A cognitive distortion is a way your mind convinces you that something is true when it really isn’t. It is also sometimes called “thinking error,” and tends to run rampant in people who struggle with anxiety and depression. Here, the main ones that are probably impacting the way you experience your life:
1. Believing everything you feel is real. Emotional reasoning is thinking everything you feel is true. It is treating emotions like an oracle; not being able to separate reality from how you feel about reality. When you have a feeling, you label it, or assign to it a cause. Sometimes, this works: when you feel happy around someone, you can deduce that you like them. However, feelings are not always informed by reality: they are are created by a host of different triggers, some psychological, some environmental, many physiological. They can be the result of fears, projections, past ideas or beliefs. Feelings are always valid, as in something you are definitely experiencing, but they are not always true, as in not always a reflection of reality. Feelings are not facts.
2. Assuming challenges mean you’re being “tested.” When people face repeated or unexpected challenges, some believe they are being “tested,” as though there is an external conscious force creating obstacles to see how they will respond. This is a way to make sense of what’s happening that externalizes responsibility. Most of the time, the obstacle at hand is the direct result of poor habits or decision making.
3. Fearing a nonexistent “fall from grace.” This is what happens when we fear that if we become too happy, everything will fall apart. It is a false association between happiness and vulnerability. When we hear stories of hardship, they usually begin like this: “Everything was great… until.” This leads us to unconsciously believe that once everything seems as though its going well, that’s when we’re hit with the worst. First of all, those stories are a product of projection: everything seemed perfect in retrospect, when the given challenge didn’t exist. On top of that, most people don’t have a “fall from grace,” they get their lives on track and can stay on that track if they so choose. This is not a “fact of reality,” it is an irrational fear being projected.
4. Believing problems make you more likable. You don’t have ongoing problems in your life because you can’t solve them, you have ongoing problems in your life because you want to. If you bond with people and “earn” love from them by sharing your problems and struggles, you are consistently reinforcing them.
5. Thinking in black and white terms, or jumping to conclusions. An “all or nothing” is getting into an argument with a significant other and then assuming your relationship is done forever, or receiving some constructive criticism at work and assuming you are terrible at your job and that you should just quit. It is also what happens when you make sweeping generalizations or over-simplifications about things, like presumptions you make about others or ideas about the world as a whole.
6. Applying moral attributions to neutral things. Some people assign moral attributions to foods. When they eat healthy, they say: “I have been so good lately.” The types of food that you eat does not impact whether or not you are a “good” person, and believing that they do can make eating such an emotionally loaded experience that it becomes significantly less healthy than if you were able to sometimes eat cake and not have a panic attack about it.
7. Believing what feels the worst is the most true. Catastrophizing is when you take any given situation and assume that the worst outcome is the most likely. It’s what happens when you unconsciously start to assume that the most intense feelings you have are the most real. Typically, negative feelings are the strongest, therefore, you make unfounded assumptions about how your life is going or how it is going to go.
8. Making assumptions about the world based on your own experiences. Global labeling is what happens when you take a handful of experiences and use them to built and assumption about the world at large, because it seems self-evident to you. Studies show that people who develop global labels tend to stick to them even when confronted with opposing research or statistical evidence. Just because something is not self-evident to you does not mean it isn’t real or factually correct.
9. Fortune telling. Fortune telling is when you try to look for “signs” that you should make one choice or another in your life, believing that one will lead you to be rewarded and another will incur pain. Fortune telling is what happens when you don’t have enough confidence or certainty in your own decision-making, and so you rely on “supernatural” or outside forces to do it for you. It is also commonly linked to a misunderstanding of intuition. When we believe that everything we strongly feel is “intuitive,” we can start making actions that can turn out to be wrong at best, and very dangerous at worst.
10. Mind reading. The cousin of fortune telling, mind reading is the idea that you “just know” what someone is thinking or thinks of you. In reality, that is mostly just projection – what we assume others think of us is what we secretly think of ourselves, and so on.
11. Mislabeling a mistake as a flaw against your character. Mislabeling is what happens when you make a decision you regret, and then follow it up with a negative and punishing assumption about who you are and how “good” you are. For example, if you struggled in math class as a child because you didn’t have a great teacher, you could have internalized that and still claim you “aren’t good at math,” when in fact that is not true – it was just true at the time.
12. Believing in an absolutely just world. This is what happens when you believe that poor people deserve to be poor, or sick people should have taken care of themselves better. It is the belief that if something negative is happening to someone, they are directly at fault. While that is often true, it is not absolutely true, and would imply that the world at large is perfectly fair (which it is not).
13. Underestimating your threshold for discomfort. The most prolonged anxiety is typically the fear of being anxious. What we fear is not an event, we fear our response to the event, assuming we would be incapable of coping with it. In doing this, we underestimate how much discomfort we can withstand, especially if it is for a reason. People fear senseless suffering, but are willing to withstand all kinds of pain if they believe that it is for a greater purpose. Therefore, overcoming the fear of fear is simply being more committed to the bigger picture than you are to a temporary grievance.
14. Believing your gifts are more exceptional and your failures more justifiable than other people’s. Self-serving bias is what happens when we think things are better (or more understandable) because they are ours. It’s what is happening when people are convinced they have the cutest or sweetest pet in the “whole world,” or are more inclined to defend their failures but blame other people’s on their character.
15. Assuming your thinking patterns are inherent to you, and unchangeable. Perhaps one of the most dangerous distortions of all is the idea that you are incapable of change just because you are so used to your behaviors and habits. This is a delusion that mostly relates to the desire to maintain comfort, and is more resistance than it is legitimate inability.
16. Trusting your feelings more than you do evidence, or what’s happening in reality. You may feel like someone is a “bad person” just because you dislike them, but your emotions are coloring your perception of them. They could be more morally and ethically sound than you are, but your feelings about them will largely result in you dismissing their positive traits and characterizing them by their negative ones.