If we compare our conscious mind to a film, then our thoughts are the one second still of a frame. They are temporary but an essential part of the larger picture. A thought that is out of sequence, composed differently, or awkwardly edited can affect the entire film. Like films and any photographic medium, thoughts are subject to manipulation. The image that we see can be edited to look much better or worse than what reality depicts.
Thoughts alone are not as powerful as often portrayed. It is when we consciously feed or engage with it that it gains power. This key point is what differentiates a thought from a cognitive distortion. Very few of us are actively aware of this, let alone aware of the thoughts we empower.
Cognitive distortions are not thoughts. They are ways of thinking we actively engage in, sometimes unknowingly. Persistent cognitive distortions can worsen or create mental health issues.
Fortunately, distorted thoughts are habits, and we can learn to change them.
Below are five common habits that distort how you think.
Over-generalization is a cognitive distortion where you might base all your information on a single incident. For example, someone who has had a bad relationship might generalize about future relationships and assume that they will never be in a happy relationship and forever single. Consequently, they might delete dating apps or eschew relationships altogether. This kind is of thinking is limiting and sets you up for all distorted thinking and emotional pain. It establishes self-defeat before ever going to battle.
Most times, over-generalizations are inaccurate. If you find yourself over-generalizing an action or event, pause. Do a cost-benefit analysis on the thought. Is it worth thinking this way? Ask yourself if there is relevant significant evidence to back up this thought? Be objective when replying to these questions. Re-examine the types of thoughts you repeat to yourself. Your mind is like a soundboard. The ideas you play over in your head eventually make up the melody.
Labeling, or mislabeling, is an extreme form of over-generalizing. However, it’s either globally self-directed or directed towards others. In reality, labeling is just another term for prejudice– harboring ill thoughts about someone (you or someone else) without sufficient evidence to support your thought. When you engage in this type of distorted thinking, generally, you might tend to label without context. An example of labeling would be someone who, ignoring context, might label someone as a jerk if they rub them the wrong way.
To combat these kinds of distorted thoughts, you should first identify them. Mislabeling typically involves highly colored and emotional language. It usually presents things in extremes, so beware of the words always and never.
There will be things in life that are out of your control, and bad things will happen regardless. However, this does not absolve you from taking control of what you can control. A common habit that distorts the way you think is blaming. Blaming involves holding other people accountable for your emotional pain. In some cases, it can also go the other way–blaming yourself for everything that happens even when it is out of your control. This thought habit encourages you to not take responsibility or accountability for what happens to you.
An example of blaming can look like this “stop making me feel bad about myself.” You may feel called out by someone’s comment, but like Elenor Roosevelt said, “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” Technically, no one can make you feel anything. People can exert their influence depending on what they say, but ultimately, you decide how you choose to react and feel to what they say.
Although there will be things in life that you cannot control, hold yourself accountable for the things you can–your actions and emotions.
Magnification, or catastrophizing, is when you negatively exaggerate the outcome. You are in a state of anxiety about the negative possibilities. In this cognitive distortion, it is common to think what if. What ifs plague you into imagining the absolute worse in every situation. Thus, causing you to exaggerate the significance of unimportant events such as a social blunder or someone else’s achievement. For example, you make a mistake during a presentation and automatically think that because of the mistake you will get a lower mark.
Magnification is harmful because it keeps you frozen–too scared to move forward. The same can be said for magnification’s cousin– minimization. An example of minimization is when you downplay a personal achievement.Both cognitive distortions hinder your personal growth.
- Emotional reasoning
It is easy to slip into an emotion-based cognitive distortion. In the right circumstance, our emotions can overwhelm our rational mind and lead us to believe something that is not necessarily true. Emotional reasoning is taking our emotions to the extreme–allowing our thoughts to be solely ruled by our emotions. Some examples of emotional reasoning are: I feel guilty, so I must be guilty of something, or I feel inadequate, so I must be. A person who engages in emotional reasoning assumes that their unhealthy emotions reflect reality.
For those who struggle with a mental health issue, emotional reasoning is one of the easiest distortions to fall into. Emotions are like the weather, constantly changing. Do not let a rainy day dictate your climate. If you are having a rainy day, find shelter in someone who is supportive and willing to listen to you. Getting out of an emotional reasoning distortion might not be easy, so reach out to a licensed therapist for help.
Though cognitive distortions can easily change your perspective, you can easily change the distortion. Cognitive distortions are habits and the most effective way to get rid of a bad habit is by replacing it with a healthier one. When faced with a distortion, first identify it, examine the evidence it presents, and challenge it. You will find that most of these cognitive distortions do not make sense when you look at them through a clearer lens. If you are having trouble dismantling some of your thought habits, reach out to a therapist for help.
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