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5 Distorted Thought Patterns and How to Change Them

We all have cognitive distortions.

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Life is all about how you think. Success or failure, however you define them, will only amplify your thought processes, especially unhealthy patterns of thinking. Right behind your thoughts are feelings. If your thinking is unhealthy, how you feel about yourself will most likely hold you down. And since emotions are more powerful than logic, so your feelings can overpower you and send you into a very deep ditch.

Most of us are so focused on getting somewhere or obtaining something that we forget that happiness lives in the way we see the world, our beliefs about ourselves, and the way we think. What you think and how you think will determine your path.

So — how you think. Cognitive distortions are simply ways that our mind convinces us of something that isn’t really true. These inaccurate thoughts are usually used to reinforce negative thinking or emotions — telling ourselves things that sound rational and accurate, but really only serve to keep us feeling bad about ourselves by playing broken records. There are many cognitive distortions. Here are what I believe are the most common cognitive distortions. See if any resonate with you.

1. Filtering

We take the negative details and magnify them while filtering out all positive aspects of a situation. For instance, a person may pick out a single, unpleasant detail and dwell on it exclusively, so that their vision of reality becomes darkened or distorted.

Do you filter? If so, write it down. How does that type of thinking bring you anxiety? How do you act because of this distortion? How does it play out in your day-to-day?

2. Polarized (“Black and White”) Thinking

In polarized thinking, things are either “black or white": We have to be perfect, or we’re a failure; there is no middle ground. You place people or situations in “either/or” categories, with no shades of gray or allowing for the complexity of most people and situations. If your performance falls short of perfect, you see yourself as a total failure.

Is your thinking polarized? If so, when? A lot of this happens in business and in sports. How does that type of thinking create anxiety?

3. Overgeneralization

This cognitive distortion involves coming to a general conclusion based on a single incident or piece of evidence. If something bad happens once, for example, we may expect it to happen over and over again. A person may see a single unpleasant event as part of a never-ending pattern of defeat. This happens a lot when we’re dating: She didn’t return my text within three minutes, so she must be dating someone else now.

Do you overgeneralize? If so, when? How does that type of thinking create anxiety? What’s your behavior because of this distortion?

4. Jumping to Conclusions

Without individuals saying so, we are sure that we know what they are feeling and why they are acting the way they do. In particular, we are able to determine how people are feeling toward us.

For example, a person may conclude that someone is reacting negatively toward them, but doesn’t actually try to find out if they are correct. Or a person may anticipate that things will turn out badly, and feel convinced that their prediction is already an established fact. This happens a lot in relationships and friendships.

Do you jump to conclusions? If so, when? How does that type of thinking create anxiety? What’s your behavior because of it?

5. Catastrophizing

This is also referred to as “magnifying or minimizing.” We expect disaster to strike, no matter what. We hear about a problem and then roll out what-if questions (e.g., “What if tragedy strikes?” “What if it happens to me?” “What if I starve?" "What if I die?”).

For example, a person might exaggerate the importance of insignificant events (such as their mistake, or someone else’s achievement). Or they may inappropriately shrink the magnitude of significant events until they appear tiny (for example, a person’s own desirable qualities or someone else’s imperfections).

Do you catastrophize? If so, when? How does it create anxiety? How does it play out for you day-to-day?

If you enjoyed this article and you’re curious about the rest of the cognitive distortions, check out my new book.

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