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Cognitive Distortions

"I can't change. It's just the way I feel. I can't help it." How many times have you heard this or perhaps said it yourself?

Almost 25 years ago Dr. David D. Burns published a pioneering book in a relatively new approach to changing negative emotions entitled "Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy". It is based on the premise that how you think determines how you feel. A thought, perception, or belief precedes every emotion. When thinking is based in reality, the emotion is appropriate; but when thoughts are distorted, the feelings can be unnecessarily painful. When we change our thinking, our mood changes too. The cognitive approach is now applied to depression, anxiety, anger, guilt, shame, and even to couples issues.

Dr. Burns referred to 10 categories of faulty negative thinking as "Cognitive Distortions". Most of us use them occasionally. Some of us use them frequently. Read them over and decide which is your" favorite". When used too often, this way of thinking can cause real but unnecessary problems.

ALL-OR-NOTHING THINKING: This refers to a tendency to evaluate things in extreme, black-or-white categories. If a situation falls short of perfect, you see it as a total failure.

OVERGENERALIZATION: A single negative situation is seen as a never-ending pattern of defeat by using such words as "always" or "never".

MENTAL FILTER: You pick out a negative detail and dwell on it exclusively so that you filter out anything positive and the whole situation becomes negative. "One ant spoiled the whole picnic."

DISQUALIFYING THE POSITIVE: You reject positive comments or experiences by insisting they "don't count" for some reason or other. You can then maintain a negative belief that is contradicted by your everyday experiences.

JUMPING TO CONCLUSIONS: You interpret things negatively even though there are no definite facts that convincingly support your conclusion.

MIND READING: You arbitrarily conclude that someone is reacting negatively to you, and you don't bother to check it out.

THE FORTUNETELLER ERROR: You predict that a situation will turn out badly and accept it as fact. "I just know I'll flunk that test."

MAGNIFICATION (CATASTROPHIZING) OR MINIMIZATION: You exaggerate your own faults and minimize your desirable qualities while inappropriately magnifying someone else's accomplishments or shrinking their imperfections. This is also called the "binocular trick."

EMOTIONAL REASONING: You assume that your negative emotions necessarily reflect the way things really are: "I feel so guilty. I must be a terrible person."

SHOULD STATEMENTS: When you apply "should", "must", or "ought" to motivate yourself, the emotional consequence is guilt or rebellion. When you direct should statements toward others or the world in general, you feel anger, frustration, and resentment.

LABELING AND MISLABELING: This is an extreme form of overgeneralization. Instead of describing your error, you attach a negative label to yourself. "I'm a loser." You may also apply labels to others when they do something hurtful or annoying. "He's a jerk." When you confuse someone's thinking or behavior with his/her very identity, it leaves little room for constructive dialogue. Mislabeling also involves describing an event with language that is highly colored and emotionally loaded.

PERSONALIZATION: You see yourself as the cause of some negative external event, which in fact you were not primarily responsible for or you blame others for events not entirely under their control.

When you notice yourself using any of these distortions, stop and find more realistic, less extreme substitutes. If you have trouble making these changes yourself or would like assistance in applying cognitive therapy, consider asking a mental health professional for help.

Carole P. Smith, Ph.D.
Staff Psychologist

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