“Cognitive Distortions- When Your Thoughts Are Hurting You” Part 2

As we learned in Part 1, our thoughts can significantly influence how we feel about all matters of life. If the meaning we give to events is usually negative, we might constantly find ourselves feeling depressed. If the meaning is usually positive, we may find ourselves feeling good much of the time. If we give threatening meanings to events in the world, we might find ourselves living with a lot of anger. If we see the world as a stressful place, we might experience anxiety as a result. Sometimes we give meaning to our own actions that are negative (that is, we judge ourselves in a negative light). This might arise from negative self-image and our mood will reflect this core belief in a variety of negative ways.

Our emotional health depends on our ability to make good, reality-oriented judgments about what is going on in the world around us. Sometimes events are positive. We need to interpret them in precisely this way and have an appropriate emotional response to the situation (that is, happiness). At other times, events are negative and we ought to be able to give proper meaning to these events so that we can take correct action to deal with the problem in a reality-based way.

Most of us distort our thoughts to some degree. We all have unique lives, with different experiences, different parents, different friends, different problems to work through- so that throughout the course of our lives we have learned our own ways of interpreting the world. Our interpretations are not always based in reality and are often colored by our unique needs. We develop our own core beliefs about how the world operates, and, when various situations present themselves, these beliefs lead us to automatic thoughts (these are well-learned ways of thinking about situations that are instantaneous and reflect our underlying beliefs about the world). Sometimes these automatic thoughts are distorted. It is important to examine our cognitive distortions so that we make the right decisions in life and increase our chance of experiencing a good mood. Working with a trained therapist in examining these distortions is an especially effective way of dealing with depression.

David D. Burns, in his classic book, Feeling Good, has identified several common cognitive distortions.

  1. All or Nothing Thinking– this is when we see things in black and white categories. Events are either right or wrong, with no shades or grey in between. This cognitive distortion is the basis of perfectionism- either you do a perfect job on something or you’ve failed. Unfortunately, this sets us up for feeling like a failure and increases our chances of feeling depressed.
  2. Overgeneralization– this is when you see a single negative event as part of a never-ending streak of failure. Although the normal setbacks we all have in life can be disturbing when they happen, they are usually explained through different circumstances. To fail to examine these different situations, and generalize them all as having a single cause, is again a way of setting ourselves up for failure.
  3. Mental Filter– this occurs when a person picks out one negative detail in a situation and dwells on it exclusively. You ignore all of the positive events that have happened and this one negative definition comes to color your interpretation of an entire situation.

Stay tuned for Part 3 to read more insights into common cognitive distortions.

To Be Continued…