Cognitive distortions are often the root cause of most relationship conflicts. Either one partner is having distorted thoughts or one person is protecting themselves from their own distorted thinking. Cognitive distortions are a pattern of irrational thoughts where things are viewed more negatively than they truly are. According to David Burns, M.D. (founder of the 10 Cognitive Distortions), “Only your thoughts can create your emotions. It’s not what happens to you, but the way you think about it that creates every positive and negative emotion.” The way you think or perceive the world around you determines how you feel internally.
Cognitive distortions are normal, and everyone has experienced some or all of the ten types of distortions. However, when distorted thinking becomes more frequent and excessive than not, it can contribute to anxiety, depression, and relationship issues. Once you start to recognize your own cognitive distortions you can begin to challenge them and transcend them.
10 Main Types of Cognitive Distortions
All-or-nothing thinking, also known as black or white thinking is a form of thinking in extremes. For example, thinking that you and your significant other are going to break up because of one argument. Black and white thinking is the result of our brain trying to predict an outcome by minimizing uncertainty (gray area) by perceiving things as black or white or all-or-nothing. The key to break this cycle of thinking is to learn to think in shades of gray. All or nothing thinking is a result of hyper focusing on a specific event or situation and disregarding any other information.
This cognitive distortion starts off with one negative thought that leads to many negative thoughts. Mental filtering is your brain’s way of filtering out the positives and hyperfocusing on the negatives. For example, let’s say you and your partner have been happy together for five years but you are both having a rough season. Instead of focusing on the fact that every relationship has its ups and downs you can’t seem to stop thinking about the negatives and can’t get past them to solve the issue at hand. If you notice this cycle of thought within yourself try writing a list of everything you appreciate. It could be anything from your morning cup of coffee, to your favorite place to travel, etc. This exercise will help train your brain to focus on more positive aspects in your life.
Jumping to Conclusions
This type of distorted thinking is present when one assumes what other people are thinking and feeling without having any concrete facts to prove it. An example of this is thinking that you know what your partner is thinking when they haven’t even spoken yet. The best way to get past this type of thinking is to simply check the facts and ask questions instead of assuming or “fortune telling”. Check in with yourself and your partner and be honest about your fears and concerns.
This type of distorted thinking is harder to pick up on because it feels like your feelings are facts. Someone who is stuck in this cycle of thinking will take all of their feelings at face value and will not question them with logic. For example, someone may feel like they are not worthy of love or that they are a loser, therefore they will believe it, simply because they feel like they are. The best way to get past this type of thinking is to write down your feelings and start to challenge them from a more logical view point, this will help your brain see both sides of a situation.
This type of cognitive distortion happens when we categorize a person, place, or thing based off of one characteristic. Labelling restricts your mind from being able to change and be open to new ways of thinking. When you catch yourself labelling someone or yourself practice the art of acceptance. This practice consists of accepting what is happening in the moment and letting go of any attachment to it by accepting that person, place, or situation just how it is.
Overgeneralizing is the process of perceiving a singular negative event as a pattern of unending negative events in your life. Someone who struggles with over generalization may say or think things like, “nothing good ever happens to me” or “why does this always happen to me”. A helpful practice for those struggling with this type of distorted thinking is writing three things they’re grateful for when they first wake up in the morning and before going to sleep at night. Going back and reading entries when they are in the midst of overgeneralizing will help their brain recover more quickly.
Disqualifying the Positive
Someone who is experiencing this type of cognitive distortion is unable to accept positive feedback and turns it into something negative. For example, let’s say your significant other gives you a compliment, instead of saying thank you you think that they are just giving you a compliment to “nice” not because they actually mean it. If you notice yourself disqualifying the positives, start by saying thank you when someone compliments you instead of immediately pushing the positive away.
Magnification (catastrophizing & minimization)
This type of cognitive distortion plays a role in how you perceive the significance or insignificance of a situation. Someone who is experiencing this type of distortion is usually described as being “dramatic” or “detached”, especially when it comes to emotionally charged situations. What is important to realize about this type of distortion is that it’s your brain’s way of trying to “protect” you from getting hurt.
Have you ever heard the phrase “stop shoulding all over yourself”? If not, it’s time to start implementing that advice into your life. When someone starts making “should” and “must” statements it is a sign that they are experiencing cognitive distortions. When people say “I should” or “you should” it is a way of trying to motivate them from a place of guilt or shame. The last thing you want to do is motivate yourself or someone else with this type of negative self talk. The next time you find yourself “shoulding” all over yourself start thinking about the things that you actually want to do, instead of what you think you “should” do.
This type of distorted thinking shows up when someone believes that they are the reason for someone else’s actions, or attitude. An example of this would be your significant other is in a bad mood from a long day at work and you assume it is because of something you did. The best way to counteract this type of thinking is to step back and ask yourself “did I do anything wrong to this person?” “Is this about me or is this about them?”. Asking yourself these questions will help emotionally separate yourself enough to gain perspective over the situation.
What to Do When You Notice Your Own Cognitive Distortions
- Becoming more aware of your inner dialogue will help you tremendously in transcending distorted thinking.
Tell your loved ones about your distorted thinking
- Once you become more aware of your cognitive distortions let your loved ones in and tell them which thought patterns you are struggling with. Ask them to point out if they hear you verbally express a cognitive distortion, this will help you stay accountable.
Write your thoughts down
- Writing your distorted thoughts down will help you organize and gain perspective of those unhelpful thought patterns. Journaling is a beautiful exercise that will help you physically see your cognitive distortions instead of keeping them in your mind. Journaling is great for any mood but especially when you are upset, sad, or conflicted. After you journal re-read your entry and underline any cognitive distortions that you see. By pointing them out you are taking away their power over you.
- Don’t identify yourself with the distorted thoughts that your brain is conjuring up. Remember that each cognitive distortion is your brain’s way of trying to protect you from getting hurt.
- The way out of this cycle of distorted thinking is through acceptance. Accepting yourself and others as a human being who is going to make mistakes. Many people believe that accepting themselves is like settling for less. However, acceptance is the key to transcending these types of thoughts.
- Notice that you are having the distorted thought, without judgement
- Call out the cognitive distortion verbally or physically write them down. An example would be “Everything is doomed.”
- Forgive yourself for the thought
- Rewrite or restate the cognitive distortion but start it with, “My brain wants to believe that everything is doomed. I’m not sure if that is true.”
- This exercise will help you create distance between you and the distorted thoughts by reminding you that you are not your thoughts.
- It will also help to use this language when communicating your thoughts and feelings to your partner.
- After you realize that you are actively having cognitive distortions self-soothing is your best bet at recovering and moving past them.
- Self-soothing are techniques that help you calm down when you are feeling emotionally or physically out of control.
- Self-soothing is great to use when you and your partner get into an argument because it allows you to focus your attention on feeling your best so you can put your best self forward to solve the issue at hand. For example, let’s say you and your partner get into a fight. Instead of blowing up and yelling simply say “This is important to me and I want to talk about it but I am going to need some time to calm down first.”
- Some examples of self soothing would be going on a walk in nature, reading your favorite book, list to ASMR videos, write in a journal, or listening to some feel good music to clear your mind and recenter yourself.
- After you self soothe your mind will be calm and you will feel ready to finish your conversation with your partner. We promise that the outcome will be 20x better after your practice self soothing!
- By self soothing you are giving yourself, your brain, and your partner a chance to step back and gain more perspective on the situation at hand.
Be ready to receive feeback
- Remember that it’s good to get and give constructive feedback. If you don’t beat yourself up with negative inner dialogue you will actually be able to hear your partner and take their comments as constructive criticism. The way you respond to criticism is very important in maintaining a happy and healthy relationship.
If you think that you are experiencing cognitive distortions don’t be afraid, they are much more common than you realize. Some distorted thinking is going to happen, however, when it starts to negatively impact you and your relationships, it’s time to do something about them.
- 10 Forms of Cognitive Distortions (Faulty Thinking). (n.d.). Retrieved October 20, 2016, from http://www.habitsforwellbeing.com/10-forms-of-cognitive-distortions-faulty-thinking/
- Aaron T. Beck Psychopathology Research Center. (n.d.). Aaron T. Beck, M.D. Aaron Beck Center. Retrieved from https://aaronbeckcenter.org/beck/
- Beck, A. T. (1976). Cognitive therapies and emotional disorders. New York, NY, US: New American Library.
- Burns, D. D. (1980). Feeling good: The new mood therapy. New York, NY, US: New American Library.
- Burns, D. D. (1989). The feeling good handbook. New York, NY, US: Morrow.
- Burns, D. D., Shaw, B. F., & Croker, W. (1987). Thinking styles and coping strategies of depressed women: An empirical investigation. Behaviour Research and Therapy 25, 223-225. doi:10.1016/0005-7967(87)90049-0