Cognitive restructuring (CR) is a popular form of therapy used to identify and break down maladaptive cognitive distortions. It is typically used with individuals with depression. CR therapies aim to eliminate “automatic thoughts” which create dysfunctional or negative views.
Cognitive distortions are exaggerated or irrational thought patterns that cause individuals to perceive reality inaccurately. They are the primary cause of depression and anxiety. As thinking and feeling is interrelated, distorted thoughts tend to feed negative emotion which culminates in an overall negative outlook on life (hence depression and anxiety).
Manifestations of Cognitive Distortions
Always being right
Characterized by actively trying to prove one’s actions or thoughts to be correct; and prioritizing self-interest over the feelings of another person
Holding other people responsible for problems, conflict and disharmony: scapegoating.
Example: someone blames their spouse entirely for marital problems, instead of looking at how they may be contributing.
Disqualifying the positive
Discounting positive events
Example: Upon receiving congratulations, a person dismisses it out-of-hand, believing it to be undeserved, and automatically interpreting the compliment (at least inwardly) as an attempt at flattery or arising out of naïveté.
Making the assumption that negative feelings expose the true nature of things; experiencing reality as a reflection of emotionally linked thoughts. Thinking something is true, solely based on a feeling.
Example: “I feel (i.e. think I am) stupid or boring, therefore I must be.” Or, feeling that fear of flying means planes are a very dangerous way to travel. Or, concluding that it’s hopeless to clean one’s house due to being overwhelmed by the prospect of cleaning.
Fallacy of change
Relying on social control to obtain cooperative actions from another person.
Focusing entirely on negative elements of a situation; excluding the positive.
The brain’s tendency to filter out information which does not conform to ingrained beliefs.
Example: After receiving comments about a work presentation, a person focuses on the single critical comment and ignores the numerous compliments.
Jumping to conclusions
Drawing conclusions (usually negative) from little (if any) evidence. Two specific sub-types are identified:
- Mind reading: Inferring a person’s possible or probable (usually negative) thoughts from their behaviour and nonverbal communication; taking precautions against the worst reasonably suspected case or some other preliminary conclusion, without asking the person.
Example: A student assumes the readers of their paper have already made up their mind concerning its topic, and therefore writing the paper is a pointless exercise.
- Fortune-telling: predicting outcomes (usually negative) of events.
Example: Being convinced of failure before a test, when the student is in fact prepared.
Labelling and Mislabelling
Labelling is a process whereby you create a negative self-image based on your errors. It is an extreme form of overgeneralization. The philosophy behind it is the measure of a man is the mistakes he makes. You are indulging in personal labelling whenever you describe your mistakes with sentences beginning with “I’m a . . .” For example, when you miss your putt on the eighteenth hole, you might say, “I’m a born loser” instead of “I messed up on my putt.” Similarly, when the stock you invested in goes down instead of up, you might think, “I’m a failure” instead of “I made a mistake.”
Labelling yourself is not only self-defeating, it is irrational. Your self cannot be equated with any one thing you do. Your life is a complex and ever-changing flow of thoughts, emotions, and actions. To put it another way, you are more like a river than a statue. Stop trying to define yourself with negative labels – they are overly simplistic and wrong.
When you label other people, you will invariably generate hostility. A common example is the boss who sees his occasionally irritable secretary as ‘an uncooperative witch.’ Because of this label, he resents her and jumps at every chance to criticize her. She, in turn, labels him an ‘insensitive chauvinist’ and complains about him at every opportunity. So, around and around they go at each other’s throats, focusing on every weakness or imperfection as proof of the other’s worthlessness.
Mislabelling involves describing an event with words that are inaccurate and emotionally heavily loaded. For example, a woman on a diet ate a dish of ice cream and thought, ‘How disgusting and repulsive of me. I’m a pig.’ These thoughts made her so upset she ate the whole quart of ice cream!
Magnification and Minimization
The terms magnification and minimization refer to a person’s propensity to distort his or her reality by emphasizing the negative and discarding the positive. A person’s problems become insurmountable, while the positive aspects of their life are ignored. People prone to panic attacks often fall into this cognitive distortion, which magnify fears and maladaptive behaviours while minimizing their ability to cope.
Giving greater weight to the worst possible outcome, however unlikely, or experiencing a situation as unbearable or impossible when it is just uncomfortable.
Example: A teenager is too afraid to start drivers’ training because he believes he would get himself into an accident.
Making hasty generalizations from insufficient evidence; making a very broad conclusion based on a single incident or a single piece of evidence. If something bad happens only once, it is expected to happen over and over again.
Example: A person is lonely and often spends most of her time at home. Her friends sometimes ask her out for dinner and meet new people. She feels it is useless going, because no one really could like her.
Attributing personal responsibility, including the resulting praise or blame, for events over which a person has no control.
Example: A mother whose child is struggling in school blames herself entirely for being a bad mother, because she believes that her deficient parenting is responsible. In fact, the real cause may be something else entirely.
Doing, or expecting others to do, what morally should or ought to be done irrespective of the context. This involves conforming strenuously to ethical categorical imperatives which, by definition, ‘always apply,’ or to hypothetical imperatives which apply in that general type of case. Albert Ellis termed this musturbation. Psychotherapist Michael C. Graham describes this as ‘expecting the world to be different than it is.’
Example: After a performance, a concert pianist believes he or she should not have made so many mistakes. Or, while waiting for an appointment, thinking that the service provider should be on time, and feeling bitter and resentful as a result.
Splitting (All-or-nothing thinking or dichotomous reasoning)
Seeing things in black or white as opposed to shades of grey; thinking in terms of false dilemmas. Splitting involves using terms like “always”, “every” or “never” when this is neither true, nor equivalent to the truth.
Example: When an admired person makes a minor mistake, the admiration is turned into contempt.