The term cognitive may sound pretty intimidating or overly intellectual, but it has a simple meaning. Cognition is just a fancy word for a thought. It’s the way you think about what’s happening. Right now, you’re probably having some thoughts about me and what you’re reading, and possibly some thoughts about yourself as well. Your thoughts create your feelings every minute of every day.
For example, right now you could be thinking that I’m a con artist or that this will be just another superficial self-help book. If so, you probably feel skeptical, suspicious, or even annoyed.
Or you may be thinking that nothing could possibly help you because your problems are so severe. If so, you probably feel hopeless, discouraged, or demoralized.
Or this may all sound really interesting and exciting to you, and you may be thinking that this book could actually help you. If so, you’re probably excited and hopeful.
Do you see what I mean? Everyone reading this book is reading the exact same words, but how they feel about this book can differ greatly. Your feelings result entirely from how you’re thinking right now. It is your thoughts, and not the circumstances of your life, that create all of your feelings. You FEEL the way you THINK.
Sometimes, though, we think about ourselves and our lives in ways that are pretty illogical and even unfair to ourselves. We make interpretations about what’s happening that are twisted and misleading, but we don’t realize it. That is what cognitive distortions are: a highly misleading way of thinking about yourself and the world. It’s a way of fooling yourself. And when you feel depressed and anxious, you will nearly always be fooling yourself. This means that your negative thoughts do not reflect reality. Depression and anxiety are the world’s oldest cons.
The following are ten of the most common cognitive distortions:
1. All-or-Nothing Thinking
You look at things in absolute, black-or-white categories, as if shades of gray do not exist, and you think of yourself as either a complete success or total failure. This dichotomous way of thinking can make life pretty miserable and make you feel like a zero, or nothing, most of the time. In addition, you can’t accurately describe yourself or the world in black-or-white categories. Things are rarely totally horrible or absolutely perfect.
You generalize from some specific flaw, failure, or mistake to your entire self. Or you may generalize the way you feel right now, or some negative experience you’ve just had, to the future.
You should suspect overgeneralization whenever your negative thoughts contain global labels (like bad mom) or words like always or never. For example, if you were ever rejected by someone you loved, then you may have told yourself that you were “unlovable” and that you’d be alone forever. In this case, you’d be overgeneralizing the breakup of one relationship to your entire self. You’d also be overgeneralizing from the present to your entire future.
Of course, this distortion isn’t limited to matters of the heart. If you’ve ever failed at something you were trying to accomplish, then you may have thought of yourself as a failure and felt like you’d never be successful. Once again, you’re overgeneralizing from some specific failure to your entire self and from this moment to your entire future.
The next two cognitive distortions typically go hand in hand:
3. Mental Filtering
You filter out or ignore the positives and focus entirely on the negatives. It’s like a drop of ink that discolors the entire beaker of water.
4. Discounting the Positive
This is an even more spectacular mental error. You tell yourself that your positive qualities or successes don’t count. You convince yourself that you’re completely bad, inferior, or worthless.
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