14 Cognitive Distortions and How to Overcome Them

As recorded by J.D. Bentley May 21st, 2018
14 Cognitive Distortions and How to Overcome Them

In The Gulag Archipelago, Solzhenitsyn famously wrote, "If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?"

As we descend ever deeper into the age of ideology, we, as a society, are becoming more entrenched in simple explanations and justifications for a complex and fallen world. This inevitably leads to a certain tribalism that seeks the devil elsewhere: the evil of opposing nations, the evil of our neighbors, the evil of the wrongthinkers and the wrongdoers whose simple explanations and justifications run contrary to our own.

That’s a comforting idea. The monster is without, not within, and the chaos will be contained if only we subdue and destroy that monster. It’s not here. It doesn’t live among us and it certainly doesn’t fester in our own beating hearts, intent on erupting whenever we grow weak or call it forth or allow ourselves to be enslaved by it. No. It’s safely elsewhere, and something else, and someone else. And we can go about our comfortable mediocrity and self-satisfaction undeterred. After all, we are "good people."

"Nice guys."

Except we’re not. Evil does in fact cut straight through each of us. The monster is in the mirror, which is a terrifying and uncomfortable thought, but also a relief. Because the evil in the mirror also happens to be the only evil over which we have any control. Inside of each of us is a patch of evil we have the power to almost totally eradicate.

Solzhenitsyn talks of good and evil cutting through the heart of every human being, but he might have also said it cuts through each mind. I’ve written about assaultive thoughts before because thoughts—and especially our interpretation of those thoughts and the course of action those interpretations inspire—are where good and evil begin. If we want to defeat evil in this world, then it means defeating the most sinister devil we have the power to subdue…

Ourselves.

Many thoughts are automatic, and we’ve conditioned ourselves to interpret them automatically. And especially in this fallen world, in our fallen condition, those thoughts and interpretations heavily tend toward the negative. This can’t be allowed. They must be fought.

There is the religious approach to assaultive thoughts that I’ve already written about, laid out by the Desert Father Evagrius Ponticus and elaborated on by others to become the Seven Deadly Sins. This approach is essential to defeating assaultive thoughts because they do lead to sin, which is a turning toward evil, which we hope to eradicate.

But we can also learn from the approach of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy might be thought of as a recent "scienceification" and secularization of what monks and philosophers have been working on for millennia. What evil befalls us or consumes us is the result of disordered thoughts, or more specifically, our willingness to submit to those disordered thoughts as truth. It is not the external circumstance that generated the thought that hurts us or even the thought itself, but us accepting our negative interpretation of that thought as representative of the actual truth, as reality.

Evagrius Ponticus defined eight thoughts that were likely to manifest and cause trouble—gluttony, lust, avarice, sadness, anger, acedia, vainglory, and pride. Similarly, in the cognitive model laid out by the psychiatrist Aaron T. Beck, there are fourteen cognitive distortions, fourteen ways of interpreting circumstances and thoughts that ultimately lead to a negative schemata, a negative outlook that makes us easily susceptible to evil and sin.

If, as we become engulfed with negative emotion, we can train ourselves to attach it to the thought that immediately preceded it, we can then examine the thought and our interpretation to see how we’ve distorted it and how we can correct it. This allows for obstacles to become opportunities. This helps us veer away from defeatism and perpetual victimhood.

The Fourteen Cognitive Distortions and How to Counter Each

1. Always Being Right

The sufferer embarks on a journey to prove that he is correct at all costs, including sacrificing the well-being of those with whom he is arguing, whether this argument is actual or occurs only in his head. Being wrong is not acceptable. He is willing to destroy his relationships to further his self-interest and keep his pride from being wounded.

This distortion must be countered immediately with humility, with knowing when to stop, when accepting that what he is arguing is either not an absolute, in which case no one can be right because it’s merely opinion, or it is an absolute and no one’s opinion to the contrary matters. This distortion will lead to obsession, anger, and perhaps severe cognitive dissonance if not squelched.

2. Blaming

The sufferer blames others for his circumstances while downplaying his fault and refusing to accept his responsibility to fix it.

This distortion leads to a turbulent and perpetual victimhood since the responsibility to right whatever wrong is put on someone over which the sufferer has no control.

Overcoming this distortion means accepting the responsibility for what has happened, regardless of who caused it. It may be the case that the sufferer was actually wronged or is blameless, but usually he wasn’t and isn’t. Further, it doesn’t even matter. It is always appropriate to approach personal problems as if you are the sole person who can address them, who can change the circumstances. Whether the perceived harm was intentional, negligent, or imaginary, fix what needs fixed. Only you can.

3. Disqualifying the Positive

The sufferer dismisses positive events as misguided outliers or one-off occurrences, thus tending to interpret them as flattery, sheer ignorance, or some bizarre form of malice.

As C.S. Lewis wrote, "Humility is not thinking less of yourself, it’s thinking of yourself less." This distortion is some kind of reverse pride, being too proud to accept a compliment or a positive happening. Countering this distortion means allowing oneself to accept a good as a good, a gift as a gift, a blessing as a blessing. Not to inflate themselves or boast, but neither to flagellate themselves as if receiving good is an unwarranted and punishable offense. Take a damn compliment.

4. Emotional Reasoning

The sufferer "feels" something, therefore it must be true. "I feel like they don’t like me, therefore they must not like me." "I feel awkward, therefore I must be awkward." "I feel overwhelmed by this task, therefore it must be overwhelming."

The sufferer presumes that negative emotions reflect reality, or reflect it in a way that is closer to the truth than positive emotions.

Countering this distortion means testing the feelings. First, be suspicious of any thought that justifies itself with "I feel". Do the opposite of what the feeling suggests and see if that feeling is rational. It likely isn’t.

5. Fallacy of Change

The sufferer believes that if he can cause someone else to change, he will be better for it. This is nonsense, of course, because if he is bothered it is because of his thoughts and his interpretations of his thoughts. This distortion is ultimately a refusal to take responsibility for one’s own life.

Countering this distortion means identifying it and immediately letting go of the fantasy of changing another person (or institution or organization, etc). The sufferer must ask what is due from himself to change his situation.

6. Fallacy of Fairness

The sufferer believes that some situation suggests that life is unfair and becomes angry or upset because, well, why shouldn’t life be fair?

The sufferer must counter this distortion by reminding himself that life is not fair. Life is suffering, and a good life turns that suffering into sacrifice. A good life makes that suffering worth it. "Unfairness" is an opportunity to be better and to do better, not something to bitch about.

7. Filtering

The sufferer filters out the positive of a situation and instead focuses on the negative or on those elements which conform to negative opinions he already holds about himself. This distortion might be thought of as "focusing on the haters." The sufferer might ignore a plethora of positive reviews of his work while allowing himself to be overwhelmed with despair by the one negative review.

Countering this distortion means giving the positive elements their due, recognizing the good along with the bad or, if the bad is minuscule or obviously unwarranted, ignoring it altogether instead of obsessing over it or cultivating a self-image around it.

8. Jumping to Conclusions

This distortion contains two subtypes: mind reading and fortune-telling. In both cases, the sufferer will arrive at a negative conclusion about something for which he has no evidence.

In the case of mindreading, he will infer someone’s negative opinion or thoughts about him based on perceived behavior or some nonverbal cue. He will then use this prediction, without actually consulting with the person or people in question, to inform how he behaves. For example, the sufferer may perceive during an initial meeting that a potential client doesn’t really like him and therefore he chooses not to follow up with this client.

In the case of fortune-telling, the sufferer predicts a negative outcome for an event. For example, he may think, "I’ve never been good at school, I’d probably just flunk out," and uses that prediction as a justification for not attending college.

This distortion is countered by examining the truth in the predictions. The predictions are built on flimsy evidence at best, and frequently no evidence at all. The sufferer must admit the truth: that he is scared of something. And being scared is not a good reason to avoid something.

9. Labeling and Mislabeling

The sufferer attributes an action to a person’s character when the action could be merely accidental. For labeling, the sufferer might make a mistake and consider himself an idiot, because only an idiot would make that mistake. The mistake itself was entirely accidental, but the sufferer decides to build his character around it. For mislabeling, the sufferer unfairly judges another person. For example, he sees that a father fails to pick up his kids at school and assumes he’s a deadbeat, when actually the father’s car simply has a flat today.

Countering this distortion means immediately recognizing that the labels are false. Geniuses make mistakes. Cars break down. The sufferer must always assume the best of other people and himself.

10. Magnification and Minimization

The sufferer assigns greater weight to failures and lesser weight to successes. If the sufferer is depressed, this often manifests itself through exaggeration of the positive traits of other people and an understatement of their negative traits.

This distortion is also called Catastrophizing because the sufferer exaggerates the weight of possible outcomes or misconstrues an uncomfortable situation as unbearable. He "makes a mountain out of a molehill."

Countering this distortion again echoes the C.S. Lewis quote: "Humility is not thinking less of yourself, it’s thinking of yourself less."

The sufferer must not think less of himself automatically. He must not assume the worst of himself and he must not devalue the gifts and capacities he has been given. He must recognize the true nature of every failure as an opportunity to improve and he must recognize the true nature of his successes as calls for gratitude.

11. Overgeneralizing

Similar to labeling and mislabeling, the sufferer of Overgeneralization uses a single incident or a single piece of evidence to extrapolate some broader conclusion. An example might be that the sufferer has sent out a resume and hasn’t heard back from the employer, so he uses that incident to believe he is not a good hire and neglects to send out any other resumes.

This distortion is countered by examining the evidence, since there is hardly any. If the evidence consists of a single incident, the sufferer can be certain that he has overgeneralized and whatever he is avoiding can again be attempted.

12. Personalizing

The sufferer takes responsibility for something over which he has no control. For example, a father blames his adult child’s meth addiction on him having been a bad father, when there are countless other reasons this person could have gotten addicted that have nothing to do with his upbringing.

Countering this distortion means the sufferer accepting what he does and does not have control over. All he has control over is himself at this very moment. There are perhaps actions he himself can take to help the situation, but he is not personally responsible for what others do or for circumstances over which he has no control. Overcoming this distortion means recognizing actual limitations.

13. "Should" Statements

The sufferer expects the world to be different than it is. He expects himself or others to do what he or they "should", regardless of particular circumstances.

With this distortion, the sufferer creates expectations for himself or for others that result in guilt or disappointment. If the sufferer has lent money to an unreliable party, he might say, "I shouldn’t have to ask him to pay me back," when he’d be better off simply asking for repayment. Or, if the sufferer fumbles through a presentation, he might say, "I shouldn’t have made all those mistakes."

This distortion shouldn’t be confused with moral imperatives or social norms, however, which are legitimate "shoulds" or "shouldn’ts". If you tell an inappropriate joke at a meeting and think, "I shouldn’t have told that joke." That’s not a distortion. Or in the case of lending money, it may be a moral imperative that the borrower repay the lender. However, in that particular situation, the sufferer would be ignoring his best interest to rely on the other person’s sense of morality, only setting himself up for disappointment.

Overcoming this distortion means the sufferer adjusting expectations for both himself and others, and having a good sense for what is acceptable and what can be expected. He cannot demand from himself what he cannot deliver and cannot expect from others anything at all. It requires the difficult task of accepting how things are, exactly as they are.

14. All-or-Nothing Thinking

The sufferer misinterprets events in the extreme. Either something is all good or all bad, a complete success or a complete failure. This is the kind of thinking suffered by perfectionists and can be related to Catastrophizing. It is to view even the slightest imperfection as a damning and painful stain.

Countering this distortion means the sufferer must allow the gray. He must be willing to accept the good with the bad, or the bad with the good. He must take the positive out of each event and use the negative as some opportunity to improve. Successes will have small failures and failures offer some success, even if only experiential evidence of what shouldn’t be done. Overcoming this distortion means cultivating a sense of gratitude for good and bad, not using those external circumstances to define character or worth.

Conclusion

If you haven’t already, I recommend reading my Defeating Assaultive Thoughts post and you may also want to look at my book, Fighting the Good Fight: Practical Advice for Defeating the 7 Deadly Sins. In order to be better men, to overcome evil, we must combat assaultive thoughts and sinful tendencies. All of this works together to free us from the slavery of self.