We’ve all heard of negative thoughts, but have you ever heard of a thought distortion? What are “thought distortions” anyway?
Also called “cognitive distortions,” common negative thought distortions are how our minds convince us of things that aren’t actually true. Distorted thoughts are basically instances of inaccurate thinking we don’t realize are inaccurate.
They seem reasonable or rational on the surface, but negative thought distortions really only keep us feeling bad about ourselves. This “stinking thinking” generally reinforces pre-existing negative emotional states and keeps us trapped in shame, self-pity, fear, and resentment.
So how do we overcome common negative thought distortions in order to start feeling better? By using CBT.
How Does CBT Overcome Common Negative Thought Distortions?
The Mayo Clinic defines CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy) as:
“A common type of mental health counseling in which you work with a mental health counselor (psychotherapist or therapist) in a structured way, attending a limited number of sessions. CBT helps you become aware of inaccurate or negative thinking, so you can view challenging situations more clearly and respond to them in a more effective way.”
So, CBT is a highly structured, time-limited form of psychotherapy that’s focused on changing how we think. It’s a rational approach to mental health which presumes that the way we feel and behave in certain situations is directly related to what we think in those situations.
By learning to correctly identify our distorted, negative thinking, we can learn to answer the negative thoughts back and refute them. Refuting negative thinking over and over again causes it to slowly diminish and automatically be replaced by healthier thoughts.
The 5 Most Common Negative Thought Distortions
1). Catastrophic thinking — This is when we always imagine the worst. We expect disaster or tragedy to strike us at any moment and “what if” ourselves into a state of anxiety or panic.
- “Catastrophic” thought distortion: “Driving on the highway will result in a terrible car accident! I must avoid highway driving in order to stay safe.”
- Balanced, CBT-based thinking: “While it’s true that highway driving carries risks, it’s also true that millions of people do it every day without incident. It’s very likely that I can drive on the highway without getting into an accident.”
2). Polarized, black and white thinking — The main feature of this type of common negative thought distortion is there’s no middle ground. We cast ourselves, other people and situations into stark, “either/or” categories that allow for no shades of gray.
- “Polarized” thought distortion: “Because I failed one class last semester, it means I’m a complete failure in school.”
- Balanced, CBT-based thinking: “Even though I failed one class, I passed seven other classes last semester. I need to work on that one class, but I’m not a failure at school in general.”
3). Overgeneralization — We draw negative, general conclusions based on scant evidence. We see a single, unpleasant event as part of an overall pattern of defeat that’s inevitable and bound to occur over and over again.
- “Overgeneralized” thought distortion: “My boyfriend broke up with me, therefore every boyfriend I will ever have in my entire life is going to break up with me.”
- Balanced, CBT-based thinking: “This boyfriend broke up with me and I’m upset about it. However, there’s no way for me to foresee what will motivate the actions of any future boyfriends, so I don’t know how they will choose to behave. It’s unlikely all of them will chose to break up with me.”
4). Negative filtering — This is where we focus exclusively on negative details while discounting all positive aspects of a situation.
- “Negative filtering” thought distortion: “I got so scared the last time I drove over a bridge. What’s wrong with me? I feel like such a freak!”
- Balanced, CBT-based thinking: “I got really scared on that bridge, but I drove over it anyway, even though it was hard for me. I know that lots of people have driving anxiety. Being afraid of bridges does not mean I’m a freak.”
5). Jumping to conclusions — We assume other people don’t like us and are convinced their supposed negative feelings toward us are established facts.
- “Jumping to conclusions” thought distortion: “My professor didn’t call on me when I raised my hand because he thinks I’m stupid. He’s going to give me a bad grade in this class.”
- Balanced, CBT-based thinking: “I don’t know why my professor didn’t call on me. Maybe he didn’t see that I had my hand up, or maybe he was giving someone else a chance to respond. I don’t know what he really thinks of me and have no idea what grade I will get in this class.”
Overcoming Our Common Negative Thought Distortions Makes Us Feel Happier
As you can see, negative thought distortions have the common element of focusing on the bad at the expense of the good. Reality is usually complex and multifaceted. Most situations are a combination of positive and negative elements, so focusing only on the negative ones tends to make us miserable for no good reason.
Being trapped in distorted, unreasonable negative thinking can be a suffocating, isolating experience. CBT says that our thoughts hold a lot of sway over how we feel about ourselves. That’s why it’s important to make sure we’re thinking straight.
PS – I recommend Cognitive Behavioural Therapy For Dummies to anyone who’s unfamiliar with CBT. It’s a fun, humorous introduction to the terms, concepts and practices of using CBT to overcome various mental health issues, including common negative thought distortions. Check it out!