Identifying and Correcting Cognitive Distortions
Updated: Jan 4, 2021
Cognitive distortions are inaccurate and irrational patterns of thought that can contribute to anxiety, feelings of depression and poor self esteem. By identifying and challenging these ways of thinking, we can begin to think more rationally and positively and can improve our mental health.
Types of Cognitive Distortions
Try to recognize and acknowledge your irrational thoughts when you can. Some types of irrational thoughts containing cognitive distortions are listed below.
1. All or Nothing Thinking
This includes seeing only extreme possibilities with no in-between, believing that if something isn't perfect, it must be terrible, or the inability to see alternatives in a situation.
2. Personalization and Internalization
Personalization can involve believing things that go wrong are a reflection of your character, holding yourself responsible for things you don't have control over, and taking things personally when they aren't personal.
We overgeneralize when we take one experience as evidence that a pattern exists (e.g. saying "this always happens" based on one event), or applying one situation to all situations, including future ones.
4. Negative Mental Filter
This refers to seeing things from a negative viewpoint, focusing more on negative events or experiences than positive ones, and expecting the future to be negative.
This includes assuming that the worst case scenario will be true, even if this is not likely to happen.
6. Jumping to Conclusions
Jumping to conclusions involves interpreting things in a negative way when you don't have enough evidence to do this. This can include mind reading, such as assuming someone thinks negatively about you without evidence of this, or fortune-telling, such as assuming that something will go badly.
Examples of Negative Irrational Thoughts:
- I can not get through this.
- I'm completely foolish for doing that.
- Things always go wrong.
- I need to always do well in everything.
- I am a failure.
Examples of More Rational Alternative Thoughts:
- I don't like this, but I will get through it.
- I did something that wasn't the smartest, but that doesn't make me completely foolish.
- Sometimes things go wrong, but other times things are good.
- It's okay if not everything I do is perfect.
- Even though sometimes I don't succeed, this doesn't make me a failure.
To learn more about cognitive distortions, click here.
Correcting Irrational Thoughts
After becoming familiar with your negative irrational thoughts, show kindness to yourself and recognize that it is completely normal to have them. Once you've recognized your irrational thoughts, you can begin to correct them with some of the methods below.
1. Reality Testing
When you can, write down negative thoughts that you have. Go through each thought you record and try to identify any patterns of irrationality or cognitive distortions, for example by comparing them to the list above. At a later time when you are in a more positive headspace, look back at your list of thoughts and see whether or not you still believe they are accurate or whether they ended up being true. Most of the time, you will later find that the thoughts are irrational.
2. Look for Evidence
Make a list of all of the evidence that you can think of that your thoughts are true, and then a list of all of the evidence that you can think of that your thoughts are not true. For example, if you find yourself thinking that "bad things always happen to you," try to think of whether there have actually been many more negative things than positive things that have happened in the past little while. If you think that someone thinks negatively of you, try to think of any evidence that you know what they're actually thinking, and see if that evidence is enough to make conclusions. This can help you identify if the thoughts you are having are irrational, and if you find that they are, it can allow you to correct the thoughts.
3. Reconstructing Distorted Thoughts
When you notice that a thought you are having is irrational, try to reconstruct it by replacing cognitive distortions with more rational ideas. For example, if you notice that you are catastrophizing, try to think of alternative, more plausible solutions. If you find yourself focusing only on negative experiences, try to remind yourself of positive experiences that you've had to reassure yourself that positive outcomes are possible. If you notice that you are jumping to conclusions, look at the evidence you have to determine how plausible your conclusions actually are. If you practice this often, you will learn to recognize and replace irrational thoughts more automatically and effectively.
4. What Would You Want to Say to a Friend in Your Situation?
It can be helpful to think of what you would say to a friend that is expressing similar irrational thoughts. For example, if someone is expressing guilt over something they don't have control over, most friends would want to tell them "It's not your fault." Try to think of ways that you could convince the friend that it truly isn't their fault, and then try to take this advice yourself. You could use the same approach to try to convince yourself that something isn't as personal as you think it is, or that there are other possibilities than the worst case scenario that you're imagining.
5. Seek Professional Support
If you are unable to manage your irrational thoughts or you find that they are interfering with your daily life and wellbeing, you should seek professional support, such as through counselling or therapy. You can look for resources at the "Resources" page of this website by clicking here.