*Cognitive Distortions and Dysfunctional Assumptions
to Become Aware of
Philip S. Graffunder, LCSW
Our mental health is strongly tied to many aspects of our being, one of the major ones being the way we perceive, interpret, and filter information. Much of this process is automatic, but fortunately, portions of it can be brought under conscious control. Many people needlessly suffer a great deal due to the idiosyncratic views that they hold, particularly of their past experiences. The term that is often used for this is ‘mindset’. Mindset contains the beliefs, expectations, and ideas that you strongly hold. These invariably color your experiences because you interpret your reality in the light of your beliefs.
With that in mind, examine the following list of common, but false, beliefs, ideas, and expectations. Notice the subtle and not-so-subtle ways that they introduce distortion, as well as promote feelings of depression and anxiety. In fact, from these mental frames often come a well-spring of automatic negative thoughts and feelings. Left unchecked and unchallenged, these beliefs and attitudes can promote chronic difficulties over multiple domains of your life. The good news is that you have the power to recognize and reject these beliefs, patterns, expectations, and judgments.
All-Or-Nothing Thinking: Seeing things in black-or-white/ all-or-nothing categories only. For example, if a performance falls short of excellent or perfect, then you see yourself as a failure. If someone else makes a mistake that most certainly wouldn’t have, then they are a total screw up. Other options, such as a middle ground, are rarely if ever considered.
Overgeneralization: A single or a select few negative events are seen as a never-ending pattern of defeat and provides ample evidence to “prove” that your underlying pessimistic assessment is true.
Mental Filter: Negative details are selected and focused on extensively, so much so that almost everything looks bleak and depressing, even those areas of life not connected to the details in question. Positive and neutral details do not register or are simply ignored to the point that they disappear entirely.
Disqualifying The Positive: This mental formation is a product of noticing that some positive experiences exist but instantly rejecting them because you insist that “they don’t count” for some reason that you consider entirely valid. In this way a negative belief can be supported and maintained even when it is contradicted by evidence from everyday experiences.
Jumping To Conclusions: Making a negative interpretation even though there is not enough evidence or definitive facts to convincingly support that conclusion.
A. Mind Reading: Automatically assuming that you know what someone else is thinking, and therefore you also know why they are acting the way they are. This, you believe, gives you the authority to accurately pass judgment on them and their behavior.
B. Fortunetelling: Expecting that things will turn out badly, or as you anticipate that they will, and convincing yourself that your prediction is as good as fact, even though it hasn’t happened yet.
Magnifying (aka “Catastrophizing”) Or Minimizing (aka “Denial”): Grossly exaggerating the importance or negative impact of things (such as something you said or something another person did), or, conversely, mentally shrinking things down until they appear tiny and insignificant (e.g., your own desirable qualities or someone else’s inappropriate behavior).
Emotional Reasoning: Insisting that if I feel it, then it must be true, otherwise why would I feel it? This circular reasoning method allows you to insist that the “truth” corresponds to your emotional state. For example, “I feel stupid, so therefore I am” or “I feel superior to you, so therefore I must be”. Emotions are treated as absolute facts that are not subject to interpretation or reality checks.
Should Statements: These are self-statements are major contributors to unnecessary emotional pain. They contain the words ‘should’, ‘should have’, ‘must’, or ‘have to’. These statements create or perpetuate blame, harsh judgment, and self-imposed guilt — as if you had to harass, condemn or shame yourself before you could be expected to do anything worthwhile. Overuse of should self-statements leads to feelings of inadequacy or despair. When they are aimed at others instead of one’s self, they create feelings of anger, frustration, and resentment.
Labeling and Name Calling: This is an extreme form of overgeneralization. For instance, instead of describing an error and learning from it, you call yourself names. You may label yourself by saying “I’m such an idiot.” or “I’m no damn good.” Or if someone else’s behavior isn’t to your liking, you attach a negative label to him, “He’s a goddamn moron!” The language used is often some sort of slang insult, absolute and emotionally loaded. The negative cost of this mental behavior on one’s consciousness is typically very high.
Personalization and Blame: Routinely seeing yourself as the cause of negative events before you have adequately investigated the issue and its potential causes, OR proclaiming yourself completely innocent and viewing others as the cause of unpleasant events before there is evidence to back up such a claim.
Magical Thinking or Superstition: You believe you have extraordinary mental and emotional abilities that can create or alter the future. Example 1: You assume that if you worry or feel bad about a situation, it will somehow make things better. Example 2: You assume you have to do certain things in a very rigid, repetitive, and specific way and only if you do it that way will you feel ok and make sure that things will be alright. Example 3: You believe that it is not safe to feel happy now or optimistic about the future because you’ll jinx it, or you’ll be greatly disappointed in life “yet again”.
If you would like to explore this further,
and perhaps discover other answers about yourself, feel free to contact me at 404-295-4852.
Philip S. Graffunder is the owner of
Positive Social Growth Counseling and Therapy Center.
He is a therapist, counselor, and clinical social worker with more than 20 years’ experience.