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Stress Management for Health Course

2 Cognitive Distortions

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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

     this out.


b.    The Fortune Teller Error.  You anticipate that things will turn out badly, and you feel convinced that your prediction is an already-established fact.


(Note this was not finished from the original document or book)












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 of things.




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.




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 NHS 1999)




Styles of Distorted Thinking


1.         Filtering


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.


2.         Polarized Thinking


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.


3.         Overgeneralization


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.


4.         Mind Reading


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.


5.         Catastrophising


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.


6.         Personalization


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.


7.         Control Fallacies


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.


8.         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.


9.         Emotional Reasoning


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 in print.


10.     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.


11.     Global Labelling


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.


12.     Blaming


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 say no.



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 everybody.


13.     Being Right


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.


14.     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)



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