You’re walking down the street, and you see someone you know. You’re almost certain they saw you, but they didn’t say hello. You suddenly think to yourself, “They must be upset with me. Or perhaps they don’t like me. Why else would they walk by and ignore me?”
These thoughts consume you, despite your having no real evidence to back them up. You fail to consider that perhaps there is a different reason why they didn’t say hello, like maybe they forgot their glasses and didn’t actually see you. Or perhaps they had an emergency that they needed to attend to.
If something similar has ever happened to you, you’ve likely experienced what is called a cognitive distortion. Cognitive distortions are “shortcuts” your brain takes while you’re trying to make sense of what’s happening around you. And these shortcuts usually generate results that are not entirely accurate.
Different cognitive distortions result in different kinds of bias in your thinking. For example, they might cause you to jump to the worst possible conclusion. Or perhaps they lead you to blame yourself for something that's not your fault. These thinking patterns happen automatically, but if you learn to recognize and replace them, you can improve your mood and well-being by recognizing situations for what they are, rather than seeing their distorted versions.
Let's break down the most common cognitive distortions so you can recognize them when they happen and learn how to keep them at bay!
1. All-or-Nothing Thinking
All-or-nothing thinking, also called "black-and-white thinking", is a cognitive distortion that manifests as seeing things in terms of extremes. For example, something is either great or terrible; you believe you're either perfect or a total failure.
In order to overcome all-or-nothing thinking, it's important to avoid thinking in negative, absolute terms like always, never, and forever by recognizing your strengths and finding the positive in situations. You can do that by:
Evoking compassion for yourself: If you struggle with self-compassion, think about what you would say to a dear friend if they were in the same situation as you.
Focus on what you did well and on what you accomplished: For example, you could tell yourself something like, "I may not have finished all my tasks today, but it's amazing that, given how much pain I'm in, I made my bed and showered."
If you're in the habit of going straight to self-criticism, you may have to think hard at first to come up with the positives. But the positives are there, and they're worth the effort it takes to find them. Try thinking about what it is that you appreciate about yourself, or ask a significant other to describe your positive qualities.
2. Jumping to Conclusions
There are two types of ways that this distortion plays out:
Mind-reading: An inaccurate belief that we know what the other person is thinking and jumping to negative interpretations. For example, you assume that some people don't like you and they make fun of you, despite having no evidence to uphold that assumption.
Fortune-telling: The tendency to make conclusions and predictions based on little to no evidence and holding them as the truth. For example, you assume that you will fail an exam even though you studied properly and prepared yourself.
Here are some ways to stop jumping to conclusions:
Remember times when you jumped to the wrong conclusion. Ask yourself whether your current situation could be similar.
Try to see things holistically. Ask yourself if you have all the information to make an informed decision.
Check the evidence. What evidence do you have to support the conclusion you're drawing? Are your thoughts based on facts or feelings?
3. Thinking Through a Mental Filter
When you think through a mental filter, you end up only focusing on the negative aspects of a situation and filtering out all of the positive ones.
An example of this type of distortion is dwelling on a single negative comment made by your manager and viewing the professional relationship as hopelessly lost, while ignoring years of positive comments and experiences.
You can overcome thinking through a mental filter by reflecting on the entire situation and trying to identify not only the negative aspects, but the positive ones as well.
For example, let's say that you can't stop thinking about one negative comment your manager made about you. Try to tell yourself something like, “Even though I made a mistake, I performed well in other aspects of my job, and my manager did praise me for my great work ethic.”
If your imagination has ever dragged you through a repetitive cycle of worst-case scenarios, then you’re probably familiar with the concept of catastrophizing.
This negative thinking pattern magnifies thoughts and situations in a way so that they’re blown out of proportion and don’t necessarily reflect what could or is realistically happening.
In order to stop catastrophizing, try:
Asking yourself, "What if?" or "What's the worst that could happen?" Answering these questions may help you reduce the irrational level of anxiety and highlight that even the worst-case scenario is manageable.
For example, if there's a lot of traffic on your way to work, instead of thinking that you'll never get there on time, try replacing that thought with, "I may be late, but I will get there safely. In the meantime, I can enjoy the radio."
Putting Thoughts on Trial: Act as a defense attorney, a prosecutor, and a judge. First, defend your catastrophizing thought, and then make an argument for why the thought is true, relying on facts only. The next step is to present evidence against the thought. Finally, you should act as the judge by reviewing the evidence and delivering a verdict in the form of a rational thought.
The thought: My partner probably hates me.
An argument in defense of the thought: We often argue about minor things.
An argument against the thought: When we do argue, we always find a way to resolve the problem.
The verdict: Arguments are sometimes upsetting, but overall, this is a healthy and loving relationship. There's no evidence that my partner hates me.
Personalization occurs when you perceive negative events as your responsibility, even if there’s no proof of the connection.
For example, feeling responsible for another person’s happiness or believing that someone’s success depends on your actions are strong indicators that you might be personalizing a situation.
You can confront personalization by asking yourself the following questions:
Am I responsible for the outcome in this situation?
Is there any other way to explain how things took place?
Is there a shared responsibility for the negative outcome?
When you question your role in these situations, you begin to deconstruct unhealthy thinking patterns and, in turn, start forming a healthy mindset.
Once you start to recognize cognitive distortions, you'll get a bird’s-eye view of the real situation at hand. You'll be able to zoom out to see how the thoughts you’re caught up in likely don't reflect reality. And by using the tools we’ve mentioned, you'll expose these thoughts and better deal with them as they arise.
Question your thoughts and make the effort to provide yourself with evidence if you suspect that a cognitive distortion might be taking place. Get a hold of those thoughts before they get a hold of you!