As Stanford neuroscience professor David Eagleman once wisely pointed out, “Consciousness is like a broom closet in the mansion of our brain.” This is to highlight that the vast majority of our thoughts are subconscious and unconscious. Unfortunately, some of the subconscious thinking patterns people have can be quite harmful. In psychotherapy, such negative thought patterns are known as cognitive distortions or thought traps.
Cognitive distortions are beliefs we hold about ourselves and others that have no basis in fact. They can do a lot of harm to your mental well-being. Thought traps can lower your self-esteem and motivation, and they open the door to stress, anxiety, and depression.
Being aware of your own cognitive distortions gives you the power to disengage or substitute them for a more realistic alternative. Listed below are 12 common types of cognitive distortions and ways to correct them.
When you are thinking in extremes – you are either a success or a failure.
Example: “I was too busy and didn’t have time to do the dishes today, so I’m a complete failure.”
If you tend to believe things like this, catch yourself in the act and say it out loud (or even write it down). Sometimes, hearing or reading the statement helps you realize just how unreasonable and outlandish the belief is. To counter this thought trap, it’s much better to focus on the positive, like “I got so many things done today,” and list everything you did accomplish that day.
When you amplify the severity of unpleasant events.
Example: “I woke up with a headache, so now my whole day is ruined.”
Instead of waiting to see if the headache passes after you drink some water or coffee. You have already set yourself up for misery and disappointment. Remember to put things in perspective. There’s no reason to get upset and think that the headache will last all day.
Shoulds and musts
When you impose rigid rules on how you or others should behave.
Example: “I should exercise more and eat healthier.”
The danger of this thought trap is that it may very well be true. Maybe you really would benefit from a healthier diet or exercise routine, but repeating what you should, must, ought, and shouldn’t do rarely motivates you toward your goals. Rather, it sets the scene for self-blame. Focus on what you can do instead of setting unachievable standards for yourself.
When a person applies something from one event to all events, even when they are completely unrelated.
Example: One doctor was rude to you, so you now think that all doctors are crude and mean.
The danger of overgeneralizing is that it makes you inflexible and resistant to new experiences. In some cases, such as the example we listed above, this can even be dangerous to your health or safety. This is because you could be less inclined to see a doctor on time or at all, which increases the risk of chronic conditions.
When you see yourself as the cause of an external event.
Example: You feel responsible for whether people around you are in a good mood.
Self-blame is a big word in the realm of cognitive distortions. People often feel personally responsible for something that may not be related to them at all. For example, if someone you talk to seems upset, it’s not necessarily related to something you said or did. In fact, an external event is far more likely to be the real culprit.
When you take a minor event and fixate on it.
Example: Due to an unforeseen errand, you have to leave a meeting with friends early. When your spouse asks you about your day in the evening, you focus on the negative and say “I had to leave early,” instead of something like “It was fun to catch up with the girls.”
Mental filtering keeps you from seeing the complete picture and having the full experience. Every day is a mixture of positive, neutral, and negative experiences, and focusing on the negatives prevents you from ever having a good day. Instead, try and see the whole picture and unite the positives with the negatives. To return to our example, we would reframe the previous phrase to something like this: “Even though I had to leave early, I had a lot of fun catching up with the girls.”
Disqualifying the positive
When you transform neutral or positive events into negative ones.
Example: After a very successful work presentation, you were asked to reflect on how it went. “It was terrible,” you reply based on the fact that one person in the back didn’t pay attention when you were presenting.
The difference between some thought traps is quite subtle. Think of disqualifying the positive as one step further than a mental filter. A person prone to this thought trap doesn’t just dwell on a negative aspect of an experience. They let a small negative detail tint an enjoyable experience into an unpleasant one. People who fall into this cognitive distortion will greatly benefit from actively searching for positive aspects of an experience and thinking about them. In this case, it’s the overwhelmingly positive feedback from colleagues who were listening to the presentation.
When you take one characteristic and apply it to the whole person.
Example: Your friend didn’t want to join you on a rollercoaster, so now you think he’s a coward.
We all have a whole universe of thoughts, emotions, and beliefs inside us, and limiting any person to just one character trait is really limiting. Whether you’re labeling others or yourself (calling yourself “boring,” “incompetent,” or “ugly”), it’s distorted thinking. Cancel out this thought trap by noticing that cognitive labels adversely affect you and others. Try to replace these labels with more thoughtful and nuanced ideas, such as “He’s not a coward, he just gets sick on rollercoasters.”
Jumping to conclusions
When you decide on something without having all the facts.
Example: You think that your friend is mad at you because they didn’t call you for a while, even though you’ve done nothing to offend them.
Jumping to conclusions is one of the most common thought traps. There are two subtypes of jumping to conclusions:
When you assume you know what others are thinking or feeling.
When you predict that events will unfold in a certain way. This often happens when people want to avoid responsibilities or difficulties.
Both mind-reading and fortune-telling are closely linked to anxiety and depression. These cognitive distortions can lead to problems in relationships and be very limiting, in general. If you tend to jump to conclusions, ask yourself, “Are you sure? What proof do you have?” If you don’t have any reasoning behind a negative thought, it’s probably false.
Identifying with emotions
When you believe the way you feel is the way you are.
Example: An emotional thought like “I feel like no one likes me,” leads you to stay home and cancel your weekend plans with friends. People prone to this cognitive distortion assume that emotions al
People prone to this cognitive distortion assume that emotions always reveal reality. So they let their feelings take over. To escape this thought trap, remember that emotions are a temporary response, not who you are. You may feel sad, angry, or bored at times, but so does everyone else. Experiencing a certain emotion doesn’t define your entire character.
How to challenge cognitive distortions
The first step is knowing how to recognize cognitive distortions when you experience them. This may be challenging at first, but with time, you’ll get the hang of it and learn to counter thought traps in a minute. In the beginning, though, we recommend that you pay attention to situations that trigger emotions, such as unpleasant conversations or situations that make you anxious or sad.
Once you notice a bad thought, write it down like this:
Event: Packing for a road trip.
Thought: I have to pack everything I need, I shouldn’t forget anything.
Better thought: Nothing bad will happen if I forget a few minor things.
How it made you feel: Much calmer.
If this system doesn’t work, you can also try and notice your thoughts and how they influence negative feelings. Journaling is also helpful for this.
Your stress levels will decrease as you learn to recognize and correct distorted thoughts. In addition, you will have fewer negative thoughts as you become more skilled at detecting and countering thought traps.
At the same time, if cognitive distortions are persistently triggering feelings of anxiety, depression, or other psychological problems, consider seeking help from a mental health professional, such as a psychotherapist certified in cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT).