15 Cognitive Distortions That Are Blocking Your Happiness

Dr. Christine Bradstreet

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We all have them.

Distorted thought patterns, or cognitive distortions are tricks our minds play on us to make us believe something that’s not true.

We all have cognitive distortions. They haunt even the most balanced thinkers. Thinking you are immune to cognitive distortion is probably a cognitive distortion 😉

Our minds use cognitive distortions to bolster our beliefs about ourselves or the world. They reinforce our negative thinking. They act as filters through which we interpret the world.

Like a lot of the workings of the human mind, they began as an attempt to protect us and to avoid pain. Then they got a little too deeply rooted and they took over. Now they cause us pain.

“The weeds keep multiplying in our garden, which is our mind ruled by fear. Rip them out and call them by name.” — Sylvia Browne

A person unkowingly hiding behind their cognitive distortions is going to stay stuck where they are.

If you really want to break through barriers and live a freer, happier life, become aware of the cognitive distortions that you are most susceptible to.

Be willing to challenge your automatic thoughts. The ones that seem the most natural may be the ones holding you back the most. Living with them is like living in a pretty little space in your head while things crumble all around you.

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Examine your personal cognitive distortions, and you’ll quickly unravel them so a new world can open up for you. You’ll be breaking off chains that have held you captive to frustration, disappointment and stagnation.

Let’s take a look at the most common distortions.

Filtering

Filtering is the habit of not seeing or ignoring all the good things that happened in your day and only focusing on the one bad thing.

  • 6 of your stop lights were green but one was red so you had a crappy commute.
  • You and your sweetheart had a great dinner date but all you remember is one possible eye roll.

There’s an easy remedy to this . Take 60 seconds to remember all the things that made you smile today. Do this at least once at the end of your day, but the more you do it the better.

Black and White (Polarized) Thinking

There is no room for gray with this cognitive distortion. Things are right or they are wrong. Things are a success or they’re a failure.

A person who makes one mistake is a “bad” person. Messing up in one area means you are a total failure rather than just inexperienced in one area.

Don’t be so quick to label. Recognize that you’re only seeing one small part of a very large and complex picture.

Overgeneralizing

This is taking one single incident at one moment of time and applying a general and broad conclusion as the result.

Here’s an example I can relate to: I did poorly on a spelling test in 4th grade. I quickly concluded I was a bad speller. I ignored the fact that I hadn’t studied one bit for the test.

Instead, break things down to their single steps. Any meaning that we assign to a single incident is made up. Don’t make up something about you that you don’t want to be true for you.

Jumping to Conclusions

This refers to being certain of something without any evidence or very flimsy evidence.

“I’m sure Joe doesn’t like me because his cousin doesn’t like me.”

You arbitrarily assume that things are going to turn out badly. Pause a moment and ask yourself if there really is any evidence for you to feel this way. Become neutral in your observations. Do some investigating to see if your conclusions are merited.

Catastrophizing

Something small gets magnified way out of proportion. It’s assuming you’ll fail your physics class because you failed one small quiz (even though you had an A going into the quiz).

It’s thinking you’ll get fired because there was one small spelling error in your report. Again, slow yourself down and recognize that you’re placing too much weight on a small thing.

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Personalization

This person believes they have an irrational influence on negative events.

  • “I ruined the party because I bought the wrong wine.”
  • “Did I make her quit because I didn’t ask her to join us for lunch?”

I’m going to purposefully sound fresh when I say this, but you aren’t that important! Be a decent person then leave other people’s actions and reactions to them.

The Fallacy of Control

This can manifest in two ways. Falsely believing that we are to blame for everything that goes wrong or that external forces are to blame for everything that goes wrong.

  • “How can you expect me to do a good job when the company sucks??” or
  • “The company wouldn’t have failed if I had secured just one more client.”

No external force can dictate how you behave. You make your own decisions. You decide how hard to work regardless of your environment.

The Fallacy of Fairness

Yes, we want a sense of fairness. But this distortion causes us to be obsessed with fairness to a point where opportunities can be missed and other people’s situations lead to bitterness and resentment.

Life isn’t going to look fair at all moments. It’s full of ups and downs. Sometimes the deck seems stacked for us and sometimes it seems stacked against us. Have trust and faith that everything is proceeding as it should.

Blaming

Just as it sounds, this is blaming other people or circumstances for things that go wrong. It also includes blaming other people or circumstances for how we act or behave.

Blaming Ambien for a racist tirade comes to mind…

“Racism Is Not A Known Side Effect Of Any Sanofi Medication”

The only person responsible for how you behave is you.

“Shoulds”

These are all the rules we have about how we and other people should act. When we or other people fail to do what we think they should do, it causes upset.

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Society has collective “shoulds”. There are cultural “shoulds”, gender “shoulds”, age “shoulds”, and as many individual “shoulds” as there are people.

No wonder people are in a constant state of upset. Breaking our own rules makes us feel guilty. When other people break our rules, we get angry. Guess what…they’re all made up.

The solution to this is to recognize that every “should” is a made up belief. Yes, they feel important to us. No they’re not worth sacrificing our relationships or our personal peace and happiness for them.

Emotional Reasoning

We think if we feel a certain way it must be true.

  • “I feel like an idiot, so I am an idiot.”
  • “I feel afraid, so I’m weak.”

It’s hard to ignore feelings. They feel so real, but they’re not an indication of the truth. Take an inventory of what’s actually going on. What’s the actual evidence?

Fallacy of Change

We expect other people to change to suit us. This is common in relationships.

“I’ll be happy in this relationship as soon as my mate stops doing this or changes that.”

We demand change (and that’s rarely productive), and blame our dissatisfaction, unhappiness or failure on the other person’s unwillingness to change.

Your time is better spent on growing you, not trying to force someone else or society to change. Love unconditionally. Reward behavior you want to see and don’t feed behavior you don’t want to see.

Backing off and giving other people the freedom of non-judgment gives them the space to grow in the way that’s right for them.

“Change the changeable, accept the unchangeable, and remove yourself from the unacceptable. “ — Denis Waitley

Global Labeling and Mislabeling

This is an extreme form of generalizing. It leads to broad and negative assumptions such as,

  • “She’s a bad mother because her kids are in daycare”
  • “Men are selfish because they want to golf on the weekend.”

Get quiet and ask yourself why you’re making these labels. Is a button being pushed? Where’s the evidence? Are you taking one bad experience and making an extreme generalization from it?

Always Being Right

Who doesn’t like to be right? But this distortion involves having to be right. Being wrong just isn’t acceptable. It can also involve ignoring clear evidence that would show you’re wrong.

Being right becomes more important than the quality of your relationships and the feelings of the people you care about.

“If you are afraid of being lonely, don’t try to be right.” — Jules Renard

While we like to be right, the vast majority of the corrections we make are so unimportant that they’re forgotten almost immediately.

To be specific, the actual thing you were correcting is forgotten, but coming off as an insufferable know-it-all is not forgotten.

If the stakes are high, or safety or ethics are involved, go ahead and make the correction. If you’re arguing over what color Aunt Mary was wearing last month to your party, drop it.

Heaven’s Reward Fallacy

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This is expecting that Karma or some other divine force will always repay you for your good deeds, and immediately. You self sacrifice, expecting good in return and then get bitter and resentful when you don’t see a return.

“We would frequently be ashamed of our good deeds if people saw all of the motives that produced them.” — Francois de La Rochefoucauld

Instead, do the right thing just for the sake of doing the right thing. Give with no strings attached.

Restructuring your thoughts to take back your power.

Once you reveal a belief, you can challenge it. I’ve named them here, so you can learn about the distortions that you adopted.

Think about why and when they took root. Ask yourself why you believe the negative thought. Argue against the different cognitive distortions. Be a neutral observer and list your arguments against the distorted belief.

Use rational rebuttals to challenge distorted thinking. It may help if you act as if you’re talking to your best friend instead of to yourself. Don’t accept any thought or belief that you don’t want to be true for you or for someone else.

I want you to enjoy your most awesome life, and challenging these limiting beliefs is going to help get you there.

images courtesy of the author and pixabay.com

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Dr. Christine Bradstreet is a renowned transformation specialist, an inspirational author, and a health and wellness expert. Through her teachings, people learn to create more of what they want in their lives - more health and wellness in their bodies, minds, and spirits. When she's not writing, she offers workshops and lectures, and she works individually with clients to promote healing in their lives. Visit her at www.christinebradstreet.com.

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