Have you ever bungled a meeting, only to think you can’t do anything right? This is a cognitive distortion: a sneaky way our minds convince us of things that aren’t true. Cognitive distortions are inaccurate, negatively biased thought patterns that affect our feelings and behaviors—and even our health. Here are four common types of cognitive distortions.
These thoughts occur when we erroneously take things personally or blame ourselves for things we aren’t responsible for. For example, if a colleague fails to smile at us, we assume we have done something to offend her.
With overgeneralizations, we view a single negative event as the beginning of an infinite cycle of defeat. For example, a falling-out with one friend causes us to decide that all our friendships are in jeopardy.
When we filter, we ruminate on the negative and filter out the positive. For example, we receive mostly positive feedback about a presentation at work, but focus only on the one suggestion that we could have spoken more clearly.
Labeling occurs when we attach negative labels to ourselves and others. Instead of saying, “I messed up on my workout plan,” we might say, “I’m lazy.”
Become a healthier thinker
It’s natural to have irrational thoughts sometimes, but when we find ourselves in the spin cycle of cognitive distortions, we can shift toward healthier thinking patterns.
Recognize irrational thoughts
For one week, practice observing when your mind jumps to an irrational thought to discover which distortions you’re prone to and when they’re most likely to pop up.
Challenge the accuracy of thoughts
Having a thought doesn’t make it true, and we can challenge cognitive distortions by using techniques like this one:
1. Create four columns on a piece of paper.
2. In the first column, write the irrational thought. (“I’m useless.”)
3. In the second column, jot down the factual evidence that supports this thought. (“I missed an important deadline at work.”)
4. In the third column, list the evidence that disputes this thought. (“I meet deadlines 90 percent of the time.”)
5. In the fourth column, create an alternative, more balanced thought based on the listed evidence. (“Although I feel embarrassed that I missed a deadline, I have a lot on my plate right now. I meet deadlines most of the time and am a valuable employee.”)
When we make a mistake, instead of calling ourselves stupid, blaming others or assuming we’re destined for failure, we can try responding to ourselves with kindness. Ask yourself, “What would I say to my good friend if she or he were in this situation?”
Mindfulness occurs when we nonjudgmentally and intentionally observe the present moment. Over time, a mindfulness practice can help us develop a greater capacity to choose which thoughts we want to follow and explore and which thoughts we want to let pass by.
If negative thinking patterns are affecting your relationships or your ability to complete daily tasks, you might want to seek counseling—especially if you’re coping destructively, whether by self-harming or self-medicating.