How to Overcome Your Cognitive Distortions

Do you hate failing? Are you overwhelmed with life? Do things just never work out for you?

Sometimes life is hard, but sometimes we make our lives harder than they have to be. We do this by holding onto something called cognitive distortions.

What are cognitive distortions?

The term “cognitive distortion” is a fancy way of describing some of the ways our brains incorrectly process information. Cognitive distortions can be a mixture of exaggerated, irrational, or untrue thoughts that we believe to be true. Cognitive distortions are most commonly used to consciously or unconsciously help us justify negative thoughts or emotions.

It is important to identify your own cognitive distortions because they distort the way we view yourself and the world around you.

Different types of cognitive distortions?

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Here’s a list of some cognitive distortions. Once you go through them, you can figure out which ones you want to work on. After you’ve identified your cognitive distortions, scroll down to the next section to see how you can overcome them.

  • “Should” statements: If you think the words “should, “must,” “ought,” or “have to,” you’re probably about to stumble upon the “should” statement cognitive distortion. When you use these words, you’re using guilt and shame to get yourself or others to do something. These words are a shame trigger and can leave those affected feeling inadequate. This is a cognitive distortion because there is no one perfect way to do something, and when you put expectations on yourself and others, you’re going to be disappointed when things don’t turn out the way you think they’re supposed to.
  • Polarized thinking: Polarized thinking is when you think in extremes or where there are only two options. An example is when you think 1) you have to be perfect otherwise you’re a failure and 2) either you’re good or you’re bad. The problem with polarized thinking is that it views the world through only black and white lenses and ignores all the gray. Life is filled with all the gray in between black and white. A lot of the time you’re not going to be perfect, but you’re not a failure either; you’re going to be in the middle.
  • Heaven’s reward fallacy: When you think that you deserve for things to go right just because you’re doing your best, you are giving in to the heaven’s reward fallacy cognitive distortion.  When you start thinking that life isn’t fair, you decide that somehow it’s God/the Universe fault. This is a cognitive distortion because God never promised life would be easy, even for those who were obedient. Just look at Job’s life.
  • Catastrophizing: You’re catastrophizing when you take a bad situation and exaggerate to make it seem worse. You go into a downward spiral where everything seems like it will fall apart. This is a cognitive distortion because often the disaster you imagine will happen probably won’t happen. Instead of picking yourself up by the bootstraps, you’ll end up wallowing in despair.
  • Overgeneralization: When one bad thing happens, you start thinking it will happen again and be just as bad. You may see one unpleasant event as an unending stream of negative events. But this thought pattern will keep you upset and unmotivated.
  • The fallacy of change: If you think that people will change to meet your needs, you’re putting your happiness in their hands. If you’re only happy when people do as you please, you will often find yourself unhappy.
  • Jumping to conclusions: Assuming what people mean without asking them means you’ll end up making incorrect assumptions about their words and behavior. You’ll often assume something that’s incorrect, which will eventually cause problems in the relationship and lead to unhappiness.
  • Blaming: When you blame others for things that happen, you’re holding them responsible for what you go through rather than accepting responsibility for things that happen. And sometimes, things just happen that don’t have to do with choices you or others intentionally make. But it’s also possible for you to blame yourself for everything, and that’s not healthy either. It’s not possible for something to always be your fault, and it’s not possible that everything is always the fault of others.
  • Negative filter: You’re using a negative filter when you focus on the negatives and ignore the positive. But life has both positive and negative things that happen, so you’re robbing yourself of happiness when you ignore the positive.
  • Personalization: The personalization cognitive distortion is when someone believes the things that are said and done by the people around them are personally directed at them. Someone might make the comment, ” I hate when others are late,” and the personalizer might interpret that their friend thinks he or she (the personalizer) is always late. These people tend to be defensive and argumentative as they think others are always attacking them personally.
  • Control Fallacies: Control fallacies show up mainly in two different ways: external and internal. Someone with an external control fallacy takes a victim stance in their life. They have the belief that everything in their life is out of their control and that their life is a by-product of other people’s actions and choices. On the flip side, someone with an internal control fallacy will believe that they are responsible for the happiness and wellbeing of those around them.
  • Emotional Reasoning: Emotional reasoning is summed up in the belief that what one must feel must be the reality. When we are emotionally charged, we do not reason or see logic as we would if we were in a calmer state of mind. When emotional reasoning is in use, the person feels that whatever they are feeling must be true automatically and unconditionally. It gives the person tunnel vision to all reason, logic, rational, and consequently, all other options.
  • Always Being right: This distortion centers on the belief that one is always right in actions, thoughts, and beliefs. This fallacy is a distortion because there are many varying opinions that are neither “right” or “wrong” only differing. Also, when it comes to relationships, it is impossible for one to always be right. Oftentimes, when two people are fighting both parties are at fault in some way. Just as it takes two to tango; it takes two to fight.

How can I overcome my cognitive distortions?

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If you’ve identified your own cognitive distortions, you’ve completed the first step! Great work! Now, you just have to start recognizing when you’re believing your distortions. Try to catch yourself in the act. When you notice yourself believing your cognitive distortions, tell yourself why it’s a cognitive distortion and try to move away from believing it.

For example, if you have a bad date and you start thinking that all of your dates are horrible, and you’re never going to have a good date, so you probably won’t ever find the love of your life, and you’ll probably die alone, then you are catastrophizing. Stop yourself once you notice what you’re doing and walk yourself through the thoughts. Just because you had a bad date does not automatically mean you will die alone.

By interrupting your negative thought patterns, you can start to overcome your cognitive distortions. Be patient with yourself, and remember that noticing your cognitive distortions will take time, but any small progress is progress.

Try sharing your goals to overcome your cognitive distortions with those you spend time with. If you feel comfortable with it, ask your friends and family to mention when they notice you’re going down the cognitive distortion road.

It will take persistent work, but as you overcome your cognitive distortions, you’ll find life is much more fulfilling and enjoyable.

PsychCentral.com has a worksheet that you can go through to help change your negative distortions. Click the worksheet below.

Cognitive Distortions Worksheet

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