Breaking Down Cognitive Distortions
One of the most powerful tools we have for treating substance use disorder and many mental health issues is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). This form of innovative intervention focuses on addressing dysfunctional thoughts, emotions and behaviors, especially those associated with cognitive distortion. So what exactly is cognitive distortion, and why is it such a vital aspect of addiction recovery?
Simply put, cognitive distortions are the many ways that a mind convinces itself into believing something that is not actually true. Our mind adopts these inaccurate ideas and thoughts and uses them to reinforce our negative emotions. Sometimes these ideas may sound rational, but all they really do is cause us more pain.
In difficult situations and through hard times, these distorted thoughts can contribute to an overall negative outlook on the world. Cognitive distortion contributes to a depressive or anxious mental state that can affect all aspects of life. Our decisions and our relationships are all at the mercy of these damaging assumptions.
The Many Faces of Distortion
In the 1980s, David Burns was responsible for popularizing the idea of cognitive distortions, giving different examples of distortions by creating common names. These more common cognitive distortions include:
Magnifying negative details while filtering out all the positive elements.
Polarized (Black and White) Thinking
Seeing things in absolutes and creating black-or-white, either/or situations where everything must be perfect or it is a failure.
Using a single piece of evidence or a single incident to establish a general conclusion. Believing that if one thing goes wrong, everything will go wrong.
Also called magnifying or minimizing. Either exaggerating the importance of insignificant events or inappropriately minimizing the scale of significant events.
A distortion where an individual believes everything others do or say is some kind of direct, personal reaction to them. Constantly comparing the self to others, or taking responsibility for an external event.
Feel like a helpless victim of fate, without control over one’s own life.
Resentful feelings due to our perception of what is fair, and constantly trying to measure everything in life by what we believe is fair.
This is the idea that you can manipulate others into changing to suit your needs. Believing that all hopes of happiness rely on others, this individual tries to pressure them to make design their own happiness.
Sometimes this means that an individual will place the responsibility for all their own emotional pain on others. However, other times it means they try to take the blame for every problem, even those outside their control.
Jumping to Conclusions
Often those who struggle with this kind of cognitive distortion will make conclusions with little to no evidence. They frequently think that they know what another person is feeling or thinking, specifically about them.
In this harmful form of cognitive distortion, people accept their feelings as facts. They believe what their emotions tell them is true, and make assertions about themselves or others based on a fleeting feeling.
This can be a particularly harmful distortion. “Should statements” often place unreasonable expectations upon yourself or others. When we fall short, we feel guilty. When others don’t meet these should statements, we become bitter or resentful.
Labeling and Mislabeling
Labeling is an extreme and detrimental form of overgeneralizing that passes judgments of value on others or ourselves based on a single experience. More specifically, mislabeling is when one uses emotionally loaded language to label an experience.
Always Being Right
Always being right is an impossibly high standard that perfectionists can appreciate. It is about always being right, correct or accurate. These individuals often seek out intellectual battles that they believe must be won, and cannot accept being wrong.
Heaven’s Reward Fallacies
While it may sound nice, this distortion can also be incredibly harmful. Of course, we want to believe in a world where hard work and sacrifice will guarantee success and happiness. The idea that justice is an absolute certainty might seem great, but the reality is that the world is not really like that. While it is tragic, not everyone who works hard and makes sacrifices will get the payoff they are looking for.
Why Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Matters in Addiction
Looking through that list of common cognitive distortions, it is easy to see how these issues can influence substance abuse. For example, someone struggling with filtering can commit all their attention to the negative parts of life and rely heavily on substances to make themselves feel better. Meanwhile, someone with control fallacy issues may feel like a victim to all of life’s adversities. Using drugs or alcohol may be their strategy to feeling like they have some level of control in their lives.
Treating cognitive distortions helps to systematically eliminate the desperation and justification that people abusing drugs and alcohol feel. It undermines the self-destructive meanings people associate with themselves, those around them and their circumstances, and it clears the way for empowering and healthy meanings. Overcoming cognitive distortions is about creating useful and effective coping skills. That is why challenging and changing cognitive distortions is a key element of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and addiction treatment.