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Cognitive Distortions: 10 Unhelpful Thinking Styles

Ever been in a situation where you’re certain of what’s happening, but then turn out to be completely wrong or not even close? Like jumping to unwarranted conclusions, confusing your feelings with reality, or exaggerating the negative things going around you?

As we try to make sense of the world and our experiences, we sometimes fall into unhelpful thinking styles that can do our mental health a disservice.

The sad part is most of these are irrational, distorted, and inaccurate. Constantly engaging in these thinking styles can cause emotional distress and problems in different aspects of life.

What are unhelpful thinking styles?

Also referred to as cognitive distortions or thinking errors, unhelpful thinking styles are thought patterns that cause you to see reality inaccurately or negatively. They are mostly an automatic habit or response and can happen without you being aware of it.

Unhelpful thinking styles can lead you to believe negative things about you and your surroundings that are not necessarily true.

It is common for everyone to experience cognitive distortions from time to time, like when you are feeling sad or down. Consistently engaging in negative thinking, however, can lead to stress and problematic behaviors, as well as contribute to anxiety and depression.

CBT or cognitive behavioral therapy is often used to fight unhelpful thinking styles.

10 Unhelpful thinking styles

Here are the 10 most common cognitive distortions with examples.

1. Polarized thinking

Also called black & white/all-or-nothing thinking, this type of cognitive distortion involves seeing things in absolute terms. There are no gray areas, middle ground, or in-betweens. You see people or situations as either good or bad, right or wrong, success or failure, and so on.

Examples:

  • I will never succeed.
  • I am a bad/terrible person.
  • I am stupid or a failure (when you made a mistake).

2. Overgeneralization

This involves taking a small piece of information and making a broad interpretation or conclusion. You may also take a single event and make a rule or impose it on present and future situations. You are overgeneralizing if you use absolute statements or words like “always” or “never.”

Examples:

  • Nothing good ever happens.
  • This (bad) thing always happens to me.
  • I will never find love and forever be lonely for the rest of my life (after being turned down by someone).

3. Mental filtering

Also referred to as tunnel vision, mental filtering involves dwelling exclusively on negatives while ignoring positives. In this type of negative thinking, there is a tendency to pay excessive attention to small pieces of information while failing to see the big picture.

Examples:

  • My work or project sucked (after receiving one or two constructive criticisms, but several good reviews).
  • I am terrible at my job (after receiving one or two “needs improvement” on a performance review).
  • They don’t really mean it (when people say kind words).

4. Discounting the positive

This is almost similar to filtering, but the main difference is that you disqualify the good/positive things. In this form of error thinking, you also assume that an excellent outcome is due to luck or an accident, instead of acknowledging that it is because of your talent, skills, and hard work. It’s also called Imposter syndrome.

Examples:

  • My boss was just being nice (after receiving a positive review).
  • I finished ahead of schedule because I got lucky.
  • Anyone could have done it (after being promoted or receiving an award).

5. Jumping to conclusions

As the name suggests, it means drawing a (mostly negative) conclusion based on limited information. You also interpret the meaning of a circumstance without sufficient evidence or taking the time to analyze the facts. There are two variants of jumping to conclusions:

  • Mind reading – You believe you know what someone else is thinking without considering other possibilities.
  • Fortune-telling – You make predictions about the future, which can be based on previous experiences.

Examples:

  • Everyone thinks I am an idiot.
  • I will never find love or get over my break-up.
  • My partner seems distracted. They might be cheating.

6. “Should” or “must” statements

Constantly saying “I should” or “I must” means putting unreasonable demands on yourself and other people. These could also force you into doing things in a certain way or what you think is the right way.

The sad part is when you fail to meet your self-imposed standards, you feel down, guilty, and frustrated with compromised self-esteem.

Examples:

  • I should not be feeling sad, anxious, or depressed.
  • People or my colleagues must like me.
  • I am nice to people, so they should be nice to me.

7. Labeling

This involves forming a negative assumption based on a single event or limited evidence. Using negative labels to describe yourself and others is a form of overgeneralization.

These labels are also likely to be biased because humans are complex beings and cannot be boxed up or defined by a single attribute.

Examples:

  • I got a low score on an exam. I am really stupid.
  • I am such a loser (after spilling a drink or dropping your things accidentally).
  • I am hopeless and unlovable (after one date goes bad).

8. Personalization

With personalization, you automatically blame yourself (or others) when something bad happens. This is one of the most common errors in thinking where you take things personally or full responsibility for a situation that is not connected to you or entirely under anyone’s control.

Examples:

  • My boss seems mad. It’s probably because of something I did.
  • This wouldn’t have happened if I didn’t do this or that.
  • It is all my fault why everyone is mad or upset.

9. Catastrophizing

This thinking style involves viewing the situation as awful or terrible and always anticipating the worst. You also magnify small events and disqualify positive aspects. It is likely for people who have experienced childhood trauma to anticipate the worst in most situations.

  • I made a mistake at work. I’ll probably lose my job and then I will be broke and homeless.
  • My partner and I got into an argument. They must hate me or will break up with me.

10. Emotional reasoning

In this type of cognitive distortion, you base your view of yourself and situations on your emotions. You also consider what you feel a dependable indicator of reality. Unfortunately, feelings are unreliable and rarely dictate reality.

Examples:

  • Something bad is going to happen because I feel it.
  • I feel like a loser, therefore I am a loser.
  • I feel like I’ll never be able to find love, so I’ll end up alone and miserable.

How to stop unhelpful thinking styles

It is important to understand that most of these thoughts are deceptive and inaccurate. Redirecting your thoughts can help, as well as starting with small changes.

Get out of your head

If you find yourself engaging in negative thinking, distract yourself with other activities. Call a friend, take a walk, or get back into an old hobby.

Focusing on someone else by volunteering is also a great way to get out of your head. A 2020 study suggests that those who volunteered had better well-being and life satisfaction than those who didn’t.

Rely on evidence or facts

Before making any claim, have as many facts as possible. Ask yourself what type of information could help you reach a logical conclusion and how you can get a hold of that information.

It is also recommended to come up with different plausible hypotheses and withhold any judgment until you have something of value to back it up.

Expand your thinking

Not everything fits into two categories. It is best to listen or approach things with an open mind. Look for objective evidence, shades of grey, or different forms of interpretation to expand your worldview.

Be willing to revise your perspectives and slow down your reaction. Before jumping to conclusions or overgeneralizing, pause and reflect, and try to see the bigger picture.

Consider cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)

CBT is a form of psychotherapy that can help you identify, improve, and change negative thinking patterns. It involves the use of different self-help strategies to overcome distorted thinking and improve your quality of life.

Cognitive behavioral therapy can be as effective as medication in treating anxiety and depression.

CBT focuses on changing unhealthy thoughts and behaviors. This is beneficial in alleviating stress, handling relationship issues, and facing other life challenges. The best part is it can be done online, which is a great alternative for those who prefer virtual to face-to-face meetings.

Conclusion

If cognitive distortions negatively affect your way of living, don’t hesitate to take online therapy and see a mental health professional. Online therapy platforms like Calmerry let you connect to a wide range of therapists, with subscriptions and pricing that suit various budgets.

Written by Kate

Kate has a B.S. in Psychology and an M.A. in Clinical Psychology from
Pepperdine University and has been working in healthcare since 2017. She
mainly treated depression, anxiety, eating disorders, trauma, grief, identity,
relationship, and adjustment issues. Her clinical experience is focused on
individual and group counseling.

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