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10 Common Thought Distortions That Cause Us Trouble


sunset-401541_640In my last post I offered a basic sketch of the cognitive-behavioral model of psychological distress.  By way of quick, pithy review: the way you THINK gives rise to the way you FEEL and BEHAVE.  So, understanding our thoughts is important if we want to understand our feelings and behaviors.

Now, we all operate from schemas—a fancy term for how we understand ourselves and the world around us. Based on our previous experiences (both positive and negative), this understanding of ourselves and the world can be inaccurate, unhelpful, and even harmful.  Our schemas heavily influence what we pay attention to in our environment, what we remember, and how we perceive our everyday occurrences—how we assess situations.

If a schema  is inaccurate or harmful (e.g. a general “I am unloveable” schema) it can give rise to dysfunctional automatic or surface level thoughts. While surface level thoughts are those of which you are fully aware and conscious , automatic thoughts are quick, often unnoticed thoughts.  Often it is these knee-jerk, unnoticed assessments (automatic thoughts) of ourselves, our situation, or the events around us that lead to our emotional and behavioral difficulties.

When automatic thoughts cause emotional or behavioral problems is often because they have become distorted. Cognitive-behavioral theorists have identified 10 common cognitive distortions that give rise to most psychological distress. They are:

  • Dichotomous thinking. An individual who gravitates toward thisAuguste-Rodin-The-Thinker-1880-81distortion tends to consider only extremes. They think of themselves as an absolute success or a complete failure, a perfect saint or a miserable sinner.
  • Overgeneralization. This is when a single instance is viewed as indicative of a broader class. Someone who overgeneralizes is likely to think that one poor test grade in math means that they must not be good at math. This is the young man who gets denied when asking out a woman and assumes that no woman is likely to agree to go on a date with him.
  • Selective Abstraction. This occurs when someone attends to certain (usually negative) aspects of a situation at the cost of other aspects. This is the glass half-empty distortion—someone who finds it difficult to see the good in a situation.  An example of this might be the parent who, at the end of a long day, focuses on not having washed the dishes in the sink or finished all the laundry despite having  succeeded in feeding, cleaning, educating, and keeping relatively safe (and alive), the little immortal soul(s) entrusted to them .
  • Mind Reading. This is when the attitudes and actions of others are assumed without evidence. “I know that person things that I am stupid.” “They don’t like my outfit.” “They didn’t say hi to me because they think that my kids are annoying at Mass.”
  • Personalizing . This is when someone assumes that an action is directed toward or occurs because of oneself. “I know that our team lost because of me.”  “Everyone left early tonight because they think I’m boring.”
  • ‘Should’ing on Yourself. These are absolute imperatives that we impose on ourselves. “I should have more patience.” “I should know how to do this (insert any task) better.” “I shouldn’t be so anxious.” Shoulds take us away from the journey and process of growth and demand (unrealistic) results now.
  • Catastrophizing. This is when an individual’s thoughts constantly anticipate extreme negative consequences despite have no evidence it—someone who thinks the worst is always going to happen.  This distortion leads folks to believe that they (or their loved ones) are going to get very sick, get into an accident, lose their job, or that all of the kitchen appliances are surely going to become irreparably broken and need to be replaced.
  • Minimizing. Folks who tend toward this distortion downplay the significance of positive outcomes. For example, despite doing well on a difficult test an individual who minimizes might be likely to say, “It was probably just luck.”  Or, if someone who clearly worked hard at parenting receives a compliment on having raised their children well they might say, “Oh, it wasn’t me. They have easy temperaments.”

Now, it’s important to remember that we all struggle with and tend toward certain thought distortions.  It is not uncommon for an individual to have 2-3 thought distortions that frequently cause them emotional and behavioral difficulty. I know the common distortions I see in my own thoughts are mind reading, dichotomous thinking, and personalizing—and boy can they cause emotional (and behavioral) havoc sometimes. So what can we do?

  • Notice Your Thoughts. Be mindful of moments of unpleasant emotions or behaviors. Pause and try to identify the thought(s) that immediately preceded the emotion or behavior. Be patient with yourself; it can be difficult to begin the practice of recognizing our thoughts, since so many of them are automatic and often go unnoticed. Sometimes writing these thoughts down on paper can help you identify them more readily and notice emerging patterns.
  • Name It and Claim It. Once you have identified your thoughts try to determine which thought distortion(s) best characterizes the thoughts that you have noticed.  Again, be away of any patterns that may emerge. Do you tend toward minimizing? Personalizing? Knowing which distortions you gravitate toward (and in which situations) will help you be mindful of them as they arise!
  • Look for Evidence to the Contrary. Once you have written down your thoughts and named the thought distortion(s) take some time to look for evidence that contradicts your thoughts. Could there be any alternative explanations? What might you be missing? Quantify how much evidence you have for your belief. Also, sometimes engaging in behaviors that directly contradict our thoughts (e.g. If you think you should avoid a social engagement because you believe everyone thinks your boring, then you might actually go to the party and be aware of how people actual react and respond to you) can give us new information and evidence that can help us have more accurate, balanced thoughts.

What do you think? Do these common thought distortions resonate with you?  We’d love to hear your thoughts!

  • January 28, 2015 - 11:27 am

    Renee - Yep. Totally on the mark. I think especially when I was a teenager I was guilty of all of these at some point.

    As I am going through a difficult loss lately, I have only recently figured out the what to do about it part on my own. I have found that writing down my thoughts and naming my feelings and why I am feeling them has helped me to workout my problems, move on, feel better.

    I think you should add some more tags to this post so more people can find it in hard times. Add tags like dealing with your feelings, altering your behavior, dealing with depression, personalizing issues, overgeneralizing. You may think of some other tags that would help people find the post in search engines.ReplyCancel

  • January 28, 2015 - 5:30 pm

    Jeff Mazzone - Same three distortions here…cheers!ReplyCancel

  • January 29, 2015 - 8:57 pm

    Elisa - I do lots of these! I say “always/never” a lot, think of worst case scenarios, and think the “should’ve”. I think it’d be really hard to unlearn. Most of these things, I know are not true in my head, but in my heart, or wherever, I still think them occasionally.ReplyCancel

  • January 31, 2015 - 10:11 pm

    Margi Christos - I was severely verbally, psychologically and some physically abused. I have fought PTSD, major depression and severe anxiety disorders for all of my life. I receive therapy, faith but not enough trust. Since becoming permanently disabled, losing my husband to other woman and living alone depending on people to drive me to all my doctors appointments it’s become more difficult. I know the evil one is working on me and the more I pray and say “I trust in you Jesus” the harder it’s been, especially these last 3 years. I get down on myself worse than before and I don’t know if it’s all the pain, additional physical conditions and age but I pray and go to confession and have a great network of people to help and bring me the Eucharist. Thanks for your article. I will try your ideas.ReplyCancel

  • February 3, 2015 - 12:13 am

    Chris - Nearly all these resonate with me! Boy do I have some work to do… They certainly are causing me problems in my life, particularly my spirtual life, eg making a mountain out of a molehill if I don’t pray as much as I feel I should, or skip certain spiritual practice. Found this helpful as a way of putting into words these tendencies of mine. Thank you very much for posting this, I have quite some work to do…ReplyCancel