Nutshell: Cognitive distortions: four common thinking problems and their antidotes

Written by
Clare Grist Taylor, Associate Editor, Changeboard

Published
06 Jan 2020

06 Jan 2020 • by Clare Grist Taylor, Associate Editor, Changeboard

Recognising and understanding cognitive distortions helps us to navigate them and so avoid the psychological damage they can cause.

Q: What do all of these statements have in common? 

“No-one ever asks my opinion in meetings.”

“That presentation was a disaster. I’m so hopeless all the time. I’ll never be taken seriously by the team.” 

“Where is that document? If I don’t find it, my presentation will be a total disaster, my manager is definitely going to fire me.” 

A: They’re examples of cognitive distortions, disconnects in our thought patterns that make us look at and interpret reality in inaccurate and generally unhelpful ways. 

We’ve all experienced those moments when we can’t seem to stop replaying negative thoughts we know, deep down, to be irrational about ourselves and others. But even after a terrible day in the office, a dispiriting setback or receiving some less than positive feedback, most of us are eventually able to rally, to identify and modify or correct these faulty patterns of thinking. 

However, if we struggle with this, or if the feelings are reinforced often enough, they can lead to anxiety, plummeting self-confidence and even depression – not to mention the deleterious effects on how we interact with others. There’s a real danger in these thinking traps if they’re left unacknowledged or addressed. 

As we’ll see below, cognitive distortions come in many forms: we might look at the world in absolute, black-and-white terms; we could be a catastrophiser, always willing to believe that the worst will happen, or perhaps we’ve convinced ourselves that we have the world’s only reliable crystal ball and that we’ll definitely fail that test. They might be blatantly obvious or more insidious. All of these thinking traps, though, share some common characteristics: they are: 

tendencies or patterns of thinking and believing that are false and inaccurate and have the potential to cause psychological damage

It’s interesting to think about the brain science behind these traps. Our brains are wired to protect us, leading us to sense and respond to danger automatically – handy when the threat is real, but less than helpful, and potentially debilitating, when that response is based on faulty connections or a perception that the danger is more real than it is. 

The good news is that, as with so many life skills and abilities, it’s possible to improve our ability to recognise, respond to and challenge the thinking traps that lie in wait for us. Here are four of the most common thinking traps and some antidotes we can deploy to defend ourselves against them. 

1. Black-and-white thinking

Also known as all or nothing or polarised thinking, this thinking trap manifests itself in an inability to see shades of grey. Rather, we see things in terms of extremes: that client is just perfect because they gave us lovely feedback; the utter hopelessness felt by our hapless presenter above. It tends to use the language of extremes: always, never, ever, impossible, brilliant or disaster.

It’s a cognitive distortion because it’s an all-or-nothing mindset that keeps us from seeing the world as it often is: complex, nuanced and full of all the shades in between. Living at the extremes is hard to sustain, and a sure-fire way of getting people’s backs up or making us feel terrible about ourselves. It encourages us to draw the wrong conclusions about other people and to make decisions without thinking about the impact of those decisions on ourselves and others. It gets in the way of our learning (no growth mindsets here) and can lead us to view our careers in rigid, non-flexible ways. 

According to psychologist, Melanie Kleinsplitting our world in such a dichotomous way has its origins in infancy. For Klein, a newborn has no clear idea that its mother is even a whole person, but simply a purveyor of sustenance, nothing less than a good breast (when the feeding goes well) and a bad breast (when the feeding goes less well). Over time, children develop the ability to see duality, those shades of grey that means that mummy and daddy are neither wholly good nor wholly bad. It’s a finesse associated with maturity.

That doesn’t mean that conquering our tendency towards splitting is easy, nor that it doesn’t manifest itself in adults who, when faced with complexity, resolve that complexity by splitting it into two simplified and opposing parts and aligning strongly with one or the other. It’s the psychology that underpins intolerance, vengefulness and political extremism. 

On a personal level, splitting can be seen as a psychological defence mechanism to resolve emotional ambivalence, those feelings of both love and hatred towards the same person. We split off one half of those feelings and direct them elsewhere, away from the loved one.

The antidote: embracing ambivalence

If black-and-white thinking is about the inability to see those shades of grey, one antidote is to embrace the very ambivalence on which it thrives. Ambivalence is often seen as a negative: the inability to make up our minds; a lack of clarity in terms of our goals and decision making. At its extremes, of course, it can lead to its own problems of paralysis. And it’s especially difficult to see the up-side when we live in a society increasingly dominated by polarised debate (witness the average Twitter feed) or that attempts to shoe-horn our views and opinions into handy check boxes, with the “don’t know” option seen as a bit of a cop-out at best. 

But could the writer F Scott Fitzgerald have been right when he said: “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function” – the kind of maturity anticipated by Klein’s well-adjusted, split-rejecting adults? 

When it comes to black-and-white thinking, a healthy dose of ambivalence could be just what we need. Just as in culture, where the bad guy is never wholly bad (Darth Vader, anyone?) and the good guy never wholly good (any number of flawed TV cops), neither is the world in which we live. 

Ambivalence encourages us to see all sides of an argument, really examine the evidence, and to reject oversimplification. Having mixed emotions can make us better able to empathise with others’ points of view: ok, that colleague of ours may drive us mad with his boundless (and noisy) enthusiasm, but we have to admit that he’s good at what he does. There’s even a case that it can lead to more creativity and better decision making, as we consider all sorts of ideas a black-and-white thinker would dismiss out of hand.

Fence-sitters of the world unite: being able to see both sides of the argument is just the antidote we need to too much black-and-white absolutism. 

2. Labelling

Labelling is an extreme form of generalising, also known as global labelling or mislabelling. In practice, it takes one instance or limited example of a person or situation and generalises it to an overall pattern. We may have flunked one test, or perceived a weakness in a colleague and, suddenly, we’re heading for disaster and poor old Joe in accounts is stuck forever with the label “lazy” or “boring”. Labelling thrives on emotional and highly charged language and can lead to overly negative thoughts about ourselves and others based on only one or two experiences: we define ourselves and others based on a single characteristic or descriptor. 

One unpleasant but common manifestation of labelling is snobbery. We all know those people who are more than prepared to take one aspect a person’s character, appearance or experience and extrapolate from that some general, usually negative, conclusions about their value or worth. Poor old Joe in accounts knows this to his cost. 

On a personal level, this particular cognitive distortion can cause us to berate ourselves unnecessarily and to self-limit or shut ourselves off from opportunities (see “no-one ever asks for my opinion in meetings” above). It also causes anxiety around sharing things about ourselves – where we live, our backgrounds, our jobs – which may be a trigger for others to label us as worthy or not. 

The antidote: examine the evidence

The problem with labelling is that, as with black-and-white thinking, the world is just too complex for it to be true. Making broad assumptions about someone based on an isolated piece of information or situation is almost always inaccurate. Labelling is a way of taking mental short cuts: it’s often quicker and easier to jump to generalised conclusions or to put someone – or ourselves – into a neat box than to make a real effort to find out more about them or to understand the situation we find ourselves in. But there’s a whole person there somewhere, and labelling gets in the way of finding that out. The Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard said: “Once you label me, you negate me”. Not the best way to navigate relationships and self-worth. 

Better, then, to take the time to examine the evidence in the round – be your own trial judge. Where we’re overly self-critical, it’s time for some much-needed objectivity. Identify those experiences and situations where we have had success, and the chances are they’re not as rare as we think. We do not need to be defined by a particular event or characteristic. 

When it comes to others, rather than focusing on an easily ascribed label, think about some different characteristics and behaviours that you see in that person. Take the time to discover and think about other people’s perspectives and perceptions and pick up some much-needed humility along the way. Bet you didn’t know that Joe in accounts is a black belt in karate and runs a record label in his own time, did you? 

Short-cut thinking might seem appealing, but it can lead to unnecessary personal pain and a tendency towards seeing people as members of tribes. Take the time to gather and examine the evidence that will help us to see people as whole beings, with all the contradictions and complexities that implies. The alternative can only lead to more of Kierkegarrd’s negation, to polarity and anxiety. 

3. Romantic (emotional) reasoning

In emotional reasoning, we accept our emotions as fact: “I feel it, therefore it must be true.” So, we may feel jealous of a colleague because she’s just secured a promotion we think she doesn’t deserve, but that doesn’t make it true. We may know it isn’t reasonable to take our feelings as fact, but it is a common distortion nonetheless. When our emotions take over, they can blot out all rationality and logic, and we assume that their emotions reflect the way things really are. 

It’s interesting to see emotional reasoning in the context of romanticism, an extreme form of the intuition and instinct which characterises the idealism and anti-rationality of a life dominated by romantic ideals. We live in an age which this kind of romantic naturalness, an authenticity is highly prized, even though we know that authenticity can be a double-edged sword. 

Such romantic reasoning can also lead us down the path of another cognitive distortion, being a mind reader. The belief that our intuition can enable us to guess what someone is thinking, or that we are somehow psychically attuned to them, leads us to jump to conclusions that are more than likely to be negative or just plain wrong. 

Listening to our emotions is not a bad thing itself, and no one wants to come across as phony or false. But the tendency to take our emotions entirely at face value, and to ascribe to them a dominance in our thinking that they don’t merit, is a thinking trap well worth avoiding. 

The antidote: classical thinking

Classical thinking is defined by analysis, intellect and rationality. Thinking like a Roman might be just what we need to counter a romanticism instinctively opposed to examining emotional responses too closely. 

Being more sceptical about our emotions and the importance we ascribe to them encourages us to test how we feel and look for the facts that support emotionally based determination. We might then realise that precious little, if any, rational justification exists for our conclusions. Taking a more logical approach helps us to break down the fallacies associated with emotional reasoning.

We might also consider whether mind-reading someone’s else’s intentions can lead to reliable conclusions, or whether feeling that acute sense of injustice or taking things more personally than necessary really makes sense. 

Romantics place a special emphasis on the natural spontaneity of children; psychologically, emotional reasoning may also be seen in terms of our more impulsive and emotional child self, the one that reasons primarily on the basis of strong feelings. Overreacting to what’s going on around us is our inner child calling for attention. We need to appeal to our more rational adult self to adjust and correct our thinking. 

Feelings are not facts. Just as romantic and classical sensibilities need to be in balance, so do our responses to our emotions. 

4. The fallacy of control 

This cognitive distortion involves two different but related beliefs about being in complete control of every situation in our lives:

(a) as an external locus: that we have no control or agency over our lives and are helpless victims of fate: “It’s not my fault that I’m late for work again. It’s just that the traffic is really busy at rush hour.”

Or

(b) as an internal locus: that we are in complete control of ourselves and our surroundings, giving us responsibility for the feelings of those around us. We often blame ourselves for the mishaps and other negativities which others are experiencing: “Why is Asha in marketing so unhappy? It must be that conversation we had yesterday.”

When we’re susceptible to the external locus of control fallacy, we tend to believe that success is based upon luck, not upon effort, so we tend not to make an effort with tasks or to give up easily. We might also make excuses for not achieving success, and find it hard to build relationships with people whom we associate with a world ranged inexplicably against us. Feeling so removed from control over our fate may be a guard against narcissism but, unsurprisingly, if left unchecked, it can also lead to stress and even depression. 

The internal locus of control assumes a level of agency that can be motivating, but its tendency towards perfectionist thinking, a need to achieve, can become problematic and lead to frustration with others who don’t share the same high standards, or who can’t operate at the same level. We might also try to solve other people’s problems to the extent that we can be seen to be trying to control and change their lives. This lack of compassion can make us turn on ourselves, too, if things go badly. 

The antidote: strike a balance 

The truth, of course, is that, both beliefs are inaccurate and, at the extremes, can be damaging. No one is in complete control of what happens to us, and no one has absolutely no control over their situation. We need to find a balance between the loci that means we take responsibility for ourselves and our actions without taking on the weight of the world, let alone Asha in marketing’s happiness. 

When we fall victim of the external locus, we need to wrest back control, try to see the choices we have actually made in any situation, and to focus on the decisions we can make to change it. 

With the internal locus, we need to recognise that we’re all of us responsible for ourselves, making the decisions that steer our lives. We need to stop taking responsibility for others, and for problems we didn’t create. We need to practice not apologising for things that were not our fault, and give ourselves permission to let go of the feelings of guilt and shame about events we feel are our fault when, really, they’re not. Not everything is down to you. 

Positive psychology guru Martin Seligman has identified three elements of pessimism that hold us back from being successful when things don’t go right. The first of these he calls personalisation, our tendency to think that we are the sole cause of our problems, rather than believing that external or other factors also play a part. The lesson he draws from this is that not everything that happens to us is because of us. Taking responsibility is one thing; blaming ourselves for everything is quite another.  

 

Register for insights and updates or implement one of our levy-funded leadership programmes by clicking on the buttons below.