COMMON COGNITIVE DISTORTIONS
1. All or Nothing Thinking: You see things in black and white categories. If your performance falls
short of perfect, you see yourself as a total failure.
2. Over Generalisation: You see a single negative event as a never-ending pattern of defeat.
3. Mental Filter: You
pick out a single negative detail and dwell on it exclusively so that your vision of all reality becomes darkened, like the
drop of ink that discolours the entire beaker of water.
4. Disqualifying the Positive: You reject positive experiences by insisting they dont count for some reason or other.
In this way you can maintain a negative belief that is contradicted by your everyday experiences.
5. Jumping to Conclusions: You make a negative interpretation even though there are no definite facts that convincingly support your conclusion.
a. Mind Reading.
You arbitrarily conclude that someone is
reacting negatively to you, and you dont bother to check
b. The Fortune Teller Error. You anticipate that things will turn out badly, and you feel convinced that your prediction is an already-established
was not finished from the original document or book)
1. EXAGERATING THE NEGATIVE
This means that you think
things are much worse than they really are. For example you make a small mistake
at work and fear that you may be dismissed because of it. In other words you
jump to a gloomy conclusion and believe that it is likely to happen. You may
spend along time worrying that you have upset a friend only to find later she did not even remember the comment.
For example if one person
doesnt get on with you, you may think, no one likes me. If one of your daily
tasks has not been finished you think Ive achieved nothing, nothing has been done. In
other words from one thing that has happened to you, you draw a negative conclusion which is much bigger and covers all sorts
3. IGNORING THE POSITIVE
People who are depressed tend to focus their thinking on negative or bad events and ignore positive or good events. You might have had a game of football and missed the goal once, but play well in general. After the game you just think about that one missed shot and not the rest of the game played well. You may have many good friends who you have known for years but you concentrate and
worry about the one that has fallen out with you rather than remembering all the good friendships.
4. TAKING THINGS PERSONALLY
Often if our mood is low we blame ourselves for anything
that goes wrong, even if things have nothing to do with us in reality. For example,
you go into a local shop and the assistant who knows you is offhand, your automatic thought is She doesnt like me . . . .
. . have I done something wrong? But the most likely reason is that she is tired
or upset or has had a bad day. In this example you have taken the blame personally.
(Depression and Low Mood: A Self-help Guide Northumberland
Styles of Distorted Thinking
This distortion is characterised by a sort of tunnel vision
looking at only one element of a situation to the exclusion of everything else. A
single detail is picked out and the whole event or situation is coloured by this detail.
A draftsman who was uncomfortable with criticism was praised for the quality of his recent detail drawings and asked
if he could get the next job out a little quicker. He went home depressed, having
decided that his employer thought he was dawdling. He simply did not hear the
praise in his fear of possible deficiency.
Each person has his own particular tunnel to look through. Some are hypersensitive to anything suggesting loss, and blind to any indication of
gain. For others, the slightest possibility of danger sticks out like a barb
in a scene that is otherwise warm with contentment. Depressed
people select elements suggesting loss from their environment, those prone to anxiety select
danger, and those who frequently feel angry select evidence of injustice.
The process of remembering can also be very selective. From your entire history and stock of experience, you may habitually remember only
certain kinds of events. As a result, you may review your past and re-experience
memories that characteristically leave you angry, anxious, or depressed.
By the very process of filtering you magnify and awfulize
your thoughts. When you pull negative things out of context, isolated from all
the good experiences around you, you make them larger and more awful than they really are.
The end result is that all your fears, losses, and irritations become exaggerated in importance because they fill your
awareness to the exclusion of everything else. Key words for this kind of filtering
are terrible . . .awful . . disgusting . . horrendous, and so on. A key phrase
is I cant stand it.
The hallmark of this distortion is an insistence on dichotomous
choices; we tend to perceive everything at the extremes, with very little room for a middle ground. People and things are good or bad, wonderful or horrible. This
creates a black and white world, and because we miss all the nuances of grey; our reactions to events wing from one emotional
extreme to another. The greatest danger in polarized thinking is its impact on
how we judge ourselves. If we are not perfect or brilliant, then we must be a
failure or an imbecile. There is no room for mistakes or mediocrity. A charter bus driver told himself he was a real loser when he took the wrong freeway exit and had to drive
several miles out of his way. One mistake and he was incompetent and worthless. A single parent with three children was determined to be strong and in charge. The moment she felt tired or slightly anxious, she began thinking of herself as weak,
felt disgusted with herself, and criticized herself in conversations with friends.
In this distortion we make a broad, generalized conclusion
based on a single incident or piece of evidence. One slipped stitch means, Ill
never learn how to sew. A rejection on the dance floor means Nobody would ever
want to dance with me. If we got sick on a train once, never take a train again. If we got dizzy on a sixth floor balcony, never go out there again. If we felt anxious the last time our husband took a business trip, we will be a wreck every time he leaves
town. One bad experience means that whenever we are in a similar situation we
will repeat the bad experience.
This distortion inevitably leads to a more and more restricted
life. Overgeneralizations are often couched in the form of absolute statements,
as if there were some immutable law that governs and limits our chances for happiness.
We are overgeneralizing when we absolutely conclude that Nobody
loves me . . . Ill never be able to trust anyone again . . . I will always we sad . . . I could never get a better job . . . No one would stay my friend if they really knew me. Our conclusion is based on one or two pieces of evidence and carefully ignores everything
we know about ourselves to the contrary. Cue words that indicate we may be overgeneralizing
are all, every, none, never, always, everybody and nobody.
When we mind read we make snap judgments about others: Hes
just acting that way because hes jealous . . . shes with you for your money . . . hes afraid to show he cares. Theres no evidence, but it just seems right. In most
instances, mind readers make assumptions about how other people are feeling and what motivates them. For example, we may conclude, He visited her three times last week because he is (a) in love, (b) angry
at his old girlfriend and knew shed find out, (c) depressed and on the rebound, (d) afraid of being alone again. You can take your choice, but acting on any of these arbitrary conclusions may be disastrous.
As mind readers, we also make assumptions about how people
are reacting to things around them, particularly how they are reacting to us. This
close he sees how unattractive I am . . .she thinks Im really immature . . . theyre getting ready to fire me. These assumptions are usually untested. They are born of intuition,
hunches, vague misgivings, or one or two past experiences, but they are nevertheless believed.
Mind reading depends on a process called projection. We imagine that people feel the same way we do and react to things the same way we
do. Therefore, we do not watch or listen closely enough to notice that they are
actually different. If we get angry when someone is late, we imagine everyone
acts that way. If we feel excruciatingly sensitive to rejection, we expect most
people to feel the same. If we are very judgmental about particular habits and
traits we assume others share our belief. Mind readers jump to conclusions that
are true for them without checking whether they are true for the other person.
If we catastrophise, a small leak in the sailboat means
it will surely sink. A contractor who gets underbid concludes hell never get
another job. A headache suggests that brain cancer is looming. Catastrophic thoughts often start with the words what if. We
read a newspaper article describing a tragedy or hear gossip about some disaster befalling an acquaintance. As a result we start wondering if it will happen to us. What
if I break my leg skiing . . .What if they hijack my plane . . . What if I get sick and have to go on disability . . . What
if my son starts taking drugs? The list is endless. There are no limits to a
really fertile catastrophic imagination.
The chapter began with an example of personalization. It is the tendency to relate everything around us to ourselves. A somewhat depressed mother blames herself when she sees any sadness in
her children. A recently married man thinks that every time his wife talks about
tiredness she means she is tired of him. A man whose wife complains about rising
prices hears the complaints as attacks on his abilities as a breadwinner.
A major aspect of personalization is the habit of continually
comparing ourselves to other people: He plays piano so much better than I do . . . Im not smart enough to go with this crowd
. . . She knows herself a lot better than I do . . . He feels things so deeply while Im dead inside . . . Im the slowest person
in the office . . . Hes dumb (and Im smart) . . . Im better looking . . . They listen to her but not to me. The opportunities for comparison never end. The underlying
assumption is that our worth is questionable. We are therefore continually forced to test our value as a person by measuring
ourselves against others. If we come out better, we have a moments relief. If we come up short, we feel diminished. The
basic thinking error in personalization is that we interpret each experience, each conversation, each look as a clue to our
worth and value.
There are two ways we can distort our sense of power and
control. We can see ourselves as helpless and externally controlled, or as omnipotent
and responsible for everyone around us. Feeling externally controlled keeps us
stuck. We do not believe we can really affect the basic shape of our life, let
alone make any difference in the world. Everywhere we look we see evidence of
human helplessness. Someone or something else is responsible for our pain, our
loss, and our failure. They did it to us.
We find it difficult to strive for solutions because they probably would not work anyway. An extreme example of this fallacy is the person who walks through skid row wearing three diamond rings
and a $500 watch. He feels helpless and resentful when he gets mugged. He cant imagine how he had anything to do with it. He was
the passive victim. The truth of the matter is that we are constantly making
decision, and that every decision affects our lives. In some way, we are responsible
for nearly everything that happens to us.
The opposite of the fallacy of external control is the fallacy
of omnipotent control. If we experience this distortion, we feel responsible
for everything and everybody. We carry the world on our shoulders. Everyone at work depends on us. Our friends depend on us. We are responsible for many peoples happiness and any neglect on our part may leave
them lonely, rejected, lost, or frightened. We have to right all wrongs, fill
every need, and balm each hurt. And if we do not, we feel guilty. Omnipotence depends on three elements: a sensitivity to the needs of people around us, an exaggerated belief
in our power to fill those needs and the expectation that we, and not they, are responsible for filling those needs.
Fallacy of Fairness
This distorted thinking style hinges on the application
of legal and contractual rules to the vagaries of interpersonal relations. The
trouble is that two people seldom agree on what fairness is, and there is no court or final arbiter to help them. Fairness is a subjective assessment of how much, of what one expected, needed, or hoped for, has been provided
by the other person. Fairness is so conveniently defined, so temptingly self-serving,
that each person gets locked into his or her own point of view. The result is
a sense of living in the trenches and a feeling of ever-growing resentment.
The fallacy of fairness is often expressed in conditional
assumptions: If he loved me, hed do the dishes . . . if he loved me, hed help me to orgasm . . . if this was a real marriage,
shed hike with me and learn to like it . . . if he cared at all, hed come home right after work . . . if they valued my work
here, theyd get me a nicer desk.
It is tempting to make assumptions about how things would
change if people were only fair or really valued us. But the other person
hardly ever sees it that way and we end up causing ourselves a lot of pain.
At the root of this distortion is the belief that what we
feel must be true. If we feel like a loser, then we must be a loser. If we feel guilty, then we must have done something wrong. If we feel ugly, then we must be ugly. If we feel angry, someone
must have taken advantage to us.
All the negative things we feel about ourselves and
others must be true because they feel true. The problem with emotional reasoning
is that emotions by themselves have no validity. They are products of what we
think. If we have distorted thoughts and beliefs our emotions will reflect those
distortions. Always believing our emotions is like believing everything we see
Fallacy of Change
The only person we can really control or have much hope
of changing is ourselves. The fallacy of change, however, assumes that other
people will change to suit us if we just pressure them enough. Our attention
and energy are therefore focused on others because our hope for happiness lies in getting them to meet our needs. Strategies for changing others include blaming, demanding, withholding, and trading. The usual result is that the other person feels attacked or pushed around and doesnt change at all. The underlying assumption of this thinking style is that our happiness depends on
the actions of others. In fact, our happiness depends on the many thousands of
large and small decisions we make during our life.
Our supermarket stocks rotten food at rip-off prices. A person who refused to give us a lift home is a total jerk. A quiet guy on a date is labelled a dull clam. Republicans
are a bunch of money-hungry corporation toadies. Our boss is a gutless imbecile. Each of these labels may contain a grain of truth.
Yet it generalises one or two qualities into a global judgment. The label
ignores all contrary evidence, making our view of the world stereotyped and one-dimensional.
Theres such relief in knowing whos to blame. If we are suffering, someone must be responsible. We are lonely,
hurt, or frightened and someone provoked those feelings. A man got angry because
his wife suggested he build the fence hed been meaning to put up. She ought to
have known how tired he was she was being totally insensitive. The problem was
that he expected her to be clairvoyant, to read his mind, when it was his responsibility to inform her of his fatigue and
Blaming often involves making someone else responsible for
choices and decisions that are actually our own responsibility. A woman blamed
the butcher for selling hamburger that was always full of fat. But it was really
her problem: she could have paid more for leaner meat, or gone to a different butcher.
In blame systems, somebody is always doing it to us and we have no responsibility to assert our needs, say no, or go
elsewhere for what we want.
Some people focus blame exclusively on themselves. They beat themselves up constantly for being incompetent, insensitive, stupid, too
emotional, etc. They are always ready to be wrong. One woman felt she had spoiled her husbands entire evening when she caused a fifteen-minute delay in getting
to a party. Later when the party broke up early she decided that she had bored
In this distortion we are usually
on the defensive. We must continually prove that our viewpoint is correct, our
assumptions about the world accurate, and all our actions correct. We are not
interested in the possible veracity of a differing opinion, only in defending our own.
Every decision we make is right; every task we perform is done competently. We
never make mistakes.
Our opinions rarely change because
we have difficulty hearing new information. If the facts do not fit what we already
believe we ignore them.
An auto mechanic got in the habit
of stopping at the bar for three or four drinks on the way home. Frequently he
got in after seven, and his wife never knew when to have dinner ready. When she
confronted him he got angry and said that a man has a right to relax. She had
it soft while he was pulling off cylinder heads all day. The mechanic had to
be right and could not comprehend his wifes viewpoint.
Having to be right makes us very
hard of hearing. It also makes us lonely because being right seems more important
than an honest, caring relationship.
Heavens Reward Fallacy
In this framework for viewing
the world we always do the right thing in hope of a reward. We sacrifice and
slave, and all the while imagine that we are collecting brownie points that we can cash in some day.
A housewife cooked elaborate meals
for her family and did endless baking and sewing. She drove her children to all
their after school activities. The house was immaculate. She carried on for years, all the while waiting for some kind of special reward or appreciation. It never came. And she became increasingly hostile and bitter. The problem was that while she was doing the right thing she was physically and emotionally
bankrupting herself. She had become a crab and no one wanted to be around her.
Acknowledgement: Several of these
distortions are drawn from the work of other cognitive therapists. From Aaron
Beck come Filtering (selective abstraction), Polarized Thinking, Overgeneralization, Personalization, and Mind Reading (arbitrary
inference). From David Burns work comes the concept of Emotional Reasoning.
(McKay M., Davis M., Fanning P., (1995) Thoughts and Feelings:
The Art of Cognitive Stress Intervention, New Harbinger Publications)