There are two things I struggle with everyday: one, walking up the dreaded hill outside of my house, and two, battling cognitive distortions. Cognitive distortions, or “unhelpful thoughts”, are exaggerated patterns of thought that aren’t based on facts, which lead you to believing negative things about yourself and the world.
“I did well, but I just got lucky.” “I did horrible in that interview, I’m never going to get a job.” If you’ve ever had any of these thoughts, then you have experienced cognitive distortions. It’s perfectly natural to have these thoughts, but it can have a severe impact on your mental health if it happens too often. Our thoughts are connected to our behaviors and feelings; so, let’s take a look at the different types of unhelpful thoughts so you can be better equipped to reframe them in a more positive light.
“I’m running late and I hit a red light. Nothing ever goes my way!”
Overgeneralization refers to making broad, sweeping generalizations based on a single event or experience. In the above example, hitting a red light is just a single experience. Logically, it does not predict or say anything about yourself as a person or how the rest of your day will go. But, if you overgeneralize, you may view the situation as evidence for your perceived unluckiness in life, rather than what it truly is—hitting a red light.
“If my partner leaves me, I’ll never find anyone else and I’ll never be happy again.”
Catastrophizing is when we assume the worst possible outcome will happen. It is absolutely not true that if your partner leaves you, you are doomed to be unhappy forever. It’s an unhelpful thought that causes you to view your life negatively and look down on yourself.
“I failed this math test, so I’m horrible at math and will never succeed.”
Splitting is viewing situations or people in extreme terms. In this case, a more reasonable conclusion would be to say that you’ll study harder and do better on the next test, rather than viewing yourself in the extreme that you are horrible at math. Perhaps there were some external situations that made it more difficult to study this time. This, again, is a pattern of thought that is not based on fact.
“My boss just complimented me on my report, but it’s just something anyone could do.”
If you’ve had this thought or something similar to it, then you have participated in minimization. Minimization refers to downplaying the importance of a positive event or personal quality. Your report just might be amazing and well-written! Don’t minimize your achievements; you are allowed to be proud of them.
5. Mind reading
“My friend looks serious, they must be mad at me.”
Mind reading is assuming a person’s (usually negative) thoughts based on their behavior. Before assuming that your friend is mad at you, have you stopped to think that perhaps something else happened in their day that has nothing to do with you? Or, your friend may just be concentrating on a serious task.
6. Emotional reasoning
“I’m feeling inadequate, so I must be worthless.”
Say it with me: My feelings are NOT facts. Emotional reasoning is when you conclude that your emotional reaction means something is true. Over the years, we’ve learned to trust and rely on our emotions. But, emotions can sometimes be based on fantasies that make us unhappy. They can be based on misunderstandings or our negative perception of a situation.
7. Fortune telling
“I’m not going to get the job.”
This is a very common cognitive distortion of predicting (usually negative) outcomes before they occur. Why do you think you’re not going to get the job? There may be some factors that have led you to this conclusion, but there is much more that goes into whether you will actually get the job. Perhaps you had a great personality fit with the interviewer. Maybe you were the most competitive out of all the other applicants. Perhaps your experience lined up with the job requirements the best. There are so many other factors that you are unaware of, so you are drawing this conclusion without knowing the majority of the evidence.
If we are aware of these types of unhelpful thoughts, it will be much easier to know when our minds are playing tricks on us so that we can reframe our thoughts.