Friday, November 13, 2009

Cognitive Distortions and You

Back in 1980, American psychotherapist David Burns published a book which has remained a therapy standard since. Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy was an instant bestseller. The book details the relationship between thoughts and mood, and offers research-based exercises for taking control of "automatic thoughts", and as a result, mood.

Burns identified ten common cognitive distortions, exaggerated and irrational thoughts, which can negatively affect mood. They are extremely common, and identifying them in yourself can serve as the first step in changing them.

Look over the following list and see if any of these distortions are habits of yours.

1. ALL-OR-NOTHING THINKING: You see things in black and white categories. If your performance falls short of perfect, you see yourself as a total failure.

2. OVERGENERALIZATION: You see a single negative event as a never-ending pattern of defeat.

3. MENTAL FILTER: You pick out a single negative detail and dwell on it exclusively so that your vision of all reality becomes darkened, like the drop of ink that discolors the entire beaker of water.

4. DISQUALIFYING THE POSITIVE: You reject positive experiences by insisting they “don’t count” for some reason or other. In this way you can maintain a negative belief that is contradicted by your everyday experiences.

5. JUMPING TO CONCLUSIONS: You make a negative interpretation even though there are no definite facts that convincingly support your conclusions.
a. Mind Reading. You arbitrarily conclude that someone is reacting negatively to you, and you don’t bother to check this out.
b. The Fortune Teller Error. You anticipate that things will turn out badly, and you feel convinced that your prediction is an already established fact.

You exaggerate the importance of things (such as your goof-up or someone else’s achievement). Or you inappropriately shrink things until they appear tiny (your own desirable qualities or the other fellow’s imperfections). This is also called the “binocular trick.”

7. EMOTIONAL REASONING: You assume that your negative emotions necessarily reflect the way things really are: "I feel it, therefore it must be true."

8. SHOULD STATEMENTS: You try to motivate yourself with shoulds and shouldn’ts, as if you had to be whipped and punished before you could be expected to do anything. “Musts” and “oughts” are also offenders. The emotional consequence is guilt. When you direct should statements toward others, you feel anger, frustration, and resentment.

9. LABELING AND MISLABELING: This is an extreme form of over-generalization. Instead of describing your error, you attach a negative label to yourself: “I’m a loser.” When someone else’s behavior rubs you the wrong way, you attach a negative label to him: “He’s a damn louse.” Mislabeling involves describing an event with language that is highly colored and emotionally loaded.

10. PERSONALIZATION: You see yourself as the cause of some negative event which in fact you were not primarily responsible for.

Cognitive distortions are characteristic of depression and anxiety. Adults with Asperger's are especially vulnerable to adopting distorted patterns of thinking. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), a modality of psychotherapy which aims to challenge and change distortions, is the most researched and common form of therapy used to help people with Asperger's change the way they think about themselves. Often adults on the spectrum, when confronted with the illogical nature of some of these automatic thoughts, are eager to change them to adopt a more reality-based perspective.

If you find yourself engaging in distorted thinking, you can begin to replace the illogical thoughts with more accurate (and often forgiving!) thoughts right away. Remember, cognitive distortions which leave you holding the short end of the stick can feel like a form of perfectionsim. But they can often hold you back from enjoying life, feeling confident and reaching potential.

For more on David Burns, visit the Feeling Good website at


THOMAS C said...

Hoping for tips on how to actually change these thoughts. Are they coming soon? I have every one of these habits.

Anxiety Treatments Offered by Sydney Clinical Psychologist Centre said...

Furthermore, developing a positive attitude requires that you become aware of cognitive distortions that are keeping you in a pattern of thinking which forms a barrier to creating the life you really want.