*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.
There are at least two major categories that strongly affect mindset: cognitive distortions and dysfunctional assumptions.
Cognitive distortions are mental formations — categorical ways of organizing our thinking that do not create an accurate representation of reality, even though they appear valid on the surface. These mental schemas are easily created in the mind and are used to varying degrees by almost everybody. Unfortunately, they skew our perceptions and cause unhealthy behaviors when used habitually, or when applied in the wrong circumstances. They are the basis of, and constantly reinforce mindsets that are both seductive and damaging. Since they can appear quite rational, and conveniently provide confirmation for our inherent biases, it can be of great benefit to learn how to identify and modify them.
Honest acknowledgment is the first step. This can provide you with a useful roadmap, highlighting the areas where you could be consistently undermining your better judgment and best intentions. Then you have the choice to reject and replace old, damaging patterns and beliefs with healthier, more functional alternatives.
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”.
Next we will examine dysfunctional assumptions.
These are fallacies that many people just assume are true. They often are expressed in conditional terms, “If this…, then that…”, or as absolutist statements that usually contain the words “must”, “should”, or “have to”. Dysfunctional assumptions are usually unspoken…taken for granted as de facto truth. They are the “rules for living” that we have accepted or created, assuming that they are accurate representations of ‘reality’. Therefore we rarely, if ever, pause to question them.
However, you can reduce counter-productive thinking and enhance your quality of life by identifying the automatic, but erroneous, assumptions that you use most often. Once identified you have the opportunity to replace them with ideas and beliefs that are more balanced and true.
The Brushfire Fallacy: I assume that if one person looks down on me, then the word will spread like wildfire and soon everyone will look down on me. However, the brushfire is a “one-way” phenomena… it only works against me, never in my favor. Therefore, if someone likes or respects me, no spread to others will occur. It’s a negative brushfire only.
The Spotlight Fallacy: I assume that talking to people puts me under a bright spotlight, like on a stage. Further, I assume that I must impress them. If I don’t show, prove, or impress these other people (e.g., by being sophisticated, witty, interesting, or accomplished) then they will look down on me and won’t like me, and that would be awful! (This line of thinking can often lead straight to the brushfire fallacy.)
I’ll be Found Out Fallacy – I assume that there is something phony, or terribly flawed about me, so I must cover it up with my skills, knowledge, and external approval. If anyone discovers this about me it will nullify all my genuine accomplishments and no one will ever believe in me again.
The “Peter Principle” Fallacy – I assume that if I am successful and begin to move up in my area of interest, sooner or later I will “fail” and then everyone will know I am incompetent. They will know that I was not deserving of the praise or advancement that I received in the first place, that they should have gone to someone else more qualified than I. Therefore, I know that I can only succeed, and never fail at anything, or else it “proves” I am a failure and no good. I conclude that I should either hide all my mistakes, or never even bother trying at all.
The Succeed at All Costs Fallacy – My being worthwhile depends on my achievements (or my intelligence or status or attractiveness). I must never fail! My worthwhileness as a person is totally dependent on getting continuous positive feedback on my attributes and accomplishments.
I Must Meet Other’s Expectations Fallacy – The premise of this fallacy is the assumption that I need everybody’s approval to be worthwhile. My worthiness is totally dependent on being liked, so I can never have anyone look down on me.
Example 1: If anyone ever thinks I am nervous or shy that’s terrible because it’s a sign of weakness and they will see me as an inferior person. Therefore, to acknowledge to anyone that I have shortcomings is totally unacceptable and catastrophic.
Example 2: When I get an assignment or some sort of challenge, even if I have proven skills and a successful history of taking on these types of tasks and challenges, sooner or later I will fail to meet it. Other people won’t approve of me when they realize that I didn’t meet their expectations or the challenge. They will think I’m a loser, which I know will make my life become awful. No person will ever love or accept me as a flawed and vulnerable human being who can’t even meet their own goals and expectations.
The Emotional Perfectionism Fallacy: I should always feel happy, confident, and in control of my emotions, or at least make it seem that way to others. I should never feel angry, anxious, inadequate, weak, jealous or vulnerable. If I do it means there’s something very wrong with me. Moreover, because I should be in emotional control at all times, I shouldn’t argue or ever have any serious conflict with family or loved ones. If I ever do, it’s terrible, and it means that the other person/ people involved will reject me.
The Entitlement Fallacy: People should always be the way I expect them to be. I am entitled to be treated well by everyone, especially the people that I say should treat me well. They all should see that I am a nice person and treat me accordingly. If I’m not loved or given the treatment that I’m entitled to, then it “proves” I’m unlovable or that they are horrible people, or both.
The Rejection Fallacy: If I reach out to someone and they do not respond the way I want them to (e.g., with love and goodwill towards me) then it “proves” that I’m unlovable. My life becomes barely worth living as it is now clear that I am a rotten person that nobody wants.
The Long-Term Relationship Fallacy – If I’m not in a committed relationship, then I am destined to be miserable and unfulfilled. There will be almost no joy, fun, or satisfaction in my life unless and until I am in a long-term relationship. I can’t have a good or satisfying life no matter what I do unless someone else comes into my life and makes it that way.
Examine the impact that living your life according to these assumptions has had on your life, and decide whether you want to continue to accept their validity, or reject them as invalid relics of the past.
*Thank you to Dr. Aaron Beck, Dr. Albert Ellis, and Dr. David Burns who originally defined these terms.
They have been adapted and modified by Philip Graffunder, LCSW.
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.