5 of the Most Common Cognitive Distortions I See in Therapy
Updated: May 5
Cognitive distortions are inaccurate thoughts that influence the ways we see ourselves, others, and the world around us, and ultimately how we feel and behave. We all engage in distorted thinking from time to time, and awareness that our thoughts can sometimes “lie” to us and cause us emotional harm or influence destructive behaviors is the key to breaking free from their grip! One helpful part of therapy is allowing and trusting an objective party to “hear” your thought process/patterns and point these distortions out to you. You will probably realize that you have a few “favorites” that you engage in at least semi-regularly, and once you recognize these, you have begun the process of changing them! Below I am going to list 5 of the MOST common cognitive distortions I hear and point out to clients in therapy.
1) Catastrophic thinking- This is BY FAR the most common cognitive distortion that I hear in therapy. Catastrophic thinking is expecting and fearing the WORST possible scenario in any situation. It is a protective mechanism that plays on FEAR to manipulate you to often avoid certain situations/interactions by convincing you that you are likely in harm’s way. Examples of catastrophic thinking may include ideas such as: “If I confront my boss about being over worked, she’s likely going to think I am lazy and fire me on the spot. THEN I won’t be able to pay my rent and will have to move back in with my parents. THEN my parents will start fighting again like they did in high school and probably get divorced. It will all be my fault because I confronted my boss. I can’t do that now.”.
2) Emotional reasoning- Listening to your emotions is important and should be a factor in your decision making. Listening ONLY to your emotions as the ONLY factor in your decision making can be very problematic, however. IDEAL decision making utilizes your WISEMIND- which is a blend between your emotional experiences and factual evidence. Listening only to your emotions could sound like: “I am really nervous to confront my boss about my workload. This is definitely going to go badly- I am nervous for a reason and should listen to this “gut feeling”. HOWEVER objective facts that I am ignoring are that my coworker confronted our boss on the same issue and said she was very receptive and worked immediately to balance the workload issue, my boss has been very rational/level headed with me in the past, my boss TOLD me to give her feedback about workload, my workload actually IS more than I am contractually obligated to uphold, etc.” ALLOWING these facts to intermingle with the emotion of being nervous may help you to seek support/comfort/guidance from loved ones/colleagues about how to best confront your boss, or vulnerably share with your boss that you are nervous but still needing to talk.
3) Personalization- This is a very common cognitive distortion that we are all guilty of engaging in. We all have a deep desire to be liked by others around us and look for evidence of this in our interactions with them. We also can engage in “ego centric thinking”- meaning we sometimes think everything revolves around us or happens because of us. We sometimes forget that the way people engage with us likely has more to do with THEM and THEIR LIFE than it does with us personally. An example may be that our coworker was short with their hello this morning and we assume they must be mad at us for a suggestion we made at work the day prior. We can run away with this assumption and be overly apologetic/appeasing, or we could become defensive and agitated ourselves with them. The reality is they may have gotten a flat tire on the way to work or their child could be sick- their short hello could very well have NOTHING to do with us. Learning to PAUSE and gather more data/experiences before assuming a personal issue is at hand is an amazing skill.
4) Black or White Thinking- This is thinking in the extreme categories, without much area for shades of grey. This type of thinking often comes down to categories such as what is “good” and what is “bad”. The issue with this type of thinking is that we often feel bad about ourselves, others, situations, etc. when they do not live up to a single, rigid expectation of what is “good”. This could sound like getting angry at your child for missing curfew and rushing towards a judgment that your child is “bad, out of control, totally disrespectful” or that you are a “bad, out of control” parent for being angry. Shades of grey would sound like acknowledging you both could have made better choices, but that not all of your choices are bad, and you can still have a good child who sometimes violates rules or be a good parent who has yelled before.
5) Overgeneralization- Your “keys” to recognizing this distortion are words like “always, never, everything, nothing”. Overgeneralization happens when we take one experience and apply it broadly across our life and sometimes even others’, misinterpreting situations in painful ways. You may have experienced hearing this from others and felt misunderstood or unfairly judged. For example: “Your parents got a divorce because of infidelity in the marriage. You share that you hope to get married one day with your mom and she tells you that it’s a waste of time and effort because no one is able to commit to one person for the rest of their lives anyways. You recognize that she in emotional pain because of her own experiences in marriage, but that she is transferring those experiences onto you and assuming you just don’t know any better”. Taking one experience and assuming the outcome or reason behind another in our lives is something we should always look out for- we want to use our past history wisely and help protect ourselves in the future, but we don’t want to assume it dictates everything.
If you identify with any distortions on this list, know you are not alone! Your brain is not broken because it can sometimes think in these ways, but you likely do want to work on taking back control and re-routing your thoughts in more helpful ways. This starts with recognition of the distortion, acknowledgment about the ways these thoughts may be attempting to “protect us”, and making decisions about whether or not we want to allow these thoughts to remain or if we want to seek a more balanced thought to influence our feelings and behaviors in new ways. Therapy can be a great place to start this work and learn these skills!
Written by: Kelly Birkhold, LCSW (providing individual, couples, and family therapy)