Cognitive Distortions and Thinking Errors – How Can CBT Help?
Having trouble controlling your negative thoughts? Feeling anxious or depressed and wish you could switch off those thoughts? Sometimes, it’s those thoughts, rather than a particular situation or incident that may be causing anxiety or depression.
What are Cognitive Distortions/Errors?
Thinking errors happen when your thoughts and reality don’t match up, often without you even realising. These are also called ‘cognitive distortions’. They’re faulty patterns of thinking that are self-defeating, meaning it’s possible to get caught in a loop of negative thinking that can end up becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. And they happen to all of us, for example:
I’ve just failed that test. I’m a useless student and should never study again
Holding this thought might prevent you studying again or doing anything where testing is involved.
If the initial thinking error is dealt with appropriately, the negative cycle (see diagram below) and any resulting depression or anxiety could be avoided.
The diagram below shows how the thinking error cycle could get triggered after someone is invited to a party, when the day of the party arrives:
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) can help you recognise your distorted thoughts and learn to question them. With practice, you can learn to break the cycle of negativity that could be triggered by negative thinking, and replace it with a healthier, more balanced way of thinking.
Here are 7 common thinking errors that can be helped by CBT.
1 “All or Nothing” Thinking
If you are routinely thinking of things in terms of ‘never’ or ‘always’, you may be tempted to view anything less than perfect as a failure. Try to find the ‘in between’ and learn to accept that there is a wide range of possible outcomes between complete disaster and total perfection.
If you get 85 per cent correct on a test, you think you are a complete failure because you missed 15 per cent.
If you don’t look like a model, you decide you are really ugly.
You’re passed up for a promotion at work, so you think that means the company is planning to make you redundant.
Try to find the “in between”. Remind yourself that there is usually a broad spectrum of outcomes between absolute perfection and complete disaster. Very few situations are truly all-or-nothing.
If you are thinking of something in terms of “never” or “always”, can you think of an exception? If so, that means it’s not truly “never” or “always.”
- Is it really that bad or am I being extreme?
- What other ways are there of looking at this situation?
2 Mental Filter
Are you dwelling on the negative aspects of any given situation, disregarding the positive side? If so, you may need to shift your mindset to acknowledge the good things that exist and learn not to let your negative thinking dominate.
Your presentation was well received by your superiors at work, but you noticed a typo in one of the slides. Instead of enjoying the compliments your boss gave you, you’re only thinking about the typo and expecting to get terminated soon for paying poor attention to detail.
Focus on the concrete facts. In the example above, your boss said you did a great job. That’s a concrete fact. Don’t waste time thinking about the unknowns; the possibility of you getting sacked is an unknown.
Try to rewrite the problem or situation as though you were telling it to a sensitive child. Only include the positive parts of the story. Then read it when you’re feeling overly anxious.
- What are the positives in this situation? Try to focus on them more.
3 Fortune telling
Do you tend to jump to conclusions based on your negative thinking, convinced that a certain situation or opportunity is bound to turn out badly? Rather than letting foregone conclusions limit your thinking, learn that you do have control over the outcome.
“If I apply for this job, they will laugh at me and toss my CV.”
“If I ask this girl out, she will definitely turn me down.”
- How do you know it will turn out this way?
- What facts do you have that prove this negative outcome will inevitably occur?
- How do you benefit from reaching this conclusion?
- What will happen to you if you continue thinking this way?
4 Mind Reading
Similarly, you may be making negative assumptions about a person’s intentions or thoughts. While you engage in a thinking error known as ‘mind reading’, you are assuming people focus on your flaws through their responses, even though that may not be the case at all.
“My friend didn’t answer the phone. She must be trying to avoid me because I annoy her.”
“My son’s teacher must think I’m stupid because I forgot to sign his permission slip.”
- How do you know that?
- Does assuming something make it true?
Even though the conclusions reached from mind reading are often incorrect, it is still helpful to try to let go of your need for approval and accept that you can’t please everyone all the time.
Another type of negative of thinking error is the habit of creating a broad generalisation out of a single isolated incident. But an unpleasant situation that occurred once doesn’t mean that the same thing will happen every time.
Your spouse got mad because you spilled wine on the carpet. You start to think, “He’s mad at me. He always gets mad at me. That probably means he hates me and wants to divorce me. I must be the worst wife in the world.”
You failed your driving test on the first try. You tell yourself you’ll never get your license and you’ll be stuck riding the bus for the rest of your life.
Try to think of times in your life when a particular negative situation did not end up being a sign of things to come or have a long-term outcome.
- Just because this happened once, does that really mean that it’s going to happen every time, or are other outcomes also possible?
6 Disqualifying the positive
Are you constantly dismissing good things, compliments you receive or positive things people say? With this thinking error, you are discounting the good, while looking for a negative message or ulterior motive.
A friend compliments your hair. You decide she is not saying it because it’s true but rather because she wants something from you or is just being polite.
Make a list of your positive attributes and accomplishments.
Try to accept compliments when people give them to you with a simple “thank you”.
- If that doesn’t count, what does count?
- Who decides what counts and what doesn’t?
- Why do you think good things can’t happen to you?
Are you in danger of seeing yourself as the cause of everything negative that happens, even though you are not responsible? You may be feeling guilt or shame as a result of something that is not your fault.
“My daughter didn’t make the soccer team. I’m sure it’s because I didn’t practice enough with her. ”
“My husband hit me because I’m a bad wife.”
- How do you know that? (In the examples above, how do you know your daughter didn’t make the soccer team because of you? Did the coach say so? How do you know you are a bad wife?)
- Challenge yourself to find out just how much responsibility you could truly have for what occurred.
- Try to think of external factors that could have also contributed to the situation.
If you are suffering from thinking errors, you’ll be pleased to hear that recognising cognitive distortions is the first step towards correcting them. Your negative thought patterns can be changed.
At KlearMinds, we have experienced cognitive behavioural therapists that can help you address your individual issues and give you the tools to change your thoughts for the better. Please feel free to contact us.
Beck, J. S. 2010. Cognitive Therapy. Corsini Encyclopedia of Psychology. 1–3.
Burns, David D., MD. (1989). The Feeling Good Handbook. New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc.