Cognitive Distortion Mechanisms

Better keep yourself clean and bright;

you are the window through which you must see the world.

- George Bernard Shaw

Your emotional and behavioral reactions are greatly influenced by your beliefs and ways of thinking. Below is a list of pathogenic beliefs and cognitive styles. Your ability to prevent relapse is dramatically enhanced if you can learn to identify and defrock cognitive distortion mechanisms before they precipitate negative emotional states.

  • Emotional Reasoning: Using an emotional experience as evidence for the validity of the belief that gave rise to it, for example, "I feel guilty so I must have done something wrong," "I feel anxious so the situation must be dangerous," "I feel awkward and out of place so I guess I don't really belong," 

  • The Tyranny of Shoulds: You maintain rules about how you and other people should act. You get angry when other people break the rules and feel guilty when you violate them. Examples: I should be able to find a quick solution to this problem. - I should not feel hurt, I should be happy and serene. - I should know, understand, and foresee everything. - I should be spontaneous and at the same time I should control my feelings. - I should never feel certain emotions, such as anger or jealousy. - I should love my children equally. - I should never make mistakes. - My emotions should be constant--once I feel love I should always feel love. - I should be totally self-reliant. - I should assert myself and at the same time I should never hurt anybody else. - I should never be tired or get sick.

    • Musterbation: Some people attempt to motivate themselves by demanding rigid adherence to certain standards, but this approach often backfires.  Examples: "I must succeed" "I must not make a mistake."
    • Heaven's Reward Fallacy: You expect all your sacrifice and self-denial to pay off, as if there were someone keeping score. You feel bitter when the reward does not come.
  • Personalization: Thinking that everything people do or say is some kind of reaction to you. Examples:  A man whose wife complains about rising prices hears the complaints as attacks on his abilities as a breadwinner.

    • Comparing yourself to other people. The opportunities for comparison never end. The underlying assumption is that your worth is questionable, and so you continue to test your value as a person by measuring yourself against others. Examples: "I'm not smart enough to go with this crowd," "They listen to her but not to me." 
      • The book, How to Make Yourself Miserable offers the following suggestion:: Think of everyone you know that is younger than you and makes more money.

  • Magnification: "Making a mountain out of a mole hill" is another label for this tendency to  appraise information as more important or valid than it really is:.

    • Catastrophizing: A special kind of magnification associated with anxiety disorders.  A sign of catastrophising is asking yourself a "what if. . ." question that you never answer.  Example: "What if this headache means I have brain cancer?" The possibilities for catastrophic thinking is limited only by your imagination.

    • Minimization:  Appraising information as less important or valid than it really is, for example, despite the many painful lessons to the contrary, problem drinkers and overeaters are often taken in by beliefs such as, “I'll just have one, what harm could it do?

    • The Binocular Trick: Using both minimization and magnification at the same time, for example, minimizing your strengths and magnifying your weaknesses; or magnifying the difficulties and hardships associated with your quest for success while minimizing the effort, preparation, and frustrations of others who have achieved the success you seek.
      • Disqualifying the Positive: May be used as part of the Binocular Trick: You reject any positive evidence by insisting that it does not count for one reason or another. For example, clients often disqualify positive feedback from me on the grounds that, "Your my therapist, of course you would say positive things about me."

  • Control Fallacies: There are two ways you can distort your sense of power and control.  You can see yourself as helpless and externally controlled, or as omnipotent and responsible for the pain and happiness of everyone around you.

    • Fallacy of Fairness: You feel resentful because you think you know what is fair but other people won't agree with you. Fairness is a subjective judgment that is biased by the perspective of the beholder.   Children, and adults who do not appreciate the Soul Illusion, are vulnerable to this fallacy. Once you accept this fallacy, it is tempting to make assumptions about how things would change if people were only fair or really valued you, for example: "If he loved me, he'd do the dishes."

    • Blaming: You hold other people responsible for your pain, or take the other tack and blame yourself for every problem or reversal. The tacit premise of this distortion is that if anything goes wrong it must be somebody's fault.

    • Fallacy of Change: The only person you can change is yourself.  It is a fallacy to believe that other people will change to suit you if you just pressure or cajole them enough. As a consequence, you may attempt to influence other people by blaming, demanding, and withholding,

    • Being Right: Being wrong is unthinkable and you will go to any lengths to demonstrate your rightness. The need to prove that your opinions and actions are correct can make you "hard of hearing" and thereby alienate those close to you. 
      • See if you can catch yourself "being right" during a disagreement with a significant other. If you are mindful enough to catch yourself, perhaps you can shift from the perspective in which it is important to prove that you are right to a more detached perspective in which you are attending to what is best for your relationship with this significant other.
  • Polarized Thinking:  Seeing things as black or white;.something is either good or bad there is no middle ground.  Example: You have to be perfect or you are a failure.

    • Perfectionism: Setting unachievable standards for yourself, standards you would not expect others to meet.  If your performance falls short of perfection, then you are a total failure.  People are perfectionistic because they want very much to succeed. Paradoxically, perfectionist tendencies do not improve outcome, but instead inevitably hinders performance.  Perfectionism can be particularly debilitating to individuals with low self-efficacy who are attempting to develop the skills to overcome a problem. 

  • Generalization: Basing a broad conclusion on a single incident is a common thinking error that can transform a single negative event into a never-ending pattern of defeat or misfortune.  Words such as, always or never are cues that you may be taken in by this distortion mechanism. Examples:  "This always happens to me"  "I never get what I want."
    • Labeling: Using a label to make the over-generalization stick.  Examples: "I am a loser" "He is an asshole.
  • Supernatural Powers: The belief that you understand or can sense objective reality even though you do not.

    • Mind Reading: You are certain that you know what people are feeling or why they are acting the way they do. Example: "They think I'm a jerk."

    • Fortune Telling: You are certain that your predictions about the future are valid.  Example: "I know I'll blow the interview."

  • Projective Identification: G. B. Shaw noted, "The true curse of the liar is not so much that other people don't believe him, it's that he can't believe other people." If you judge others you naturally assume that others judge you. So, judge not lest you believe that you are being judged.

  • Why Questions: "Why" questions often do not have an answer, for example: "Why do bad people prosper?" "Why is there pain?"  Nevertheless, some people interpret their failure to think of an answer as meaningful. Note how these "Why questions" can sabotage a dieter's attempt to lose weight: "That dessert looks good. Why not?" and then later, "I know that cheating on these diets causes me to fail and be miserable; Why do I let myself do it?" The failure to answer the first question is interpreted as permission to lapse.  Because she cannot answer the second question, The dieter may conclude that there is no solution to her problem. 


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