We all tell ourselves little white lies. I will just get gas tomorrow. Just one more episode. I am just going to take a 15-minute power nap. I will just have one more cookie. In reality, most of us can’t say these out loud with a straight face or with conviction.
But what happens when little white lies aren’t so little anymore and become “real?”
Read on to learn more!
The Role of Perspective
“Think fast!” As a boy mom, I cringe, duck, and brace for the worst when I hear those 2 words. THAT phrase is generally followed by an object being thrown in my direction. My sons perceive it as lightly tossing something to me. I perceive it as having something thrown at me.
My sons and I are experiencing the same event, but how we perceive it is entirely different. Why? Because perspective is subjective.
Perspective is biased due to influences. My attitude towards playing catch could be better, considering I feel like it is dodgeball from hell. My mood defines how I feel about objects flying in my direction. My knowledge and understanding of statistics put the likelihood of me catching anything as low. Overall, my perspective on this situation is biased and primarily pessimistic.
15 Cognitive Distortions
Biases within perspectives can result in negative thinking patterns and distorting of reality. For example, you didn’t know a few answers on your exam this morning. The more you think about it, the worse you think you did. You go from not knowing a few answers to thinking you might have failed the test. We can all agree that this pattern of thinking took the scenario up a few notches. Negative thinking patterns, like the above example, are referred to as cognitive distortions.
A cognitive distortion is an exaggerated thinking pattern that leads you to perceive things more negatively than they really are. As a result, you begin to believe negative things about yourself and the world around you that are false.
Take some deep breaths. Don’t panic. Everyone experiences cognitive distortions, especially in the last year with the Covid pandemic and social distancing. It just comes with the territory of being human. But the good news is, I have made a list of the 15 types of cognitive distortions. Now you can identify them! The days of your mind playing tricks on you are numbered.
Now let’s put these cognitive distortions in their place and out your thoughts!
1) All or Nothing “Demanding Perfection”
All or Nothing is viewing yourself, others, or situations in extremes. Anything less than perfect falls into the lesser extreme (e.g., If I don’t get a 4.0, I will feel like a failure). The All or Nothing cognitive distortion discredits strengths, accomplishments, and efforts while zoning in on mistakes and flaws. By judging things based on perfection, things will fall to the lesser extreme most of the time.
Example: I tried Keto and failed miserably. On day 3, I broke down and ate (gasp) an Oreo. I figured I had already messed up my diet, so I might as well eat as many Oreos as I wanted to. With my diet off track, I spiraled into a carbohydrate coma for the rest of the day. My diet approach had zero flexibility. I either followed the diet perfectly or binge ate everything in the kitchen. I felt horrible about myself. Having to unbutton my pants to breathe didn’t help my emotional state either.
2) Overgeneralization “This always happens”
Overgeneralization is assuming that if something happens once, it will continue happening. It can leave you feeling hopelessly trapped in a repeating cycle. This type of negative thinking pattern can lead to a negative self-image based on a single incident.
Example: Your baby cried this morning. No matter how hard you tried, you were at a loss for what was wrong. In desperation, you took her for a car ride, and she fell asleep. She wakes up and starts crying again. You automatically think, “I have no idea what she wants. I am clueless. I will never figure this out! She will keep crying, and I will continue having no idea why!”
3) Mental Filtering
Negative Mental Filtering “Tunnel Vision”
Negative Mental Filtering focuses on a single negative piece of information and filters out all positive details. Eliminating all of the positives and only concentrating on the negative distorts the “big picture.” An entire situation can seem negative when in reality, only a minor detail was negative. This type of negative thinking pattern can lead to an overly pessimistic view of life.
Example: Your boss gives you a glowing performance review. In the room for improvement section, he indicates checking your email more frequently. You ignore everything positive in the assessment and solely focus on not checking your email enough.
Disqualifying the Positive “That can’t be true.”
Disqualifying the Positive is ignoring or invalidating positive feedback. Rather than recognizing that a good outcome resulted from talent, good decisions, or self-discipline, you believe it is an accident or a coincidence. This type of distorted thinking can make you feel unworthy and lower your self-esteem.
Example: You get a perfect score on a test. You tell your friends it has nothing to do with your intelligence. You just lucked out.
4) Jumping to Conclusions
Mind Reading “I know what you are thinking.”
Mind Reading is assuming you know what others are thinking. This cognitive distortion can lead to stress, feeling self-conscious, and even isolation.
Example: You meet a fellow mom for a play date. She seems distracted and is looking everywhere but at you when you two are conversing. You assume she doesn’t like you and is trying to get out of talking to you. In reality, she is listening to you and keeping track of her kids.
Fortune Telling “I know how this one ends.”
Fortune Telling is making predictions that things will turn out badly. The prediction is seen as fact as opposed to being one of the multiple possible outcomes. This distorted thinking pattern can leave one feeling stuck, helpless, and discouraged.
Example: All of your friends are happily married with kids. You are single and know that you will never find love or have a family.
Minimizing is acknowledging the positive but opting to downplay the importance of it. While you may feel you are keeping a humble mindset, you are actually putting yourself down. This type of thinking can fuel other cognitive distortions.
Example: You receive a positive work performance review but minimize the importance by telling yourself that everyone else got good work reviews too. It is not that big of a deal.
Magnifying “What if…”
Magnifying is when a thought quickly escalates into a worst-case scenario. Uncertainty, fear, and the “what if” type of thinking often lead to this negative thinking pattern. Magnifying can result in high levels of anxiety.
Example: Your husband says, “We need to talk when you get home.” You instantly panic, and by the end of the day, you have narrowed it down to either he is dying or wants a divorce. You brace yourself for the worst.
6) Emotional Reasoning “It’s true. I can feel it.”
Emotional Reasoning is believing everything you feel is true. Emotions can override logic, and contradicting evidence is ignored. This thinking pattern is not based on reality and can be exhausting as feelings change rapidly.
Example: No one has texted me today. I feel lonely. Nobody likes me.
7) Should Mentality “Should feel…, Should do…”
Should Statements are about what you should do or how you should feel. These statements focus on what you are not doing, what others expect of you, or how you expect things should be.
When the should statements are not fulfilled, anger, shame, guilt, and frustration can result. You may feel ashamed for not feeling how you “should feel.” When others don’t behave how you think they “should behave,” you may feel anger and resentment. When you use should statements as motivation, you put pressure on yourself and often make unrealistic demands. When you fall short, you feel guilty.
Example: You should feel over the moon when you leave the hospital with your new baby. You should lose all of the baby weight in 6 months. Your neighbors think your home should always be clean. You feel your husband should help with the baby in the middle of the night.
8) Labeling “Name Calling”
Labeling is judging oneself or others based on a mistake, an incident, or a characteristic. The label is generally harsh, based on emotions, and is inaccurate. Labels can influence behaviors and decrease self-confidence.
Example: Your waitress forgets your order, and you label her as lazy.
9) Personalization “Making it personal”
Personalization is taking everything personally. You feel that what people say or do is a reaction to you. When engaging in this cognitive distortion, you blame yourself without logic and for circumstances beyond your control.
Example: I saw on Facebook that my friends went to lunch without me. They didn’t invite me on purpose.
10) Blaming “It’s not my fault”
Blaming is when a person holds others responsible for an outcome or how they feel. When engaged in this thinking pattern, the individual takes on a victim role and resents the person they blame.
Example: When someone says, “Stop making me feel bad about myself.”
11) Control Fallacies
External Control Fallacy “My life is out of my control.”
External Control Fallacy is feeling that everything is out of your control and you have no influence on how situations turn out. This type of thinking causes anger, frustration, and feeling powerless. A person experiencing this distortion will blame bad luck, others, or external forces.
Example: My kids and I are always late to everything, no matter what I do. It is just a given.
Internal Control Fallacy “Everything is my fault.”
Internal Control Fallacy is feeling that anything and everything that goes wrong is your fault. You feel guilty, and you are failing those around you. This negative thinking pattern can make you believe that you are in control of others’ behaviors, feelings, and thoughts.
Example: Your child brought home a bad grade. You instantly feel like you are a horrible mother. This is all your fault for not being more involved. You should have studied with your child to make sure he was prepared for his test. What are you going to say if the school calls to talk about his grades?
12) Fallacy of Fairness “What do mean life isn’t fair?”
Fallacy of Fairness is believing life should be fair. One main issue with this cognitive distortion is that fair is subjective, not objective. When something works out for others and not you, you will most likely perceive the situation as being unfair. When a situation is viewed as unfair, feelings of bitterness can result.
Example: My friend and I have similar jobs, but his company pays him more. It is not fair. We should get paid the same.
13) Fallacy of Change “Change leads to happiness.”
The Fallacy of Change is when an individual believes that happiness is achieved by others changing. Spoiler alert. This mindset often results in everyone involved being unhappy. The individual being pressured to change may feel resentment. Even if the person does change, the individual encouraging the change is no happier than before. Why? Happiness derives from within oneself. No one can make you happy.
Example: I would be happier in my marriage if my husband were more organized.
14) Always Right “There is no way I’m wrong!”
Always Right is just that; the person has to always be right. They view their opinions as facts. Agreeing to disagree is not an option, and they will go to great lengths to demonstrate their beliefs. Proving they are right is prioritized over showing compassion for others. Their body language and tone tend to be condescending.
Example: My brother always wants to talk about politics. He sees his opinions as facts, and anyone who sees things differently is wrong.
15) Heaven’s Reward Fallacy “Hard work pays off.”
Heaven’s Reward is the belief that if you sacrifice and work hard, you will always be rewarded. Disappointment, anger, frustration, and depression can result when the ideal result doesn’t materialize.
The cognitive distortion, Heaven’s Reward, can also be viewed as having a “what goes around comes around” mentality. If you are kind and help others, you will be shown the same kindness and support when you need help.
A Heaven’s Reward mindset can also occur when a person expects praise and recognition for overcoming an obstacle. For example, an alcoholic may feel anger that no one has noticed or praised him for his hard work to stay sober.
Example: If I stay home and study, I will graduate college with a high GPA.
You’ve Got This!
Thoughts can feel like a traffic turn circle. They can be confusing, overwhelming, and chaotic. But, if you sit at the turn circle long enough and observe, you begin to notice patterns and traffic flow. You can do the same with your thinking.
1. Write down your thoughts and observe your pattern of thinking. In doing so, you can identify which cognitive distortions you experience the most.
2. Cross-examine your thoughts! This allows you to see your thoughts more objectively.
3. Focus on what you can control. It is important to remember that while we cannot control everything in life, we do have a degree of control in every situation (e.g., reaction, perception, mentality, approach)
4. Look at the bright side. Avoid focusing on faults and avoid dwelling in self-defeating thoughts.
5. Replace should statements with “I would like to” or “I could.” Let’s try it out. I should lose weight vs. I would like to lose weight. I could just feel the weight being lifted by rewording that statement (pun is very much intentional).
6. Talk to someone about what is on your mind. Sometimes getting an objective perspective view helps. Plus, you might get some valuable feedback or advice.
7. Remember! You’ve got this because you are awesome! Internet high five!
Disclaimer. I have a Ph.D. in business management with a focus in organizational behavior. I studied how cognitive distortions influence job satisfaction. I am not a licensed therapist.
Burns, D. D. (1999). Feeling good. Harper Collins.
Burns, D. D. (1999). The feeling good handbook. Penguin.
To hear podcasts from David Burns go to List of Feeling Good Podcasts | Feeling Good