually negative) judgement.
- Being right: You need to be right all the time, and will go to any length to demonstrate that your opinion and actions are correct.
- Heaven's reward fallacy: You expect all your sacrifices and self-denial to pay off one day, as if someone (God?) were keeping score. When the reward fails to materialize, you feel bitter.
Identifying your own cognitive distortions is perhaps the most important part of the process. As with Automatic Thoughts, the next (and hardest) step is to catch yourself red-handed as you follow your habitual patterns and fall into one of these seductive and destructive traps. This involves getting to know yourself better, stalking yourself as you would some wild prey; stepping back and observing your thoughts, rather than being swept away by them. This is mindfulness, once again, and it requires practice.
Next week, I'll offer some suggestions as to what to do with your cognitive distortions once you have got used to recognizing them.