Last updated: Oct 16th, 2018

Cognitive Distortions

A cognitive distortion is an error of reasoning that occurs in a person's thoughts, although one can also examine them in people's writing or spoken communication. Cognitive distortions are closely associated with mental illness or mental disorder and can influence these disorders both as cause and effect.

You can think of cognitive distortions both as a symptom of mental disorder, and a potential cause. Because of their causative effect, treating them, through efforts to restructure thoughts or thought processes, can be an effective method for treating many forms of mental illness. This observation lies at the heart of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), a popular and highly effective therapy method used for a variety of different conditions.

List of cognitive distortions

Identifying and overcoming cognitive distortions

In my experience, the hardest thing about mental illness is realizing that your thought process is irrational in the first place. In many cases, the negative or irrational thoughts are subconscious, and the first and often toughest step in recovery is becoming consciously aware of the thoughts. Sometimes, this step alone can produce significant recovery, as irrational thoughts are more easily rejected once we become aware of them.

I tend to see recovery through CBT as having a series of steps:

My experience is that this process is very front-heavy, i.e. it is often hardest to become aware of thoughts in the first place, and usually slightly easier to see the distortions in them. Restructuring the thoughts feels relatively more straightforward, but can still take considerable work.

Becoming consciously aware of your thought processes

There are many different ways of increasing your self-awareness of your own thought process. Different methods may work best for different people. For me, the most useful processes have been talking to a therapist or counselor, journaling, talking to friends or family, and meditation.

A key aspect of this process is learning how to articulate your thoughts in a verbal form where you can examine them. For this reason, I find journaling is often the most effective of all these methods.

Therapy can be helpful, but it is heavily dependent on the level of skill and competence of the therapist. While my best experience in therapy was probably more helpful than solo journaling or meditation, I have had more mediocre to negative experiences with therapists than good ones, and for me, journaling has always been more effective than a mediocre therapist.

Identifying the distortions

When alone, identifying the cognitive distortions in my thoughts is easiest when I can see those thoughts written out on paper, which is why I find journaling the most effective solitary method for practicing CBT. In-person, a therapist, friend, or partner in co-counseling can often see distortions in your thinking more easily than you are, especially if you are suffering from a more intense form of mental illness.

You can practice the identification of cognitive distortions as if it were a skill you are learning. I actually recommend doing considerable work at identifying cognitive distortions in other people's thought processes before you start to examine your own thinking. Mental illness creates habits of irrational thinking, and some of your distorted thoughts may have become so embedded in your worldview that it is hard for you to see the distortions in them. By first examining other people's thought processes, you can examine thoughts that you are less invested in and feel less attached to, and as such it will be easier to identify the distortions in them. Once you have some practice doing this, you will become more confident in your ability to recognize cognitive distortions, which will make it easier for you to pinpoint the distortions in your own thoughts.

As you recover, you will be able to identify distortions in your thinking more quickly and easily. This will happen both because you are getting better at identifying the distortions, and because you are continually structuring your thinking to be more rational, so you will be progressively less attached to the irrational thinking as time goes on.

Restructuring your thinking, replacing them with more rational and empowering thoughts

I find this the easiest part of the process, but it can still be challenging. The basic idea is simple: you have a particular thought or thought process which you've identified as having a distortion in it.

Examples of restructuring

Talk therapy can be a good way to restructure thoughts, but for me, I actually find journaling most effective (and when I have seen a therapist, I have usually preferred reserving in-person time for material I am less able to work through on my own.) The method I use is usually to write my thoughts out on paper, then identify as many cognitive distortions in them as I can, and then reword / rewrite / restructure each thought. I usually do this one thought at a time, going through each three steps and moving on to the next.

If a particular thought is troubling me but I cannot find any cognitive distortions in it, I think of other thoughts that flow from that thought, and then focus on those. For example, I might be bothered by a thought like: "My business income has been way down for the past three months." and this might be objectively true, but the reason it's bothering me is that it flows into thoughts like: "I'm incompetent, my business is going to fail, all this hard work is going to waste." and thoughts like that, which contain cognitive distortions.

If you want to learn more about these methods, I recommend the book Feeling Good by David Burns*, which I have personally found helpful for overcoming depression.

*This is an affiliate link and helps support financially if you purchase through it.

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