Are These Seven Common Cognitive Distortions Holding You Back?

By The Fix staff 11/23/21

Knowing how to recognize and interrupt cognitive distortions can help you change negative thought patterns and keep from being sucked into a downward spiral.

Image: 
Woman sitting alone, head in hand, depressed or sad
"Inexact labeling" occurs when we slap ourselves with a negative label like “addict,” “failure” or “alone.”

Have you ever made a small social snafu, only to become obsessed with how bad it made you look? Maybe it was a silly comment, which then convinced you that everyone thinks you’re stupid. In fact, they probably left the party early because of your social ineptitude.

Reading this may make it sound ridiculous, but it’s a spiral that most of us have experienced at one time or another. There’s actually a name for this type of cycle: cognitive distortion.

"A cognitive distortion is any system of thinking which creates a discrepancy between objective reality and subjective reality in a way that leads to undue suffering around a grief or traumatic experience,” Ionatan Waisgluss writes for Sunshine Coast Health Centre.

Cognitive distortions can happen to anyone. In fact, research shows that they’re becoming more common. They’re especially prevalent in people who struggle with depression and addiction. Knowing how to recognize cognitive distortions and interrupt them can help you change negative thought patterns and keep from being sucked into a negative spiral.

Types of Cognitive Distortions

Cognitive distortions were first named by Aaron Temkin Beck, a psychiatrist at University of Pennsylvania. Beck developed cognitive therapy, which is now known as cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT, one of the most common and versatile types of therapy.

CBT works by identifying and interrupting negative thought patterns. But before that could happen, Beck needed to know exactly the cognitive distortions he was looking for. He identified seven main types of cognitive distortions:

  • Selective abstraction: This happens when you fixate on a small issue, ignoring the broader context. For example, you ruminate on a joke you made that fell flat, without acknowledging that the rest of the party you threw was a success.
  • Overgeneralization: This happens when you take a rare instance, and think that it’s universal. Overgeneralizations involve words like “always, never, everyone and nobody.” For example, you might think that nobody ever thinks you’re funny, just because one joke fell flat.
  • Inexact labeling: No one likes being labelled, but we tend to do it to ourselves ruthlessly. Inexact labeling occurs when we slap ourselves with a negative label like “addict,” “failure” or “alone,” without considering the truth of that or the deeper context of the situation.
  • Personalization: Personalization happens when we take random events as if they’re personal attacks. A classic example is being angry or frustrated when it rains on your vacation, even though you know objectively that the weather has nothing to do with you.
  • Arbitrary interpretation: Arbitrary interpretation is when you decide something, despite contradictory evidence. This is sometimes called arbitrary inference, and it’s especially prevalent in people with depression. You might suddenly decide that a friend is mad at you, despite the fact that they continue to text; or think that your boss is disappointed in your work, despite continuing to get new projects.
  • Magnification and minimization: These cognitive distortions happen when you fail to recognize the importance of a situation. They can go either way: some people make a big deal out of nothing (magnification) while others brush off major events (minimization). This can leave you unable to respond appropriately.
  • Absolute or dichotomous thinking: This happens when you lose sight of the middle ground, and believe that everything must be one way or the opposite. You might think of people as good or bad; in recovery or addicted; healthy or unhealthy, without recognizing the nuances in people’s lives.

 

Overcoming Cognitive Distortions

Being aware of cognitive distortions and which you are prone to can help you break the cycle of negative thinking. This sounds simple, but it can be very difficult, since cognitive distortions feel like logical conclusions to the person experiencing them. Luckily, recognizing them can get easier with time and practice.

CBT takes aim directly at cognitive distortions. First, you’ll work with a therapist to learn how to identify when you’re experiencing a cognitive distortion. Once you know that’s happening, you’re able to challenge the distortion, and provide yourself with evidence to the contrary. Ultimately, this can help you replace negative, distorted thinking with more realistic and often more positive thoughts.

Cognitive distortions take away your control over your thinking, and ultimately undermine your health and wellbeing. Once you realize the impact that these distortions have on you, you can retrain your brain to look at a situation logically. Rather than being sent into a negative spiral from one socially awkward moment, you’ll learn to just shrug it off and accept all the good things that are present in your life.

Sunshine Coast Health Centre is a non 12-step drug and alcohol rehabilitation center in British Columbia. Learn more here.

Please read our comment policy. - The Fix
the-fix-logo.png

The Fix staff consists of the editor-in-chief and publisher, a senior editor, an associate editor, an editorial coordinator, and several contributing editors and writers. Articles in Professional Voices, Ask an Expert, and similar sections are written by doctors, psychologists, clinicians, professors and other experts from universities, hospitals, government agencies and elsewhere. For contact and other info, please visit our About Us page.