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How Cognitive Distortions Cause Emotional Distress


William F. Doverspike, Ph.D.



Cognitive behavioral psychologists believe that our feelings are largely dependent on our thoughts. Cognitive distortions, also known as errors in thinking, can lead to unnecessary fear, anxiety, hostility, and depression. An important cue or signal that one or more of these errors in thinking is operating is your degree of emotional distress or interpersonal conflict. You may begin to feel better and function more effectively with others if you can learn to observe your thinking for such errors, and then develop (through intentional behavioral change) thoughts that are more logical, verifiable, and adaptive. In other words, if you want to change how you feel, then change how you think. At the same time, it is important to remember that no human being, including yourself, exhibits 100% logical thinking all the time. Although many of these concepts are so popular that they are part of the public domain, the following terms are adapted from various original sources including the writings of psychotherapists such as Albert Ellis, Ph.D., Donald Meichenbaum, Ph.D., Martin Seligman, Ph.D., Maxie Maultsby, M.D., Aaron T. Beck, M.D., and others.


Absolutistic thinking occurs when a thought is equated with reality. The underlying belief is, "If I think so, then it’s so." This type of thinking leads to rigidity, inflexibility, bigotry, and lack of emotional and behavioral freedom.


Arbitrary inference involves the drawing of a conclusion when evidence is lacking or when evidence is actually contrary to the conclusion. This type of thinking may also include distorting reality or failing to test a thought against reality.


Catastrophizing is also known as "awfulizing." This type of thinking occurs when a situation is thought or said to be "terrible" or "awful." "Horrible" is another a favorite word often used by catastrophizers. These emotionally laden labels exist only in one’s mind. To quote the old adage, "Nothing is either good or bad but thinking makes it so."


Cognitive deficiency occurs when an important aspect of a life situation is disregarded. One convinces oneself that "it doesn’t matter" when in fact it really does matter.


Demanding and commanding are magical beliefs that one’s demands and commands will change others, oneself, or reality. This is also called "shoulding" or "musterbation."


Dichotomous reasoning involves viewing situations as binary rather than continuous. Dichotomous reasoning can involve "all or none" thinking. For example, rather than seeing the world in color or in shades of gray, dichotomous thinking involves seeing the world in black and white. A dichotomous thinker may use categories such as good-bad, right-wrong, success-failure, or perfect-incompetent.


Magnification occurs when the meaning of an event is exaggerated. Minor events are misconstrued to be major problems, such as "making a mountain out of a molehill." Remember, the only difference between stumbling blocks and stepping stones is how you use them.


Mind reading occurs when a person believes that he or she knows the thoughts or feelings of another person without asking the other person. This cognitive error can contribute to conflicts in relationships.


Minimalization occurs when major problems are misconstrued as minor issues. This type of thinking occurs when one "doesn’t care" or when major important issues "don’t matter," or "aren’t important."


Overgeneralization occurs when a single instance such as failure is viewed as a sign that similar incidents will recur. This type of thinking includes the use of words such as "everybody," "always," or "never." Overgeneralizations such as "you always" or "you never" can create conflicts in relationships.


Prophesizing occurs when a person "tells the future," and then consequently acts in a fashion that makes the prediction come true, such as "I won’t succeed." This type of thinking is also called a "self-fulfilling prophesy."


Self-Other rating occurs when a person rates global worth, rather than rating traits of one’s self or others. It can also involve "comparing one’s insides to others’ outsides." A self-other rating is a form of overgeneralization, which can produces depression, hostility, or feelings of inadequacy.