In the movie Inside Out, there are five Emotions inside of a young girl named Riley’s mind: Joy, Fear, Anger, Disgust, and Sadness. These characters work together to keep their Riley happy, healthy, and safe; however, Sadness has a hard time being positive and therefore doing her part in sustaining Riley’s wellbeing. She instead focuses on the negative and unintentionally reinforces this negative thinking through cognitive distortion. Cognitive distortions are inaccurate thoughts that we believe to be rational, which only make us feel bad about ourselves. For example, Sadness often expresses feeling useless. Instead of encouraging herself to try again, she says, “Why bother? You fail at everything.” This is a cognitive distortion, or more specifically, polarized thinking.
Because cognitive distortions are the backbone of negative thinking and emotions, cognitive behavior therapy focuses on helping patients change these patterns. These individuals must first learn to identify the distortions and then, and only then, can they refute or challenge them. Over time, a more rational thinking will replace this negative thinking.
Common Cognitive Distortions
Polarized thinking is just one of many common cognitive distortions that we use to tear ourselves down and reinforce our negativity. Here are 10 of these distortions, starting with a deeper exploration of polarized thinking, that you should familiarize yourself with and subsequently keep from bringing you down:
1) Polarized thinking
This is often referred to as “black and white thinking” because it’s one’s mindset that things are either one extreme or another—meaning we can either be perfect or a complete failure, but nowhere in-between. Again, Sadness concludes that she is a complete failure after failing at one simple task.
Filtering is focusing solely on negative details and blowing them out of proportion. For example, imagine that you’ve just gotten out of a meeting with your boss. Overall, she gave you a good evaluation, but all you can think about is what she asked you to improve on. You forget all about the good and magnify the latter.
3) Jumping to conclusions
We’re all guilty of buying into this cognitive distortion from time-to-time. Instead of finding out the facts, we are convinced that we know what’s going on or know how someone is feeling. For example, we may assume that our friend is mad at us because we haven’t heard from him in a couple days; we take this as a fact, rather than a possibility.
This can go one of two ways: we either blame others or ourselves for everything bad that happens. For example, if you feel down on yourself, you may place the blame on your boyfriend or friends who really have nothing to do with your unhappiness. Or, quite contrarily, you could blame yourself for being upset when in reality your friends just aren’t very good friends.
With this cognitive distortion, we make a decided conclusion based on small factors and events. If one thing goes wrong, we then expect and assume it will keep happening. For instance, you may get a flat tire on your way to work and instead of taking it for what it is—an independent, unfortunate event—you foresee a bad day ahead and anticipate more bad things to come.
Also known as “magnifying or minimizing,” this is when somebody expects the worst. Once they hear about a potential problem, these individuals trail off on what if questions. Imagine: you’ve just found out that the company you work for is making big budget cuts. Instead of hoping you’ve demonstrated your value, you assume that you will be the first employee to go.
7) Emotional reasoning
With this cognitive distortion, we assume that our feelings must be true. For example, if we’re feeling stupid for getting a C on that test or cowardly for rejecting that blind date, we must be stupid and cowardly.
8) Control fallacies
There are two types of control fallacies: external control and internal control. Someone who feels externally controlled believes that fate or luck is responsible for their fortunes and misfortunes. And someone who feels internally controlled believes that they are responsible for their fortunes and misfortunes, as well as everyone else’s around them. So, for example, if a coworker complains about having a bad day, an internally controlled person assumes that it’s because of something they did.
9) Fairness fallacy
People who engage in the fairness fallacy think they know what is fair and what isn’t and are constantly measuring a situation based on their scale of fairness. As a result, they often feel negatively because things do not always work out the way they expect or think that they should.
This is simply taking everything personally or to heart. These individuals assume that everything others do or say is a direct effect of how they feel about the individual. For example, if nobody sits next to an individual at work or school, personalization would be jumping to the conclusion that it’s because of something they said or did.