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Cognitive Distortions: Don’t Let Negative Thought Patterns Hold You Hostage

Have you ever been in a situation where a friend says something to you that feels…loaded? Perhaps they were telling you that they’d noticed you look different and asked if you were okay. You read this as “she’s telling me I’ve put on weight” and you start to feel ashamed.

This is a cognitive distortion. That is, you added a negative narrative and meaning to what someone said, even though they didn’t mean it that way.

What is a Cognitive Distortion?

cognitive distortions In the 1960s, Dr. Aaron Beck developed new research on cognitive distortions. This research was part of his treatment method: cognitive-behavioral therapy, also called CBT.

In essence, a cognitive distortion is a negative or irrational thought pattern of thinking. Cognitive distortions can lower self-esteem and motivation, leading to anxiety, depression, and even substance use as a coping mechanism.

Think of cognitive distortions as an error in thinking. You misinterpret what someone has said in a negative way.

 

Why Do We Have Cognitive Distortions?

Research shows that those exposed to adversities in life are at a higher risk of emotional and behavioral problems. Scientists found that a higher exposure to adversity was linked with an increase in cognitive distortions.

Here are some examples of cognitive distortions you may have experienced:

  • “Every time I try to meet up with Anna, she is always
  • “I have the worst luck at cards.”
  • “Why does my mother always bring up the fact I don’t have a boyfriend?”
  • “Every time I speak to my instructor, they treat me like I’m stupid.”
  • “I am never going to finish college.”

Scientists found that a higher exposure to adversity was linked with an increase in cognitive distortions.

Types of Cognitive Distortions

Cognitive distortions, while irrational, do fall into distinct categories. These include:

Overgeneralization

Think about this in terms of using words like “never,” “always,” “nobody,” or “everybody.” It also applies to making categorical statements, like “I always fail at exams,” but applying that to every single test for the rest of your life before you’ve even taken the test.

Personalization and Blame

This type of distortion is taking things personally—whether they apply to you or not. For instance, your boss may say during a team meeting that performance has been down, but you automatically assume that she’s referring to you.

Catastrophizing

As the name suggests, this type of distortion immediately assumes the worst possible outcome. For example, you hear that the weather is going to take a turn this weekend and you’ll experience snow.

Catastrophizing immediately assumes the worst possible outcome.

Instead of thinking you may or may not see a few inches of snow, you jump to the conclusion that you’ll be snowed in and need to stockpile food.

Mental Filtering

This distortion relates to interpreting the situation entirely negatively, filtering out anything that could’ve been construed positively. For instance, your mom calls to tell you an update about her home improvement project and mentions that your dad hasn’t been feeling well.

You remember the entire conversation being about your father being sick.

Mind-reading

This distortion is thinking you know what the person is saying and how they are feeling. But, in this case, they haven’t displayed any feelings or told you what they are thinking.
They could just be sitting at their desk eating their lunch in silence, not ignoring you because of something you’ve done wrong.

Labeling

When you add a negative label to something or someone, like “addict,” “failure,” “homeless person,” or “criminal.” Each of these labels defines someone by their challenges and focusing entirely on the negative.

When you add a negative label to something or someone, like “addict,” “failure,” “homeless person,” or “criminal.” Each of these labels defines someone by their challenges and focusing entirely on the negative.

They’re quite judgmental and pejorative too.

Emotional Reasoning

Think of this distortion as feeling an emotion as the truth. You might feel shame and assume that someone is judging you. When in reality, they may never have said anything judgmental — you just took it that way and ran with it.

“Should” Statements

An easy way to think about this in a domestic context. You come home from work and see dirty dishes by the sink. You assume that it is your job to clean them.
You don’t live alone. Given the chance your partner will do them when he finishes work for the day.

Jumping to Conclusions

Using the label example, this is making assumptions about someone using a label but then also believing the stereotype about them. For instance, you might think that your friend from school is an “addict” and will never get clean because you believe people with substance use disorder will never find recovery.

Like the label example, this is making assumptions about someone using a label but then also believing the stereotype about them.

How to Overcome Cognitive Distortions

Just as it’s possible to overcome other behavioral problems, it’s possible to overcome thought distortions. Doing so will improve your self-esteem and help you approach life in a more optimistic way.

Here are some tips to tackle those distortions head-on:

  • Identify the thought: When you experience a negative thought, take a moment to think about the situation and whether your thoughts fall into any of the categories above.
  • Reframe: If you identify your thought as a thought distortion, great! If not, consider reframing. Say you took the negative thought and made it positive.
    Instead of thinking that your mom is always commenting on you not having a boyfriend, reframe it as your mom genuinely cares about your happiness and is asking about your life.
  • Consider behavioral therapy: Overcoming cognitive distortions isn’t easy. You may need professional help in the form of a cognitive-behavioral therapist.
    They can help you work through some of the recurring thoughts and feelings you have. This will make you feel better about yourself and these situations.

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Cognitive Distortions for People in Recovery

If you’re a person in recovery, a thought distortion could lead you down a path of self-sabotage. This is a tricky place to be because negativity and overwhelming emotions can directly affect your sobriety.

Here’s how: Thought distortions — like a distortion that your sponsor doesn’t like you, even though you have no evidence — can lead to resentments. Resentments can lead relapse because you’re more likely to disengage from your recovery program and the people that support you.

Also, the negative emotions associated with distortions can lead to you reaching for a substance to cope with those feelings. All the more reason for folks in recovery to work on thought distortions.

If you or someone you love is experiencing a substance use disorder, help is available. Call 800-838-1752 (Who Answers?) today to speak with a treatment specialist.

 

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