Just as people have patterns or habits of doing things throughout their day without really thinking about it – putting your keys on a hook when you come inside, avoiding a pothole for so long that even after it’s been filled you still drive around the spot – we have patterns or habits for the way we think. These patterns often go unnoticed, but they influence the way we see the world. The psychology umbrella refers to these patterns as “cognitive distortions”. When the view of a room gets distorted by looking through a glass of water, the view of the world gets distorted when looking through the lens of our own experiences or points of view. It colors situations in ways where we may miss something and interpret the moment in a way that is not helpful. Here are some of the more common cognitive distortions, thought patterns, mental habits, or thinking errors. Identifying some that you frequently experience is the first step in changing them.
All-or-nothing – everything is either perfect or a failure. “Good enough” is not in your vocabulary. If your GPA is anything less than 4.0, it might as well be a 0.0.
Catastrophizing – everything has the potential to be a disaster, and you spend all your time worrying about it. The phrase “plan for the worst but expect the best” becomes just “expect the worst.”
Mind reading – you assume you know what people are thinking about you, and it usually isn’t good, even if there is no proof. Did your friend not respond to your last message? “They think I’m a bad friend, they hate me!” you think to yourself.
Fortune-telling – similar to mind reading, you assume you know how something will turn out, and it won’t be good. You have a job interview but assume it won’t go well, even if you’re totally qualified.
Personalization – everything is a personal issue. If at a party, a person sees their friends all talking with other people, they may feel the friends are purposefully excluding them, and may wonder what they did to make their friends act that way.
Blaming – either everything is your fault or nothing is. There is not a middle ground of shared responsibility for an outcome.
Should statements – you and everyone else have to follow the “rules” of how things “should” be, and if they don’t, it may make you angry or upset. These are often rules a person has made up – “I should always be kind” could be a rule that sounds nice, but can lead to a negative self-image if one day you do something unkind.
Overgeneralizing – taking one thought and applying it to every aspect of life. A student fails one test, and then decides they aren’t smart in any class and will fail at everything from now on.
Labeling – similar to overgeneralizing, putting a label on something or someone as This Is What It Is based off of one small thing. Using the same example, the student may label themselves as “dumb” or the teacher as “unfair” and then makes future decisions based on this label.
Filtering – only paying attention to the negative things and ignoring all of the good. In a job performance review with 7 positive comments and 1 negative comment, the one negative will be the focus and and the positive ones will be forgotten.
Emotional Reasoning – making the assumption that the way you feel makes a situation true – I feel embarrassed, therefore I am an idiot. I feel lonely, therefore I have no friends.
As you may notice, a lot of these patterns overlap and are similar. Most people experience several habits that work together to create things like anxiety, depression, self-esteem issues, relationship issues, or a number of other related concerns. There are so many potential causes of these patterns, but being aware of them is important. Once you can notice them in the moment, you can question them to see if it’s the truth, or just the cognitive distortion trying to convince you it’s true. Then you can try to shift it to a more positive or realistic thought!