How often do you try to guess what someone else is thinking whether it is your partner, a friend or a work colleague or boss and then potentially act based on what you thought they said or meant? Perhaps you find it difficult to see any good things in your life or are quick to make judgments with limited information. You may set strict rules for yourself and aim for perfection. Are you stressed, worried and anxious or angry?
We are constantly trying to make sense of our social world and inner experiences. Often our reactions are based on our earlier, even childhood experiences with other people. You may find it difficult to understand your own internal world and have developed go to “strategies” that help you to make sense of what is going on either internally or externally. These strategies or cognitive errors in our thinking have been developed over the years as a result of your life experiences and how your early care-givers took care of you. You may also be interested in reading an article about attachment and its impact on later relationships, childhood emotional neglect or healing from childhood trauma.
These “strategies” may have a detrimental impact on our well-being or relationships by you, for example being very stressed, anxious or having a lot of arguments in your relationship. Therefore, I thought that you might find it useful to think about if you engage in particular cognitive errors that make your life and relationships more difficult. Burns (1989) wrote a book listing cognitive errors impacting our lives and I have listed them here below. Another author highlighting the importance of understanding when we may engage in cognitive errors and act on limited information was Aaron Beck. Understanding how certain thinking patterns contribute to your stress levels and hinder you having the life you wish to have can be freeing and the first step in starting to make changes.
- All-or-Nothing Thinking / Polarized Thinking
This is often also known as “black and white thinking”. It means that you engage in having very rigid views about something that is either “right or wrong” when in fact there may be many shades of grey and variations that impact the situation. For example, you may expect perfection from yourself and anything less is a total failure. If you aim for perfection, you may engage in polarised thinking a lot.
This means that you may make decisions based on a small piece of evidence and discounting the majority of evidence at the same time. For example, you may think that failing at one thing means that you cannot ever achieve or succeed in anything.
- Mental Filter
A mental filter could be described as having blinkers on and focusing on a single negative event or comment when you have had lots of positive experiences and feedback e.g. from your partner. So like a racehorse with blinkers on a track you may look at the world through a mental filter just focusing on a thing particular idea that perhaps supports your idea of the world or about yourself. It is then difficult to see anything else that might challenge your views. People often say that when you are in love you have rose-tinted glasses on and similarly a more critical or negative mental filter can make the world look dark or critical on the whole. Your previous experiences can contribute to you having a critical or a negative filter.
To understand your mental filters you may be interested in reading more about childhood trauma and its impact on your well-being or how early relationships impact your adult relationships.
- Disqualifying the Positive
When you are rejecting the positive evidence, you focus on the negative evidence instead. Perhaps you have started a relationship someone who is many ways compatible with you but you focus on a negative attribute or different view on something that this person has, such as their taste in music or choice of career that does not match your aspirations. It could also be that you don’t feel confident in your relationships with other people and regardless of positive feedback and reassurance you are continuously looking for evidence that you are disliked.
- Jumping to Conclusions – Mind Reading
Are you often trying to figure out what you partner is thinking without asking them and acting based on your own conclusions rather than what they actually are thinking? Mind reading is very common in relationships and can lead to a lot of arguments. Perhaps you would like to do something but don’t want to do it because you assume that your partner would not be interested in it anyway. Or someone may look at you in a particular way on the street and you immediately assume that they don’t like you even if the chances are that they are so wrapped up in their own world that they didn’t even see you.
- Jumping to Conclusions – Fortune Telling
This cognitive distortion is similar to the mind reading as conclusions are based on little or no evidence or one creating their own theory about something and then assuming this to be the truth. For example, you may have experienced complicated relationships in the past and fear that you will never be happy in a relationship in the future.
- Magnification (Catastrophising) or Minimization
This means that you are exaggerating a meaning of something and at the same time minimising the meaning of something else. For example, your child may have a mild cold and a cough and you start to catastrophise about him/her having a chest infection or worse. An example of minimisation could be that you twisted your ankle and are limping when walking but you think that it is worth not going to the GP for a check up and later on you discover that you may have more serious damage to your ankle.
- Emotional Reasoning
Emotional reasoning refers to using your emotional/physiological responses as facts. For example, you may have heart palpitations because you walked fast and attribute these to you having a heart attack. On other hand, you may feel anxious about doing a public speech and assume that people won’t like your presentation.
- Should Statements
This is very common and refers to you setting certain standards for your life. “I should be more successful, sociable… or the world should be….”. These are very harsh rules for your living and can lead to you being very self-critical if you are not meeting your own expectations and then in the long-term contribute to stress, anxiety, depression and other problems.
- Labeling and Mislabeling
These cognitive errors refer to overgeneralisation and making very critical judgments about ourselves. For example, following a mistake at work, you may label yourself as a “total failure”. Mislabelling is related to labelling and refers to labelling ourselves in a very unfair way. Perhaps you consider yourself “always unlucky in love” even if you have had success in your love life in the past.
Personalisation refers to you taking responsibility for things that are out of your control. For example, you may worry that you always upset other people if you express your own needs or views or that your partner’s mood is solely affected by you.
- Control Fallacies
A control fallacy is based on these beliefs:
- We are helpless and have no control over our lives
- We have a complete control of our lives and the world around us, which means that we are also responsible for the feelings of others around us.
In the first case, we may believe that there is no point in trying because we are controlled by fate and it is difficult to take responsibility for one’s own life. Childhood trauma may have caused you develop a sense of helplessness.
Secondly, making global judgments about the amount of control you have both for your own life and on the emotions of others is misleading and anxiety provoking. Taking sole responsibility, for example, over other’s feelings can make you avoid social situations as you fear how you or your mood may impact them.
- Fallacy of Fairness
As much as we would like the world to be a fair place, unfortunately, it isn’t. Expecting the world always being fair can make you very angry as you get frequently disappointed by the unfairness of the world. All you can do is to try to model fair behaviour in your own life but even then, at times you may end up being unfair to others either knowingly or unknowingly. This is only a part of being human.
- Fallacy of Change
This is very common in relationships. You may enter a relationship and secretly wish that a quality that you dislike about your partner will change as a result of your nagging or encouraging them. You may think that your partner can only be happy if they change. This can lead to a lot of frustration on both sides as people will and can only change if they decide to change.
- Always Being Right/ Perfectionists
Having beliefs that you need to always be right, able to behave in a correct manner and never make a mistake is very anxiety provoking. Setting high standards for yourself can in a long-term lead to becoming very unhappy. If you believe that you have to aim for perfection to be happy, you are likely to seek the whole grail that doesn’t exist. Self-compassion is a good antidote for perfectionism.
- Heaven’s Reward Fallacy
This is based on the belief that suffering and struggling will pay off at some point. You may ask yourself of examples of when this did not come to be true. For example, you may end up staying in a bad relationship longer because you believe that if you work hard on it, it will pay off and you will be happy. Or stay in a job that isn’t giving you meaning and you feel undervalued hoping that one day you will be noticed and rewarded. These can lead to anxiety, frustration, anger and even sense of hopelessness in the long-term.
This is not en exclusive list of cognitive errors and we engage in them on a daily basis. I hope that going through and thinking about these cognitive distortions has been helpful for you to think about which ones you may be engaging and how they impact your life. In therapy, you can start to understand not only these cognitive distortions and their impact on your life but also how you have developed them. The more you understand the more likely you are to notice if you engage in them and hopefully they will impact your life less and less.
Beck, A. (1976). Cognitive therapy and the emotional disorders
Burns, D.D. (1980, 1989) Feeling good handbook.