We very often automatically believe our thoughts and take them as fact. However, we all sometimes get stuck in the habit of unhelpful thinking patterns, or taking mental short cuts, that aren’t actually based on reality.
These cognitive distortions tend to confirm our negative beliefs about ourselves, our relationships and the world around us. In this way, thoughts such as “I will never be in a loving relationship” or “I did terribly on that test; I may as well give up now” increase our experiences of anxiety and self-doubt.
Being able to identify when our mind is trying to trick us, and instead, name our faulty thinking, can help us to disrupt these sticky and unhelpful patterns!
Once we can identify which type of faulty thinking we are using, we can be more mindful of reframing it, checking whether we have evidence for the thought, reminding ourselves that thoughts aren’t facts, and trying to view the situation from an alternative, more balanced perspective.
Below are a few examples of various types of cognitive distortions. This list is not exhaustive and there are many more examples.
Do you ever get caught in these kinds of patterns of unhelpful thinking? Do you find yourself using some more than others? How do you think these faulty thoughts keep you stuck in unhelpful patterns?
- Polarised or dichotomous thinking:
All-or-nothing or black-and-white thinking is when we get trapped in thinking in extremes, instead of being able to consider a middle ground or the many possibilities in between. An example might be “I can’t trust anyone” or “I am a complete failure”.
Overgeneralisation is when we take one situation and apply it indiscriminately to all other similar situations. For example, one might have one bad date, and then think that all relationships are bound to fail. This kind of thinking mechanism doesn’t allow us to find meaning in each unique experience. Watch out for key phrases such as “never”, “always”, “all”, “none” and “everything”. These are your warning bells you are using overgeneralisation.
In this kind of unhelpful thinking pattern we tend to assume or predict the most terrible outcomes, and normal worries quickly escalate to worst case scenarios. For example, if a colleague doesn’t immediately respond to your email, you may automatically think that you made an error at work and will get fired. This kind of thinking can often lead us to feeling panicked and overwhelmed about the future.
- Taking things personally or self-blame/ self-criticism:
In this type of cognitive distortion, we may blame ourselves as being the cause for outcomes that are not actually connected to us or are out of our control. An example here might be blaming yourself as being lazy for not completing work when in actuality there was a power outage, and the work could not be completed.
- Mind reading and fortune telling:
Mind reading and fortune telling are cognitive biases where we jump to conclusions and assume we know exactly what someone else thinks, feels or does. While we may sometimes be able to infer how someone feels by their facial expressions and body language, we should always check we have understood someone correctly. An example might be assuming someone is cross with you without considering other evidence, such as them being irritated after having been stuck in traffic for an hour!
- Mental filtering:
This type of faulty thinking occurs when we only focus and pay attention to negative things and hardly notice any positives. This may be when you become preoccupied with the single criticism from your boss and ignore the string of compliments he gave as well. A negative mental filter aggravates our feelings of hopelessness and helplessness. Using a gratitude journal to write down three things you are grateful for each day is a simple way to help you to also notice the positive things in your day instead of solely focusing on negative outcomes.
- Discounting or disqualifying the positives:
In this cognitive distortion, we actively reject or convert positive outcomes into negative beliefs. For example, a compliment from a friend may be distorted into a thought such as “they are just being nice to me” instead of being able to appreciate one’s own skill, values and strengths.
- Magnification and minimisation:
This type of cognitive distortion is when we exaggerate the importance of negative events and downplay the importance of positive events. An example might be thinking that although you achieved your goal, you made too many mistakes along the way.
- Unrealistic expectations:
Statements that use ‘should’, ‘must’ or ‘ought to’ are clues that we are attempting to act according to unrealistically high standards. A thought such as “I should have received full marks for the test” highlights we are using unrealistic performance criteria. This leads us to take full responsibility for situations without perhaps considering the complexity of the task.
- Emotional reasoning:
Emotional reasoning is when we take our feelings as reliable indicators of what is happening in a situation. While our feelings provide helpful communications, they are also highly personal. Instead of looking at a situation with only the emotional mind, we also need to consider a rational perspective. For example, thinking that “no-one will go for coffee with me” based on a feeling of loneliness may prevent you from accessing much needed social support.
- Labelling or mislabelling/ Name-calling:
Using generalisations or one word ‘tags’ for oneself or others can create unhelpful beliefs that can become more rigid the more often we repeat them. Bullying ourselves with labels such as “I’m a failure” or “I am stupid” creates negative self-beliefs that reduce our self-esteem and keep us stuck in a pattern of self-doubt and hopelessness.
Once we have been able to identify which cognitive biases we are using and when, we can begin to challenge and disrupt these sticky and unhelpful patterns! Reframing, testing out our automatic thoughts, searching for other possibilities, developing new perspectives and identifying alternative core beliefs are a number of ways that we can address these cognitive biases.
If you notice yourself relying on these unhelpful thinking patterns and need help to adjust and reframe your self-talk, get in touch with one of the psychologists at the Centre for Effective Living to help guide you to more self-compassionate and effective thinking habits.
Michelle Nortje (M.A. Clin Psych, B.Psych Hons, B.Ed.Psych Hons, BA) is focused on establishing a therapeutic relationship that is safe, trusting and supportive. Michelle aims to use integrated psychological tools and approaches in order to help her clients make sense of their difficulties, gain insight into their patterns of behaviour and relating, and work towards co-constructed and workable goals. She uses Solution Focused Brief Therapy (SFBT), Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT), Positive Psychology, mindfulness-based approaches, Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT), Attachment theories and psychodynamic theories in order to tailor the therapy to best suit the client’s needs.
Michelle’s clinical training and diverse experience have equipped her to intervene in a variety of mental health issues and age groups. She has gained experience working as a clinical psychologist across non-profit, government hospital, school-based and private settings. Across all her roles, Michelle has expanded on her interest in working with children, adolescents and adults experiencing a range of mental health difficulties such as anxiety, depression, relationship difficulties, adjustment difficulties, trauma and grief.
Michelle is dedicated to consistent professional development by engaging in peer consultation groups, receiving regular supervision and expanding her knowledge through frequent webinars and courses in order to ensure effective interventions with her clients.