10 Cognitive Distortions Identified in CBT

Depressed young man

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The basis of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is identifying cognitive distortions (faulty or unhelpful ways of thinking) to effectively treat a number of issues ranging from depression and anxiety to addiction and eating disorders. These distorted thinking patterns cause negative feelings, which in turn can worsen an addiction.

David Burns, MD, a pioneer in CBT, identifies 10 forms of twisted thinking in his 1999 bestselling book, "The Feeling Good Handbook." Here, we'll define each cognitive distortion using hypothetical examples to show how this kind of thinking can lead to addiction or relapse.

All-or-Nothing Thinking

All-or-nothing thinking can easily lead to relapse. This type of thinking involves viewing things in absolute terms. Everything is black or white, everything or nothing. 

For example, Joan feels like a failure at getting sober. Every time she has a slip-up, instead of acknowledging that she made a mistake and trying to move past it, she drinks to ​intoxication the same night, figuring she has already blown it.

Overgeneralization

Overgeneralization happens when you make a rule after a single event or a series of coincidences. The words "always" or "never" frequently appear in the sentence.

Here's an example: Ben has inferred from a series of coincidences that seven is his lucky number and has overgeneralized this to gambling situations involving the number seven, no matter how many times he loses.

Mental Filters

A mental filter is an opposite overgeneralization, but with the same negative outcome.

Instead of taking one small event and generalizing it inappropriately, the mental filter takes one small event and focuses on it exclusively, filtering out anything else.

An example of how mental filters can lead to addiction or relapse: Nathan feels like he needs to use cocaine in social situations because he filters out all the good social experiences he has without cocaine, and instead fixates on the times he has not been on cocaine and others have seemed bored by his company.

Discounting the Positive

Discounting the positive is a cognitive distortion that involves ignoring or invalidating good things that have happened to you.

For example, Joel compulsively seduces then rejects strangers because he discounts all of the positive non-sexual human interactions he has each day since they aren't as intense or pleasurable as having sex with a stranger.

Jumping to Conclusions

There are two ways of jumping to conclusions:

  • Mind reading: When you think someone is going to react in a particular way, or you believe someone is thinking things that they aren't.
  • Fortune telling: When you predict events will unfold in a particular way, often to avoid trying something difficult.

Here's an example: Jamie engaged in fortune-telling when he believed that he wouldn't be able to stand life without heroin. In reality, he could and he did.

Magnification

Magnification is exaggerating the importance of shortcomings and problems while minimizing the importance of desirable qualities.

A person addicted to pain medication might magnify the importance of eliminating all pain, and exaggerate how unbearable their pain is.

An example of how magnification can lead to addiction or relapse: Ken spends his life savings looking for a pill to take away his pain and depression.

Emotional Reasoning

Emotional reasoning is a way of judging yourself or your circumstances based on your emotions.

For instance, Jenna used emotional reasoning to conclude that she was a worthless person, which in turn led to binge eating.

"Should" Statements

These statements are self-defeating ways we talk to ourselves that emphasize unattainable standards. Then, when we fall short of our own ideas, we fail in our own eyes, which can create panic and anxiety.

An example: Cheryl became addicted to overspending on shoes because she couldn't live up to her own high standards.

Labeling

Labeling is a cognitive distortion that involves making a judgment about yourself or someone else as a person, rather than seeing the behavior as something the person did that doesn't define them as an individual.

Here's an example of how labeling can lead to addiction or relapse: Shannon labeled herself a bad person unable to fit into mainstream society.

Personalization and Blame

Personalization and blame is a cognitive distortion whereby you entirely blame yourself, or someone else, for a situation that in reality involved many factors and was out of your control.

For example, Anna blamed herself for childhood abuse by her father, reasoning that if she hadn't led him on, it never would have happened (this is actually what her father had told her at the time). Because she personalized the abuse, she grew up with a compulsive avoidance of sex, known as sexual anorexia.

A Word From Verywell

Cognitive distortions are the mind’s way of playing tricks on us and convincing us of something that just isn’t true. While many cognitive distortions are common, there are some that can indicate a more serious condition and take a toll on our mental health, which could lead to an increase in symptoms of stress, anxiety, or depression.

If you think that cognitive distortions may be altering your sense of reality and are concerned about how these thoughts may be negatively affecting your livelihood, talk to your doctor about a referral to a psychotherapist and find out if cognitive behavioral therapy could work for you.

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