Mental Health Monday #5 — Cognitive Distortion / Unhelpful Thinking Styles

Hi friends!

First, I just wanted to say thank you for the positive reactions to my newest post from Friday, it really meant a lot to me!

Second, sorry this post is coming to you so late. I wish I could figure out the WordPress scheduling system but every time I try it comes out wonky.

Anyway,

I’ve been wanting to talk about CBT (cognitive behaviour therapy) for a while now, and today seems like a good time to do it.

CBT isn’t something I’ve talked about a lot on this blog yet, but over this week and next, I’d like to talk about thought records.

I wanted to do the whole thing today and originally wrote this post with both parts, but it ended up being way too much for one post, so I apologize for that.

Before we get to the “thought record” part of CBT, which is the part I’m most excited about (I promise, that’s next Monday’s post!), it’s important to learn to identify negative thinking patterns known as “cognitive distortions” or “unhelpful thinking styles” first. These patterns will also show up again in DBT, so I won’t be explaining them again but if I talk about “cognitive distortions” or “unhelpful thinking styles” again in the future (which I’m sure I will!), you can always refer back to this post!

All Or Nothing Thinking

Otherwise known as “black and white thinking”. 

This is a pretty straightforward concept.

This is when we get in our heads and say things like, “XYZ is all good” or “XYZ is all bad”, and we’re unable to think of an in between.

In 90% of all situations, things cannot be accurately and logically be seen in terms of all or nothing*.

There is often a middle ground to be found, even if the person experiencing the cognitive distortion cannot see it at the time.

*I made this statistic up. It is not a factual number, but it is an incredibly high percentage of situations. 

For example: Sarah drops her phone on the floor, superficially cracking the screen.

Instead of picking it up and carrying on with her day, she says it’s ruined and stomps on it, or goes shopping online for a new phone.

Mental Filters

A mental filter is where someone takes a small event or a thought and focuses on it excessively, “filtering out” other factors.

This is often to an inappropriate level and can affect a person’s mental well-being (often temporary, but still potentially harmful), as well as social events, someone’s workplace performance, and more.

For example: Jacob goes to a party with his friends and someone calls him a mean name. Jacob then fixates on the name, and can’t enjoy the rest of the party, even if it’s technically really great and he would otherwise be having fun.

Overgeneralization

Overgeneralization is just a fancy way of saying that someone experiencing this cognitive distortion uses words like “always” and “never” after a single event, or a series of events.

This can be a very dark way of thinking, or can cause other people that are informed of a situation to think badly of a situation that may not really be that bad.

For example: Jamie’s girlfriend once asked him politely to put the toilet seat down after peeing, and Jamie complains to his friends that his girlfriend “always” yells at him to put the seat down, and “never” appreciates it when he does.

This may not sound like a horrible thing in and of itself, but it may cause Jamie to think things such as, “my girlfriend is always mad at me!” When she’s not, or in the case of Jamie’s friends, they may start believing that his girlfriend is controlling and/or abusive, when in reality she only asked once, and not in a harmful or abusive way like he described to them.

Discounting The Positives

I personally see this as another form of overgeneralization, though none of my research online seems to agree. 

When we discount the positives, we discount, ignore, or invalidate the good things in our lives.

For example: Autumn got the employee of the month award at her job on Monday, but on Tuesday she made a small mistake at work that caused her manager to speak to her about it, and she thought to herself that nothing good ever happened to her, and she couldn’t ever do anything right.

This cognitive distortion is harmful because when we focus only on the negative things that happen in our lives, we can get depressed, and it’s easy to think that if nothing good ever happens to us, then nothing good ever can or will happen to us, which can lead to suicidal thoughts or just prolonged depressed or low moods.

Magnification (AKA Catastrophizing) 

Small, personal side note: I had never heard the term “magnification” until I started doing research for a coping skills PDF I was trying (and am still trying) to put together.

In CBT class they always called it catastrophizing, and I cannot for the life of me say that word for some reason, so from here on in, I’ll probably use the term magnification for personal reasons, but please just know that they are interchangeable terms and mean exactly the same thing.

Magnification basically just means over-exaggerating to a problematic level, or imagining the worst-case scenarios.

This is a personal example, but I know near the end of the days where I did drugs, I wasn’t even having fun when I got high anymore, but I managed to convince myself that my brain was such an unbearable place to be in without drugs that I needed them, and I’d tell myself it would be fun, even though it usually wasn’t. 

Another (probably better) example:

Annie was a great baker, well loved by people all around her city. One day she made a single bad batch of cookies that she didn’t intend on sharing with anyone other than her husband, and she thought to herself “I’m the worst baker alive. Everybody hates my baking and they think I’m a fraud.”

This was, of course, not true. Everybody still loved Annie and her baking, and the only person calling her a fraud was herself.

When we magnify situations to a problematic level, this can create unnecessary stress or depression.

Minimization

This is the opposite of magnification.

It’s basically saying, “it’s no big deal!” Or a lot of times it means avoiding taking responsibility for things that we do, good or bad.

For example: Elliot pays his rent late every month, and his landlord tells him that if his rent isn’t paid on time in the future, he will be evicted.

When his check comes in on the 30th, he should have just enough to pay his rent on the 1st and buy groceries for the month, but instead he buys a new laptop computer, thinking “Oh, I get paid again in two weeks, I’ll just buy groceries with what I have left over, and I’ll pay rent when I get paid again.”

This can go the other way as well, when we minimize the good things we’ve done, like, “Oh, I wrote a book but it’s no big deal! Lots of people write books.”

This cognitive distortion can be particularly dangerous and harmful, as it can lead to risky decisions or losses in relationships, among other things.

Jumping To Conclusions

There are a few different types of jumping to conclusions. Common ones include “mind reading” and “fortune telling”.

Mind reading is when we assume we know what someone else is thinking without them telling us.

To be clear: the only way we can know for certain what someone else is feeling or thinking is when they expressly tell us so.

Though it can be frustrating not knowing what someone else is thinking or feeling, it is downright dangerous and unhelpful to assume you know what someone else is thinking, and it can lead to a lot of unnecessary tension, guilt, shame, depression, or anger.

Fortune telling is a lot like mind reading, but it’s more about events. It’s when we assume that, often based on our past experiences (but not always), things will turn out a certain way.

For example: Adam has never been in a romantic relationship and assumes that, based on that fact, he will be alone forever.

This mindset can be harmful because no human being knows what the future holds, and if we tell ourselves things will turn out a certain way, we become closed off to the possibilities life has to hold, or because we believe something so strongly, it turns out just the way we think it will, which reaffirms our thinking and we’re likely to react in a way that’s unhelpful or harmful.

“Should” or “Must” Statements

I think this one is fairly self-explanatory. 

Using “should” or “must” statements isn’t always a bad thing, but it definitely can become a problem when we start making ourselves feel bad about the things we “should” be doing, or the things that “should” be happening. When regarding things that “should” be happening, these statements are often tied to a feeling of injustice.

For example: Harrison sometimes gets angry because he thinks he should be in med school, but he failed some of his classes, and therefore didn’t qualify. But he can’t stop thinking about how he “should” have passed those classes, or “should” be attending med school soon.

This causes Harrison a lot of guilt or anger, both at himself and the world, but being angry will not change his grades or get him into med school, only hard word and perseverance will.

Personalization

This is when we assign blame to ourselves, or take things personally, without logical reason to do so.

For example: Jenny’s husband came home from work in a foul mood, and she automatically assumed it was because of something she had done.

Be kind and compassionate to yourself. We are our often harshest critics, and needlessly so. The things you hate about yourself are quite often the things other people love most about us!

In conclusion, these are only some of the types of cognitive distortions that may come up, but they’re some really common ones, and it’s a good place to start.

Let me know what you think of this post, and feel free to add anything I’ve missed, or things you would change about my explanations. I’m always looking to learn and improve.

As always, stay safe, friends.

I’ll see you in my next post!

Paige