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Common Cognitive Distortions and their Characteristics

Virtually everyone makes one or more of these errors from time to time. The problem with this kind of thinking can be:

  1. Any available evidence or facts gets “distorted” or “mixed up”.
  2. Due to this distortion we can often reach false conclusions about what is happening.
  3. Any false assumptions or conclusions that are reached can often lead to an unhelpful outcome (thoughts, behaviours, feelings).

Common distortions and their characteristics

Mental Filter

  • You pick out a single negative detail of an experience and dwelling on it exclusively.
  • Other information, facts or evidence is either ignored or discounted i.e. filtered out.
  • It’s usually the information that doesn’t fit or suit your way of thinking that is filtered out.

Example

You are quite a shy person, especially around people you don’t know. You get invited to a works “do” which is a meal in a restaurant and most of the people there you have never met before or who have met but only very briefly. You have a very enjoyable evening and get into several interesting conversations and feel quite satisfied with your efforts. You are particularly pleased that you have things in common with one or two people you didn’t know and have agreed to meet another time outside of work. However, toward the end of the evening, you feel embarrassed when someone asks you a personal question and feel you gave them an overly brief reply. You are preoccupied with this on your journey home, wondering if they noticed your embarrassment and worrying that you might see them at another point in time at work and have to face the same question. This plays on your mind for a few days, and you even temporarily forget to follow up the informal social arrangements you made to meet some of the other work colleagues you met during the meal out.

Discounting The Positive

  • This is similar to the mental filter distortion, but involves specifically discounting positive experiences.
  • Like the mental filter, positive experiences that do not fit or suit your way thinking or beliefs are discounted.
  • Positive experiences can not only be discounted or disqualified, but you may also end up transforming a positive experience into a neutral or even negative experience.

Example

After your partner ended your long-term relationship over 12 months ago, you have asked a couple of people out on dates or otherwise “expressed an interest”, your efforts haven’t got you anywhere and your confidence is low. You have begun questioning yourself and your ability to get back into the “dating” game. Out of the blue, a work colleague approaches you and states “sorry if this is a bit forward, but do you fancy going out for a drink sometime?” You reply “Yes” and are initially very happy about this. However throughout the course of the next day, your feelings of joy turn to anxiety as you constantly tell yourself “Someone like that must be very confident I bet they ask people about for drinks all the time” and “Perhaps she just wants to talk about a work issue, she seems pretty confident, maybe she just wants some information or advice”.

Fortune Telling

  • You negatively predict the outcome of something as if it’s an already established fact.
  • Your negative predictions of the future (fortune-telling) are usually automatic in nature, and you reach these “conclusions” very quickly, often without taking the time to evaluate any known facts.

Example

You see a job advertised that is quite similar to one you have done before and very much enjoyed. In many ways this is “right up your street”, and this is your initial thought. However this thought quickly subsides as you focus on your last job interview (a few days ago) of which you were turned down. You begin to think “what’s the point” and “I’ll be up against a lot of competition”, this then leads to a constant thought of “I won’t get it”. You decide not to apply. A few days after the closing date for the application, you regret your decision not to apply.

Emotional Reasoning

  • You assume that the negative emotions you are experiencing actually reflects reality and that your emotional reasoning (i.e. the conclusions you come to when feeling emotional) are as accurate as conclusions drawn from cold, hard facts.

Example

You have employed for about 3-months and have been working very hard and this has mostly been recognised by your manager. So far, your employer’s seem quite happy with you and you have been enjoying your job. However, over the course of the last few weeks, you have become increasingly stressed, some issues outside of work in your personal life and the fact your manager has set you some additional tasks and goals recently have contributed to a “hectic” time. You haven’t been sleeping well and feel exhausted. You also haven’t been taking good care of yourself (physically and mentally). You have becoming increasing anxious at work, partly due to tiredness and distraction. Your manager asks you to do something that you know will be difficult to achieve, you become upset with it, your anxiety increases and you feel you can’t “cope”. In the heat of the moment, you feel the job is “beyond you” and you resign, justifying it to yourself by telling yourself “it’s not the job for me”. A few days after your resignation, you being to debate “have I done the right thing?”.

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Written by Anxiety United

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