Whenever something makes you angry, sad, scared, depressed, or anxious, it’s not the event itself that makes you feel that way but rather your beliefs about the event. That is the central insight of cognitive therapy. While it often feels like our emotions are directly caused by what happens to us, there is always a thought or belief connecting the two, although that thought or belief is hard to identify. Learning to identify and challenge these distorted beliefs is the main focus of cognitive-behavioral therapy, or CBT, the commonly used form of psychotherapy and the method generally regarded as the “gold standard” of psychotherapy based on its extensive scientific backing. CBT has been shown to be effective for helping people with substance use issues as well as commonly co-occurring mental health issues, such as depression and anxiety disorders.
The idea that our thoughts about events, and not the events themselves, cause our emotional reactions is actually an ancient one that can be traced back at least as far as the Stoic philosopher Epictetus, who was born in the first century, AD. His ideas inspired the twentieth-century psychologist Albert Ellis, whose work influenced Aaron Beck, the creator of CBT. Psychologist David Burns named and popularized many of the cognitive fallacies on the following list.
Most of us fall prey to some cognitive distortions. There may be a few here that you recognize right away. However, many of our most destructive assumptions are so deeply held that we don’t even recognize them as assumptions and if someone points them out, we may not even be able to imagine thinking any other way. They just seem like hard truths. This is where a skilled therapist is invaluable. They can help us identify and challenge our faulty assumptions, which can help us feel much better relatively quickly. Look at the following list of cognitive distortions and see if any of them look familiar.
Overgeneralization is when you draw broad conclusions based on meager evidence. So, for example, maybe you got some negative feedback at work and you became angry or depressed–or both. No one likes to be told they did something wrong but in the scheme of things, it’s not that big of a deal. Your thinking about that negative feedback is what causes you to become angry or depressed. Whether you realize it or not, you may be overgeneralizing based on that feedback. You may be thinking something like, “I’m no good at this job,” or even “I’m no good at anything.” If you believe that, you’re going to feel much worse than you would if your belief about the negative feedback was limited to the specific circumstances.
In this case, a more objective reaction to receiving negative feedback at work might be to recognize that most jobs entail a variety of tasks and no one is equally good at every task they have to perform at work. Receiving negative feedback about that one task probably only means you’re not especially good at that one thing. What’s more, it’s possible to improve if you make the effort. Negative feedback can be useful information if you don’t turn it into a blanket condemnation.
Other names for black-or-white thinking are polarized thinking and all-or-nothing thinking. This is the idea that something is either all good or all bad. People with borderline personality or BPD disorder probably demonstrate the most extreme kind of black-or-white thinking. For example, it’s common for someone with BPD to think of someone as their best friend one day and their worst enemy the next day, based on little or no actual evidence. This can be extremely disorienting for friends and relatives. However, most of us are prone to black-or-white thinking sometimes.
A common example of this is letting the perfect be the enemy of the good; if you can’t do something exactly how you want, there’s no point in doing it at all. This can lead to complacency and forfeiting a lot of possible improvement in life. For people recovering from substance use disorders, this often takes the form of going all-in after a relapse. A lot of people feel like once they have a drink or use a drug once, they’ve ruined their recovery and they might as well go all the way–all or nothing. A much more rational way to look at it is to think, “I made a mistake, and that’s bad, but if I stop now, it’s only a minor mistake that will be easy to recover from. If I go all in, it will be much harder to fix.”
If you want to constantly feel angry, insecure, guilty, paranoid, jealous, and inadequate, personalization is an excellent way to start. Personalization is when you assume things are directly related to you in some way. You assume responsibility for things that may or may not have any connection to you. For example, your friend is in a bad mood and you immediately assume it’s because of something you did. Many victims of abuse blame themselves, assuming they were somehow responsible. Children are especially prone to think everything that happens is about them, so they often feel like events that have nothing to do with them, such as their parents’ divorce, were their fault. This can lead to a deep sense of shame, which often contributes to substance use issues.
In reality, most of what happens in the world has nothing to do with you. Even when you are directly harmed by another person’s actions, it typically has more to do with the other person. It’s often the case that the person doesn’t even dislike you; they just like themselves more. Understanding that you’re not responsible for most of the world’s problems is liberating and it makes relationships much easier to manage.
Mind reading is a common cognitive trap because to some extent, we all have to guess at other people’s intentions. Having empathy and an understanding of other people’s minds is a trait few species other than humans possess. It’s how we know what someone means, even when they express themselves badly and how we know a friend who insults us is only joking. However, this moderate success at empathizing with others often leads us to be vastly overconfident in divining other people’s thoughts and intentions. For example, the American Psychological Association points out that research has consistently shown that people are bad at detecting lies. Even trained professionals typically don’t do better than chance at knowing who is lying. If we can’t determine a simple true or false about simple statements, how are we supposed to accurately guess someone’s complex thoughts and feelings?
The mind-reading fallacy can have a number of negative consequences, especially when combined with other distortion, such as personalization, described above. For example, if you leave a party and think, “Everyone there thought I was a stupid jerk,” you are likely to make yourself miserable by ruminating about it and you may even develop social anxiety. Guessing at other people’s intentions is a necessary part of social life but always remember you are only guessing.
Fair Universe Fallacy
We would all like to believe that the world is a fair place, that honest, hard-working people will be rewarded with success and happiness, while the vicious and corrupt will get their comeuppance sooner or later. In a similar vein, many of us would like to believe in heaven’s reward, that someone is keeping score of all our good and bad deeds and that those of us who make the most sacrifices on behalf of others will eventually get our rewards. Unfortunately, that’s not the world we live in. Nasty people often succeed brilliantly in terms of money and status, while never paying the price for their awful behavior. On the other hand, plenty of terrible things have happened to plenty of wonderful people.
Insisting that the world should be fair, despite ample evidence that it does not often lead to anger, resentment, and bitterness. Setbacks are challenging enough without adding an extra layer of resentment.
“Shoulding” is really a broader category of cognitive distortions to which the fair universe fallacy belongs. It’s the conviction that things should be other than they are–” The world should be a fair place,” “that stranger in the store should have been more polite,” “I should be more disciplined,” and so on. Shoulding is especially painful when we inflict it on ourselves because we become overly self-critical and feel increasingly inadequate. What’s more, these shoulds are often standards that have been imposed on us by others, such as parents or teachers. They have essentially trained us to criticize ourselves and feel miserable about it. While we would all like to improve in certain ways, we need to accept that we are where we are. Shoulding is counterproductive.
Jumping to Conclusions
We jump to conclusions in many ways. Personalization and mind-reading are common ways of jumping to conclusions. We may assume we know what someone thinks of us or that someone is thinking about us at all based on little or no evidence. However, we just as often jump to conclusions about what will happen in the future. For example, you have an argument with your significant other and now you assume you will break up. People argue all the time but don’t break up. Jumping to conclusions makes us more anxious, quicker to anger, and less likely to try to improve a situation.
As with mind-reading, being able to make informed guesses about what will happen is a valuable skill but we are often too certain about our guesses. Life is chaotic and, like the weather, is inherently unpredictable. It’s comforting to think we know what will happen, even if it’s bad, but most of the time we just have to wait and see what happens.
Filtering is when you focus only on the negative aspects of something and ignore the positive aspects. So, for example, your school report card comes back and you get five As and a C. Instead of being happy you got five As, you feel demoralized that you got a C, perhaps taking it as clear evidence that you’re not very smart or jumping to the conclusion that you won’t get into the college you want, and so on. This way of thinking tends to make us negative and pessimistic because, by definition, we are ignoring most of the evidence that might make us feel optimistic.
This distortion is common because we are naturally more sensitive to threats so we tend to react more strongly to things we don’t like. However, this massively distorts our picture of reality. A more objective approach is taking all the evidence into account and not just the negative.
Discounting the Positive
Discounting the positive is similar to filtering in that you’re dismissing evidence that conflicts with your pessimistic conclusions. However, instead of neglecting positive evidence because you are too focused on the negative, you actively find reasons why the positive evidence doesn’t count. For example, a well-meaning friend or relative might try to convince you that you’re being overly pessimistic by naming several things you’ve done well recently.
However, instead of taking these into account to form a more realistic picture of your life, you find reasons why those things don’t count. So, in the example above, if someone points out that you got five As in addition to your one C, you might say, “But those are easy classes,” or “the teachers in those classes like me,” or “I’ve always been good at those subjects.” So what? An A doesn’t count if the teacher likes you? These reasons for discounting the positive are often specious and people who habitually discount the positive typically don’t put nearly as much work into discounting the negative.
Catastrophizing is similar to jumping to conclusions in that you assume one bad thing will lead to another, worse thing, but when you catastrophize, you wildly exaggerate how bad that worse thing will be. In your mind, something that would be merely unfortunate or inconvenient assumes monstrous proportions. For example, you might think, “If I lost my job, it would be a catastrophe,” or “it would be awful if my significant other dumped me.”
Thinking in this way creates a lot of anxiety over things that may never happen. And if those things do happen, you are likely to feel excessively miserable. It’s true that you might be sad if your significant other dumped you and you would be inconvenienced if you lost your job, but typically, these things are far worse in imagination than in reality.
Fundamental Attribution Error
The fundamental attribution error is when you recognize that your own behavior is the result of your specific circumstances but you assume other people’s behavior is a result of their innate qualities. So, for example, if you cut someone off in traffic, it was only because you were distracted by another driver but if someone cuts you off, he’s a jerk.
The fundamental attribution error isn’t typically considered a cognitive distortion within the framework of CBT, but it is often relevant for people seeking treatment for a substance use disorder. This is what 12-step members typically call “terminal uniqueness.” You get into a treatment program and you think, “I’m not like these other people.” You may reason that you’ve only been drinking too much because work has been stressful lately or you’ve been dealing with some personal troubles but the rest of the people in the program are addicts. This kind of thinking can make you less likely to engage in the treatment, thus slowing your progress.
Emotional reasoning is when you assume something is true because it feels true. Say, for example, you’re talking to someone who seems pretty smart and you feel like whatever you say is stupid by comparison so you conclude that what you said was actually stupid or your interlocutor thought you were stupid. Neither of those things is true based on your feelings alone. This applies to many situations. Perhaps you feel like you’re doing a bad job at work, or you feel like treatment isn’t going well for you because recovery is still challenging. In reality, we often make the most progress when we feel uncertain and challenged and our feelings are least reliable when we are trying to do something new. Feelings matter, but it’s also important to look at evidence, objective feedback, and results.
The fallacy of change is when you expect other people to behave differently in order to suit your needs. You may believe you can pressure, shame, disparage, or otherwise force someone to change in some way but you will almost always be disappointed and you will probably damage your relationships in the process. This is especially important for people in recovery to be aware of. Having a good support network is crucial for recovery, which means you need good relationships. However, some people also feel like their families should support their recovery and they have trouble coping when they don’t. For the most part, other people’s behavior falls into the category of things you have no control over.
When you’ve identified some of your most common cognitive distortions–probably with the help of a therapist–the next thing to do is to challenge those distortions. This takes diligent practice but people usually start to get the hang of it within a matter of weeks. Once you understand how it works, you can start to act as your own therapist. Psychotherapy is one crucial part of a holistic recovery process. At Steps Recovery Centers, we help individuals with substance use issues get started on the path to sobriety using the 12 steps and holistic treatment methods. To learn more about our program, call us today at 385-236-0931 or explore our website.