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10 Distorted Forms of Thinking That Are Holding You Back

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Author: Shernide Delva

Recently, my therapist revealed I have a catastrophizing form of thinking. Essentially, I overanalyze everything and believe something will go wrong one way or another. This negative type of thinking results in anxiety when even the smallest things go wrong, which ultimately results in more things going wrong. Needless to say, it is a horrible cycle.

Still, the realization had me pondering other forms of irrational thinking people have. How do other negative ways of thinking affect people’s life? Cognitive psychologists pay very close attention to what is known as cognitive distortions. Cognitive distortions are our mind’s way of convincing us of something that is not true. These distorted thoughts reinforce our negative thoughts and emotions. We tell ourselves things we believe sound rational and accurate, but in reality, they only make us feel bad about ourselves.

For example, a person might tell themselves, “I always fail when I try to do something new; therefore  I fail at everything I try.”

Honestly, these thoughts might be grounded in truth. Maybe this person has tried many things and HAS failed at many of them, but that does not mean they will fail at everything. That is an all or nothing mentality. People who think this way hesitate to do anything and feel worthless as a result. This form of thinking is known as overgeneralization—because you failed at x, y and z, you automatically will fail at a, b and c. It is self-deprecating and destructive in the long term.

Therapists try to understand their client’s way of thinking so that they can help them change their thinking in the future. Chances are, we have reinforced our thinking patterns over and over again for years, and some of us need help replacing our negative thought patterns with more rational, balanced ones.

10 Cognitive Distortions Holding You Back

  1. Filtering

    Filtering is when you take the negative details and magnify them while filtering the positive aspects of the situation. For example, you get a flat tire on the way to an event, and you decide to focus on that one negative aspect of the day that went wrong, rather than all the positive events that occurred afterward. Dwelling on these negative occurrences causes our vision of reality becomes darkened or distorted.

  2. “Black and White” Thinking

    This form of thinking is also known as all-or-nothing thinking. Either you go to the gym seven days a week, or you sit on the couch all week.  Either you work on something every day until it is perfect, or you do not do it at all. The “must be perfect” mentality does not work because no one is perfect. People who have black-or-white thinking lack the ability to see shades of gray. Every situation or performance must go perfect, or you are a failure. The concept of balance is difficult for a person with this style of distorted thinking to understand.

  1. Overgeneralizations

    Overgeneralization thinking focuses on the past rather than the future. For example, if the first time you tried pizza, it was bad, that means all pizza is bad. If the first time you tried flirting, you were rejected, that means you will always be rejected. If the first time you take any risk, you fail, then you will always fail. This form of thinking relies on a single incident or piece of evidence that we cling on to validate never doing that particular thing again. However, this only reinforces a never-ending pattern of defeat.

  2. Jumping to Conclusions

    You meet someone, and they are in a bad mood, and you automatically think they are mad at you.  You must have done something, right?  Perhaps your friend has not called you in weeks, so you assume they are ignoring you. Jumping to conclusions means you automatically assume the worse scenario when something out of the ordinary, or negative happens. You do not bother finding out the truth; you just make a conclusion on your own. This form of thinking is destructive because it relies on assumptions and not facts.

  3. Catastrophizing

    When we catastrophize, we expect the worse no matter what. We always question the what-ifs in life rather than remain in the present. This is also known as “magnifying or minimizing.” An example is when planning a trip; you think of every possible thing that could go wrong before the journey begins. Ex: “What if my flight delays?,” “What if I forget my passport?”, “What if tragedy strikes?” Everyone catastrophizes once in a while, but in excess, it can prevent you from doing anything you want in life.

  4. The Fallacy of Fairness

    In this form of thinking, you feel resentful because you do good things, yet do not get what you think is “fair” in return. For example, you volunteer to help your friend with an errand, however when you have an errand to run, she is not available. People who have this form of thinking keep track of everything and use measurements for every situation. Example: I did this for you, so I expect the same in return. The problem with this form of thinking is that life is not always fair, and you should not waste energy keeping track of every good deed you do. Learn to make sacrifices without expecting favors in return.

  5. Blaming

    You hold other people responsible for your pain. Example: “You are making me feel bad about myself!” or “I feel insecure when I am around you.” The problem with this form of thinking is nobody can make you feel a certain way. Your response to a situation comes from your experience and emotions. Blaming the outside world for your emotions is not an effective way of controlling them.

  6. Emotional Reasoning

    This style of thinking means everything you feel about yourself must be true. It is the ultimate “I think. Therefore I am” mentality. If you feel stupid and depressed, then you must be stupid and depressed. You assume your unhealthy emotions define who you are as a person. This form of thinking is harmful because our emotions do not define us. Our emotions are a state that we can alter and change.

  7. Global Labeling

    This form of thinking involves labeling ourselves or other people because of an error or mistake. For example, you fail a math test, so automatically you are a loser. If you went over budget on a project, you are obviously irresponsible. This negative form of thinking is self-destructive. Furthermore, people who have this form of irrational thinking tend to judge others harshly. When they see another person make an error on a particular task, they label the person as a loser. This form of thinking is unhealthy because making mistakes does not automatically make you or anyone a loser or failure.

  8. Heaven’s Reward Fallacy

    A person with this type of thinking always feels unappreciated. When you do well, you feel like people should comment on how well you are doing. If they do not notice, then you feel less inclined to work as hard. You expect the sacrifices you make to be recognized and rewarded. If you do not get the reaction you want, you get bitter. The problem with this form of thinking is that you rely on other people to stay motivated. Instead, you should understand that not all our sacrifices will pay off. No one is keeping score. You should work on motivating yourself rather than waiting on others to motivate you.

Cognitive distortions are not healthy because they rely on a distorted, irrational way of thinking. Learning to understand your style of thinking will help you shift your negative thoughts. Awareness is critical.  If you are struggling with any of these types of thinking, we can guide you.  If you or someone you love is struggling with substance abuse or addiction, please call toll-free 1-800-951-6135.

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