Negative thinking traps: cognitive distortions


CBT - cognitive behaviour therapy - is based on the understanding that our thoughts cause our feelings and our actions.  Learning to understand, and question our thoughts can therefore improve our mood, and lead to more goal-oriented behaviour.  CBT is the leading evidence-based talk therapy practice for improving mental health.  It works, and you can harness the power of CBT to improve your every day life.  

Cognitive distortions are basically tricks our mind plays on us, to cause us to believe things that are distressing and often not true. Below I'll outline 3 common cognitive distortions.  I find myself being tricked by them, but just recognizing and naming which cognitive distortion is at play when you're stressing out can help.  I believe we should have learned this in school, but it is never too late to start.



This is a classic.  You run into a friend in the morning who you haven't seen in a while.  You're so excited to see them, but they totally blow you off.  You think, "They were so rude!  What did I do wrong?  I guess they weren't as excited to see me as I was to see them.  Do they not like me?" Why is this the kind of thinking so many of us jump to?  Why not, "She seemed so stressed.  I hope she is ok.  I hope she isn't late for something, that is so stressful."  And when wet think logically, usually the latter thoughts make the most sense.  I learned in psychology in undergrad the phenomenon that people think when they behave badly, it is because of the circumstances, but tend to think when another person behaves badly, it is because of an inner quality of that person.  We understand that a situation may overwhelm us and result in less than ideal behaviour, that probably had little to do with the person subjected to it.  So let's try to not take things so personally.    


black and white thinking

In the Will Farrell movie Talladega Nights, the main character Ricky Bobby goes around his whole life saying something his dad said to him when he was little, "If you're not first, you're last."  

“Ricky: “You came in and you said, ‘If you ain’t first, you’re last.’” 
Reese Bobby: “Oh, hell, Ricky, I was high when I said that. I mean, that doesn’t make any sense at all. ‘You’re first or you’re last’ You— You can be second, you can be third, fourth. Hell, you can even be fifth.” 
Ricky: “What are you talking about?! I— I lived my whole life based on that. Well, now what the hell am I supposed to do?” 
Reese Bobby: “Well, that’s the million-dollar question, isn’t it?””

— Talladega Nights

  This line and the exchange with his dad about it at the end of the movie are funny because it is so ridiculous.  But how often do we place accomplishments, other people or ourselves in this sort of "either/or" category.  We did well or we sucked.  That person is great or a jerk.  We're awesome or the worst.  This cognitive distortion is just plain lazy thinking - let's consider the complexities!



Filtering is exactly what it sounds like - when you take a whole situation and filter out all the details and just focus on one aspect.  It is usually a negative part we focus on.  We can go through an entire, relatively pleasant day, but then the traffic is terrible on the way home and by the time you get in, you've decided the whole day was crap.  When you're falling victim to this one, it can be a useful exercise to list the positive aspects of a situation.  Even if it doesn't feel like it in the moment, it can't all be bad!


To greater or lesser degrees, we all fall prey to this kind of thinking, and it can take some serious mental effort to identify them while they are happening.  Can you relate to any of these?  Let me know in the comments if this is helpful to you.  There are so many more cognitive distortions, and I'm always happy to share my own experiences in doing this important brain-training work.

Dr. Kaleigh  

Kaleigh Briggs2 Comments