Cognitive Distortions and Thinking Errors – How Can CBT Help?
When you’re feeling worried or stressed, would you say your thoughts are mostly positive or negative? If you’re like most people, negative thoughts run rampant and you might feel that you have trouble controlling them.
Some people who suffer from anxiety or depression say they wish they could “shut off” their thoughts. Often, it is actually these thoughts rather than the specific incident or situation that is causing the anxiety or depression in the first place.
What Are Thinking Errors Or Cognitive Disortions?
Thinking errors are faulty patterns of thinking that are self-defeating. They occur when the things you are thinking do not match up with reality. This is sometimes also referred to as cognitive distortions. Those who commit thinking errors often don’t realise they are doing so.
Why Is It So Important To Understand Thinking Errors?
People with anxiety and low self-esteem are susceptible to getting caught in an endless loop of negative thinking. It is important to take stock of your thoughts because the cycle they spur can end up becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.
For example, a person who thinks that people don’t like him or her might start to have physical symptoms such as sweating at the very idea of being immersed in a social situation. As a result, the individual avoids parties and other gatherings, which makes him or her feel left out and eventually causes more negative thoughts such as “something must be wrong with me.” The cycle then continues, leaving the person feeling depressed or anxious. If the initial thought is dealt with appropriately, the entire cycle of negativity that follows it can 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:
Examples Of Thinking Errors and How CBT Can Help
Cognitive behavioural therapy can help you recognise when you are thinking distorted thoughts. It teaches you how to question these thoughts so they are not allowed to trigger a cycle of negativity, and it helps you replace those thoughts with more balanced ways of thinking.
These thinking errors can be strong habits that you engage in subconsciously, and a cognitive behavioural therapist can help you address specific issues and give you the tools needed to change your thoughts for the better.
Here are some examples of common thinking errors and how CBT questioning can help counteract them:
“All or Nothing” Thinking
You are constantly thinking of things in extreme terms, such as “always” and “never”. If you do something in a way that is less than perfect, you automatically conclude that you are a failure.
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?
This occurs when you focus on the negative aspects of a situation and disregard the positives. You might be presented with a number of facts supporting a positive outcome, but you dwell only on the negative parts, even if there aren’t very many, and inflate their importance.
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.
Fortune telling falls under the category of jumping to conclusions. It occurs when you are so convinced that something will turn out badly that you are sure it is a foregone conclusion and there is nothing you can say or do to change 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?
When you think you know a person’s intentions or thoughts, you are engaging in a thinking error known as mind reading. You assume people are focusing on your flaws and believe that someone is reacting negatively to you, even though their response might have nothing to do with you 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.
This occurs when you take an isolated incident and project it to make broad generalisations. A one-time unpleasant occurrence is viewed as a sign of what will happen every time you’re in a similar situation, rather than the isolated incident that it actually is.
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?
Disqualifying the positive
If you are constantly dismissing good things that happen or positive things people say, you are making this thinking error. Disqualifying the positive often entails saying something positive that happens to you doesn’t count or isn’t important.
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?
The personalisation thinking error involves seeing yourself as the cause of everything negative, even though you are not the one responsible. This often leads to feelings of shame and guilt.
“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.
Do You Suffer From Thinking Errors?
If you recognise yourself when looking at these thought patterns, don’t fret! Recognising cognitive distortions is the first step toward correcting them. The lines of questioning outlined here can be helpful when you’re having a bad moment, but a CBT therapist can help you challenge and improve your thought patterns using an individualised approach.
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.