How to Challenge Distorted Thinking
Updated: Jun 20
We have talked before about the reasons why we think negatively. This week we would like to concentrate on the distorted patterns of thinking that drive negative thoughts, feelings and behaviours.
We are constantly processing information. To do this we use our internal model of the world, beliefs systems and core beliefs. Our thoughts are influenced by these beliefs creating an internal narrative. This is a stream of verbal thinking which affirms our understanding of the way things are. When our core beliefs are negative, our internal narrative will also be negative, and our corresponding thoughts will be negative. This then drives negative emotions and behaviours.
The brain modifies our neural pathways all the time. The more negative thoughts we have, the more negativity will shape our world view and so the more negatively we will imagine all future happenings.
Cognitive Illusion or distorted thinking also comes into play here.
Aaron T Beck recognised that our thoughts can be categorised as either automatic, or more deliberate, reflective consciously directed thinking. Both types of thinking are going on in our head all the time. The automatic thoughts reflect strong feelings of emotion. They are most often negative and are often exaggerations or even misconstructions or misinterpretations of what is happening.
These misinterpretations are known as cognitive distortions
Examples of this are catastrophising, mind reading, over generalising, jumping to conclusions and selective evidence gathering. When we indulge in this type of thinking we drive further negative thoughts forward.
Let us discuss these cognitive distortions in more detail.
When we catastrophise we imagine the worst and exaggerate our own mistakes and the seriousness of the situation. For example, “my family are late home, they must have been involved in a fatal accident.”
Here we assume that we know what others are thinking and feeling. For example, “my Boss did not reply to my email with a new idea and so they think it is rubbish.” In fact, the person’s boss may not have seen the email yet or may actually be considering how to move the idea forward.
When we over generalise, we allow one event to be evidence of an absolute. For example, ‘one poor performance means you are useless at everything,’ or ‘something goes wrong in one area of life and so nothing will go right at all.’
Jumping to Conclusions:
This is also fortune telling. Assuming that things will go badly in certain situation because that is what happened before. Also “It didn’t work for my friend therefore it will not work for me.”
Bias in Interpretation:
Here all behaviour is considered negative. For example, ‘a lack of emotional response from my partner is interpreted as a sign that they do not love me.’ Remember, lack of evidence is not evidence of lack.
Attentional Bias or Selective Evidence Gathering:
We ignore any evidence of the positive and actively seek out evidence that supports our negative core beliefs. This happens when processing feedback. No matter how much praise there is we focus only on what we did wrong. This cognitive distortion is very seductive. We tell ourselves we are trying to grow by focusing on what went wrong, but ignoring positive feedback in favour of negative only feeds our negative core beliefs.
If I feel that way, then it is true.
Making things Personal:
Believing that everything that others do or say is personally directed at you. For example, “They gave me a funny look. They hate me.” In fact, the person may have experienced a sharp pain that made them grimace.
Polarised or Black and White Thinking:
All or nothing thinking. A simple but rigid way of thinking that leads to confusion and negative feeling when presented with shades of grey.
The Fallacy of Fairness:
Believing that things should be fair; that bad things should not happen to good people. However, life is often not fair and if we believe that things only go wrong if we are bad then we will often be disappointed and frustrated.
You may well recognise some of your own thought patterns in the examples above. This does not mean you are suffering from a mental health problem. We all engage in cognitive distortions at times. The key is to be aware of their existence and recognise when we have allowed them to come into play.
We can then learn to tune into or invoke our reflective, consciously directed thoughts. This is the basis of Beck’s revolutionary Cognitive Behavioural therapy.
CBT is about identifying automatic thoughts and evaluating their validity, recognising the cognitive distortions at play and choosing a more appropriate thought.
For tools to help you do this and much more see ‘How to Rise – A Complete Resilience Manual’ from Sheldon Press. It takes you on a journey of self-discovery; it shares over 60 tools and techniques, including meditations with purpose, visualisation exercises and practical tools to help improve your mental wellbeing, reduce anxiety and allow you to take control of your life
 Beck AT. A 60-Year Evolution of Cognitive Theory and Therapy. Perspectives on Psychological Science. 2019;14(1):16-20.