I’ve previously lauded cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) as an excellent tool for many mental health conditions. It is a commonly used approach to anxiety disorders, and it uses rational thinking to counteract otherwise irrational thoughts (hence this blog’s name!). There is some research being done on its effectiveness on other disorders like ADHD, stuttering, chronic fatigue, and bipolar disorder. Various other psychiatric techniques are related to this line of therapy, including exposure therapy, DBT, and acceptance therapy.
One of the primary aspects of CBT is adjusting your mindset and fixing cognitive distortions: patterns of thought that reinforce negative self-talk without any rational purpose. These thoughts are typically “automatic,” responding to an external or internal stimulus, and cognitive restructuring is required to change the thought patterns.
Some of the most common cognitive distortions include:
- All-or-nothing/black-and-white thinking
You believe you have to be committed to something 100% or your effort is pointless. Many failed dieters have this problem.
A single negative experience makes you believe that will happen every time. Say you had prepared for a job interview, did well, and then you were not offered the job. You might assume that means you will never get a job, no matter how much you prepare. Similarly, rather than believing that you simply made a mistake in the interview, you believe that you suck, label yourself as a loser, and react emotionally to that.
- Mental filtering
Ignoring the positives to focus only on the negatives. You did well on a project? Great, but what about that one piece of advice on “areas to improve?” You feel like a complete failure.
- Ignoring the positive
Upon receiving a compliment, you immediately discount it, but not out of modesty–out of honest belief that you are not that good/worthy.
This sounds silly at first, but you probably do it more often than you realize. Your friend didn’t call you back today, so he must hate you. Wait, how do you know that? You don’t. You are “mind-reading:” explaining other people’s behavior without any rational basis. The same applies when you “know” you will fail a test before you even take it.
Something bad that happens to you is the worst thing ever (also known as catastrophizing) while good things that happen to you somehow don’t count.
- Emotional reasoning
Do you feel stupid today? Then you must be stupid. Do you feel super awesome today? Then you must be super awesome! Linking reality to our emotional thoughts can warp our perception of the world and ourselves.
- Should statements
I admit that I did this yesterday. While sitting at the doctor, I was upset that I had waited 45 minutes for service, because she “should have” been on time. Well, she was not on time, and my emotional reaction to that did not change reality, it only made me feel upset and bitter.
How often do you blame yourself for something completely out of your control? Your child gets in trouble at school–you blame yourself. Your friend from earlier still isn’t responding to your phone call–you blame yourself. And speaking of blame….
Many of these cognitive distortions lead us to have (sometimes unreasonably) high expectations of others. This can lead us to blame others, rather than ourselves, when they don’t meet our arbitrary criteria.
- Social change/the fallacy of change
This is something you probably recognize more easily in others than in yourself. People expect the world to change to meet their expectations rather than taking responsibility for their own happiness. I’ll avoid getting political here, but if you are having trouble thinking of an example, picture your opposite political party’s social policies.
- Perfectionism/being right
Your primary goal is being right or perfect, rather than being happy or making others happy. Ever get into a fight with your significant other and realize neither of you cares about the other’s feelings at this point in the fight–you’re just fighting to be right?
Can you relate to any (or many) of these? I sure can!
For more fun, check out the difference between cognitive distortions and irrational beliefs.