Analyze Your Cognitive Distortions

How to Become Mindful of Your Cognitive Distortions!

Try printing this article and highlighting the cognitive distortions you think apply to you. I suggest you then pick one cognitive distortion at a time and keep a running list for a week of how that cognitive distortion manifests in your life.

Chart to Analyze Your Cognitive Distortions

Unhelpful  Thinking   Habit   

Description of Unhelpful Thinking Habit

Questions to ask yourself. Write out your answers for each of your cognitive distortions.

Mental Filter The selective evaluation of a complex situation with both positive and negative elements. Positive MF occurs when a person ignores or downplays negative aspects of a situation of criticism, is typical of manic reactions, and indicates a loss of reality sense; negative MF prevents coping with internal conflicts and emotions.

Am I only noticing the bad stuff?  Am I filtering out the positives?  Am I wearing those ‘gloomy specs’?  What would be more realistic?
Mind-Reading Mindsight" or "empathic accuracy" is the seemingly magical ability to map someone's mental terrain from their words, emotions, and body language. Those on the autism spectrum or those afflicted with psychotic disorders struggle mightily to read minds. 

Am I assuming I know what others are thinking?  What’s the evidence?  Those are my own thoughts, not theirs.  Is there another, more balanced way of looking at it?
Prediction prediction is what someone thinks will happen. A prediction is a forecast, but not only about the weather. Pre means “before” and “diction” has to do with talking. So a prediction is a statement about the future. 

Am I thinking that I can predict the future?  How likely is it that that might really happen?
Compare & Despair “Don’t bother comparing yourself to others. There will always be people better than you, and worse than you. The most important thing is to ask yourself, “Am I improving?"  

1)   Acknowledge your jealousy without judgment. Envy is a universal human emotion that is at least as old as the Bible itself. The more you can own your feelings, the less likely you’ll act on them. 

2)   Get in touch with the aspiration and wishes underneath the envy. Are you jealous of your friend’s trip to Tuscany? Ask yourself what steps you might take to make travel plans of your own. It may take time, but setting an intention can point you in a positive direction. 

3)   Remember that each person has his or her own unique happiness recipe. Some people prefer roller coasters; still others would rather curl up with a book. Being attuned to your own life purpose, needs and accomplishments helps negate the need for comparisons. 

4)   Instead of comparing yourself to others, compare yourself to the person you were one year ago, five years ago or 10 years ago. Are you wiser, happier, more confident or peaceful? If not, explore what has thrown you off course, or how you might improve your outlook. 

5)   An old saying goes, “Who is happy? He who is content with his lot.” Keep a daily gratitude list of the blessings in your life. 

6)   Volunteer. Helping those who are less fortunate will not only make you feel good, it will also keep things in perspective.
Critical Self The critical inner voice is a well-integrated pattern of destructive thoughts toward ourselves and others. The nagging “voices,” or thoughts, that make up this internalized dialogue are at the root of much of our self-destructive and maladaptive behavior. 
The critical inner voice is not an auditory hallucination; it is experienced as thoughts within your head. This stream of destructive thoughts forms an anti-self that discourages individuals from acting in their best interest. 
The critical inner voice is an internal enemy that can affect every aspect of our lives, including our self-esteem and confidence, our personal and intimate relationships, and our performance and accomplishments at school and work. 
These negative thoughts affect us by undermining our positive feelings about ourselves and others and fostering self-criticism, inwardness, distrust, self-denial, addictions and a retreat from goal-directed activities. Some common voices include thoughts like “You’re stupid,” “You’re not attractive,” or “You’re not like other people.
Some people have voices about their career, like “You’ll never be successful,” “No one appreciates how hard you work,” or “You are under too much pressure, you can’t handle this stress. 
Many people experience voices about their relationship, such as “He doesn’t really care about you,” “You’re better off on your own,” or “Don’t be vulnerable, you’ll just get hurt. There I go, that internal bully’s at it again.

Would most people who really know me say that about me?  Is this something that I am totally responsible for?
Shoulds and Musts Albert Ellis focused on "shoulds" and "musts" because he found by long experience that these really get people in trouble. It’s a good virus definition to go after first. Ellis was not only an innovator and teacher, but he was using this stuff on his own therapy clients since the 1950s. His long wisdom and experience showed him he could go right to the heart of the matter by searching for shoulds and musts. 

Once you recognize the "shoulds" and "oughts" and "musts"
 you use on yourself, and once you realize they are merely preferences, it takes away the intensity of your negative feelings and you are left with mild disappointment, simple frustration, or concern — rather than sadness, anger, or fear. 

Ellis began by assuming
 right off the bat that if you’ve got a problem, the source of it is "musterbation." For example, you might present a problem in a therapy session that you are ashamed or embarrassed about something. His very first assumption is that the source of your distress is you are thinking either, “I must be loved by everyone,” or “I must achieve greatness,” or both. And he would probably be right. From either of those two underlying musts, you can easily become embarrassed or ashamed when someone doesn’t seem to think you’re wonderful, or when you did something that wasn’t great. 

Am I putting more pressure on myself, setting up expectations of myself that are almost impossible? What would be more realistic?
Judgements Carl Rogers had much to say about problems associated being judgmental. The ideal of a nonjudgmental attitude was central to his client centered humanistic approach to Rogers argued that people had a positive growth force that would be stunted from reaching its potential in the context of judgmental others. Because of this, Rogers maintained that successful therapy required the therapist to possess a nonjudgmental, positive regard for clients, which he described as the following:

  • Experiencing a warm acceptance of each aspect of the client's experience as being a part of that client.
  • It means that there are no conditions of acceptance, no feeling of "I like you only if you are thus and so."
  • It means a "prizing" of the person, as Dewey has used that term. It is at the opposite pole from a selective evaluating attitude -- "You are bad in these ways, good in those."

I’m making an evaluation about the situation or person.  It’s how I make sense of the world, but that doesn’t mean my judgments are always right or helpful.  Is there another perspective?

Emotional Reasoning Your logic: "I feel like an idiot, therefore I am an idiot" This kind of reasoning is misleading because your feelings reflect your thoughts and beliefs. If they are distorted — as is quite often the case — your emotions will have no validity. 
Examples of emotional reasoning include:

  • "I feel guilty, therefore I must have done something bad."
  • "I feel overwhelmed and hopeless, therefore my problems must be impossible to solve."
  • "I feel inadequate, therefore I must be a worthless person."
  • "I'm not in the mood to do anything, therefore I might as well just lie in bed."
  • "I'm furious with you, this proves that you've been acting badly and trying to take advantage of me." 

Just because it feels bad, doesn’t necessary mean it is bad. My feelings are just a reaction to my thoughts – and thoughts are just automatic brain reflexes.

Mountains and Molehills Cliché to make a major issue out of a minor one; to exaggerate the importance of something. "Come on, don't make a mountain out of a molehill. It's not that important. Mary is always making mountains out of molehills." 

Am I exaggerating the good aspects of others, and putting myself down?  Or am I exaggerating the negative and minimizing the positives?  How would someone else see it? What’s the bigger picture?
Catastrophizing Catastrophizing has two parts:

  • Predicting a negative outcome.
  • Jumping to the conclusion that if the negative outcome happens, it would be a Catastrophe.

Thinking that the worst possible thing will definitely happen isn’t really helpful right now. What’s most likely to happen?

Black and White Thinking "Black and White" means there is just one rule. There is a schedule with an exact time, it always the same.  All the rules apply to everybody. There are no exceptions.  There is just one way to do things.  Black and white means things are predictable. Black and white means things seem fair and are clear. 

"Gray areas"
means that the rule is sometimes one thing, and sometimes-another thing. It is a "gray area" when different rules apply to different people.

  • Like at a party everyone else enjoys pop, cake and ice cream, but the person who is diabetic does not.
  • Like at a party, everyone else can drink, but the person who is doing the driving for the night does not.

It is a "gray area" if different rules apply at different times of the day or week.

  • Like pay parking at meters only till 6 p.m. and not on Sunday.
  • Like at work, the hours you work might be different on weekdays and weekends.

It is a "gray area" if different rules apply at different times of the year.

  • Like school five days a week, except Spring Break, Christmas, Summer, etc.

Things aren’t either totally white or totally black – there are shades of grey. Where is this on the spectrum?

Memories Believing that because something has gone a certain way in the past, that it will happen exactly that way again this time. 

This is just a reminder of the past.  That was then, and this is now.  Even though this memory makes me feel upset, it’s not actually happening again right now.

(Members can go to the Members' PDFs page for a printable PDF version of this chart.)

Our next page teaches Coping with Distressing Emotions.