COGNITIVE DISTORTIONS – Distorted, Unhelpful Thinking

Challenging Cognitive Distortions (Unhelpful Thinking) is a cornerstone of Cognitive Therapy.  We all have many thoughts, helpful and unhelpful.  The focus here is on the unhelpful (distorted, dysfunctional) ones THAT DON’T WORK FOR US.

How we think, affects how we feel, which in turn affects how we behave, which then affects our physiology.  This is called Total Behaviour.


Importance of Helpful Thinking

How we think has a direct impact on how we feel, how we behave and on our general wellbeing. When we have good thoughts about ourselves or about our situation, we generally feel good in ourselves and have a positive outlook.

Aaron T. Beck

Aaron T. Beck was the founder of Cognitive Therapy.  In college, while studying Freud’s theory of depression he discovered that cognitions of depressed people were characterised by errors in logic.  He called them cognitive distortions believing that they reflected underlying dysfunctional beliefs and assumptions. So what are these cognitive distortions?  What are their effects on us? How do we challenge them?

“Don’t believe everything you think.” This is a very good starting point.  We think many thoughts – even now in this moment we are all thinking many different things.  The focus here is on the unhelpful thoughts i.e. the ones that don’t work for us.  These thoughts can be conscious or unconscious. Sometimes we aren’t aware where they come from or we don’t realise that we are even thinking them.

Some of you here may have heard of Anthony de Mello.  In his book Awareness, he makes the point that we are conditioned by parents, family, belief systems etc. on how to be. He explains that “I live now, not I, but my daddy lives in me….Daddy, Mommy, Grandma, Grandpa…. Who’s living in you? You think you are free, but there probably isn’t a gesture, a thought, an emotion, an attitude, a belief in you that isn’t coming from someone else”…

Very interesting isn’t it?  So not only our own thoughts but those of everyone else too are affected by how we grew up, our families, morals, outlook on life, teachers, friends, circumstances etc.!  Recognising the power of our thoughts and not underestimating them is the challenge.

A key thing to remember is that how we think affects how we feel, which causes us to behave or act in a certain way which then affects our physiology (it shows up in some way in our bodies). We can be needlessly worried about the future, anxious about something, regretful of the past, all stemming from how we think.  Mark Twain tells us: – “I have known a great many troubles in my life, most which have never happened.”

Physical Symptoms

Physical symptoms when stressed, panicked or afraid include can include: increased heartbeat, increased breathing rates, hyperventilating, trembling, shaking, crying, pain and nausea.

Unhelpful Thoughts

These are the common unhelpful thinking patterns.

  • All or nothing thinking – no grey areas at all
  • Overgeneralisation – one negative event means a never ending pattern of defeat e.g. we might say “I failed my driving test… I’ll never pass.”
  • Mental filter – we dwell on negatives and ignore all positive experiences.
  • Mind reading: We assume that people are reacting negatively towards us… “She didn’t say hello, so I know she isn’t speaking to me because of..”
  • Fortune Telling: We predict that things will turn our badly… “Sure that will never work out.”
  • Magnification / Minimisation – Blowing things way of out proportion or shrinking their importance. Sometimes we don’t want to think about something, so we might brush it under the carpet
  • Emotional reasoning from how you feel… “I feel like an idiot, so I must be one.”
  • Should / must statements: The rules we have for ourselves and others. The judgements we make, often unfairly
  • Labelling / shortcomings – We identify with our shortcomings instead of saying “I made a mistake – I can put it right.”
  • Personalisation and blame. We blame ourselves for things we aren’t entirely responsible for or we blame other people and overlook ways that our own attitudes and behaviour might be contributing to a problem.


Effects of Unhelpful Thinking

So, what are the effects of unhelpful thinking? Effects such as low mood, depression, anger, stress, anxiety, increased pressure, guilt and poor self-esteem.  We may not feel good about a situation, ourselves or others.  We can be stressed, feel anxious or can have a lack of compassion for ourselves and others.  It costs us something within ourselves – we pay a personal price.


There are many, many situations we could look at to demonstrate how unhelpful our thoughts can actually be, but let’s briefly here focus on confidence.

What affects my confidence?

  • Inner critic – my rules about how I should be or what other people think of me
  • Beliefs about my ability or my lack of ability
  • Black and white thinking – failure / success
  • Taking things personally / over analysing / post mortems of what I said or did after an event , or how someone was with me
  • Lack of self-compassion, not giving myself a break.
  • Being hard on myself where if it was someone other than me, I would not be so judgemental of them.


What if the way we perceive a problem is already part of the problem?

It’s How We Perceive

So is it fair to say that it might be how we perceive or how we are thinking about something?  We are all familiar with the saying “Glass half-full or half-empty.” The two guys in the picture are viewing the glass in two completely different ways, yet the glass remains the same.  It is as it is.  But, as in other areas in life, it is how I see something or think about something that causes me to feel and behave as I do.


Challenging Thought Distortions.

If we think the same way, we will get the same results.  If something isn’t working for us and if we keep repeating it, we develop habits and thinking styles that don’t fulfil our needs.



Our thoughts when dysfunctional or distorted mean we don’t think clearly

By identifying, evaluating and changing distorted thought processes, thinking becomes more realistic and we feel, act and behave much better.

Challenging Our Thoughts

How we process information in a rational or unhelpful way.  How can we know 100% that the way I am thinking is correct?  What effects are my thinking having on me, on others and in the situation?

  • Examine the evidence – put the issue on trial – what would count as evidence for or against this thinking?
  • Experimental test of belief – try something new and review it
  • Continuum – not so much black or white – can I see a grey area – question it?
  • Double standard method – if a friend told me “my story” would I be as hard on my friend?
  • Cost benefit analysis – What price do I pay, what does this way of thinking cost me?
  • Defining terms e.g. stupid or failure – what do I mean by stupid or failure?
  • Semantic – shoulds etc. Use softer language for shoulds, shouldn’ts etc.
  • Re-attribution – You investigate all possible factors contributing to your situation, rather than putting all the blame on yourself or another.
  • Polling others – How would someone else see this?
Be careful what you tell yourself -You are listening

If we saw a child we care about behaving badly, e.g. let’s say throwing a tantrum, would there be any benefit telling him / her that they were stupid and that they would never amount to anything good?

Or would we focus on the behaviour and explain that this way of behaving doesn’t really work for him / her? We would ask them to think about the possibility of there being a better way to behave?  We might ask them to think about a better way to ask / respond to their issue.  Would we attack the “self” of the child?  Or would it be better to separate the child from his / her behaviour?  It is the behaviour that is bad, not the child.  The behaviour can be changed by thinking about something in a better way.  However, what our unhelpful thinking patterns generally do, is allow us to feel bad about ourselves, attack ourselves or others.

Yes we have to be responsible for our actions and all we say and do.  Sometimes we can bury our heads in the sand and see a situation as being everyone else’s fault. Again, if we reflect and think about this situation in a fairer, more balanced way, we can gain a better perspective.

Do we attack the “self” and others when it comes to ourselves with all our rules and assumptions?


So making assumptions about “the way things are” and our own capabilities reduces the possibilities for “the way things could be” and what we could achieve. So it’s all about perspective, questioning the thought and reviewing how we think about things that don’t work for us, cause us problems or are regular, repeated patterns of thinking, mood and behaviour.