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Cognitive Distortions

For a coaching client, I had it on my list to “research how to handle negative thoughts.”

She is a high performing product person, one of the most talented and driven people I know. Her negative thoughts cause feelings of low self-confidence, which sometimes leads to unsatisfactory action or inaction.

Initially, my stance was to help her directly with the action or inaction. To feel the thing and do it anyway! This comes from the buddhist idea that thoughts arise. Period. It’s not the thought, but what you do in response to it.

Then I remembered reading Feeling Good, a book on cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). Coaching is not therapy, but I thought it might contain hints and methods on how we might tackle it.

The book lists the top ten cognitive distortions. Cognitive distortions are “distorted” patterns of thinking that cause destructive feelings. The idea behind CBT is that our thoughts, and not what is actually happening in our life, create our feelings.

Maybe aside from feeling the thing and doing it anyway, we can also change our habitual, illogical patterns of thought, improve our pervasive feelings, and get out of our own way.

Top 10 Cognitive Distortions

  1. All-or-nothing thinking – the tendency to evaluate personal qualities in extreme, black-or-white categories. “Because I failed at this, I’m a total failure.” No one is absolutely brilliant or stupid.
  2. Overgeneralization – arbitrarily concluding that one thing that happened to you once will occur over and over again
  3. Mental filter – picking out a negative detail and dwelling on it exclusively, perceiving the whole situation as negative
  4. Disqualifying the positive – transforming neutral and positive experiences into negative ones
  5. Jumping to conclusions
    1. Mind reading – assuming other people are looking down on you, and being so convinced about this you don’t even bother to check it out
    2. Fortune teller error – imagining something bad is about to happen, and you take this prediction as a fact even though it is unrealistic
  6. Magnification and minimization – either blowing things up (exaggerating errors, fears, and imperfections) or shrinking them (making strengths look small and unimportant)
  7. Emotional reasoning – taking emotions as evidence for truth. e.g. “I feel inadequate. Therefore, I must be a worthless person.” This is misleading because feelings reflect thoughts and beliefs, which are usually distorted (i.e. see this list of cognitive distortions)
  8. Should statements – “musturbation” – trying motivate yourself by saying, “I should do this” or “I must do that”, causing feelings of pressure, resentment, and a lot of unnecessary emotional turmoil. When reality of own (all-too-human) behavior and performance fall short of own standards, shoulds and shouldn’ts create self-loathing, shame, and guilt. (see: “should and shouldn’t” removal methods in chapters on guilt and anger)
  9. Labeling and mislabeling – an extreme form of overgeneralization. Creating a completely negative self-imaged based on errors. Just because you breathe doesn’t exclusively make you a “breather” but personal mislabeling is “I’m on a diet and I ate ice cream, therefore I’m a pig.”
  10. Personalization – the mother of guilt. You assume responsibility for a negative even when there is no basis for doing so. You arbitrarily conclude that what happened was your fault or reflects your inadequacy, even when you were not responsible for it. Confusing influence with control over others.