Cognitive Distortions

Why do we feel good about doing some things and not about others? We feel the way we do because we think the way we do. Our thoughts cause our feelings. You will feel excited and challenged about playing a game if you think you might win, so you will stick with it, even when the odds are against you. You will feel depressed and bored about a game that you think you can't win, and you may give up.  

Most of us take the way we feel for granted. We frequently speak as if events or other people "make" us happy or sad or scared or excited. But this isn't quite true. It is not the events outside me that cause me to feel a certain way; it is the thoughts inside me that I believe about those outside events that "make" me feel glad or sad. We have to make an exception to this in the case of physical sensation. All other thing being equal, If I am in pain, I will not be happy; if I am enjoying a good meal, I will experience pleasure. If I am taking tranquilizers, I will feel calm. But most of our feelings cannot be accounted for in terms of our physical environment. The surprising thing is that very often our feelings seem to contradict what we would expect just by observing our actions and environment: we can be sad when eating a delicious meal and happy while trudging through the rain on a cold day.

Even when it seems as if we were reacting directly to events in our environment, if we look more closely we can see that it's not that simple. We don't react directly to an event; we react to our interpretation of the event. Aaron T. Beck, a psychiatrist who has studied the relationship between thoughts and feelings for many years, writes:

A person who is trained to track his thoughts. . . can observe repeatedly that his interpretation of a situation precedes his emotional response to it. For example, he sees a car heading toward him; then, he thinks, "It is going to hit me," and feels anxious. Furthermore, when a person changes his appraisal of a situation, his emotional reaction changes. A young woman believed that a friend passed by her without saying hello. She thought, "He's snubbing me," and felt sad. After a second glance, she realized that it wasn't her friend at all and her hurt feelings disappeared. (28)

Just as we often take our feelings for granted, so we often take for granted the thoughts that cause them. This is because most of the thoughts we have are not conclusions from reasoning about events; they are automatic thoughts, habits of thinking that come to us so effortlessly we assume they come from outside our own heads. 

The cognitive distortions discussed here are categories of automatic thinking. We will be discussing other kinds of errors later that are kinds of logical thinking. It is important to keep the two kinds of errors separate. Cognitive distortions, no matter how damaging they may be, are unconscious operations of the mind. People do not choose their cognitive distortions. Indeed, most people would disavow the kind of reasoning that is behind their automatic thoughts. We act on them without even being aware of them. The first step to changing them is to recognize that we are using them. Negative cognitive distortions fall into four broad categories, with many individual variations within each. Those four categories are Overgeneralization, Mental Filters, Jumping to Conclusions, and Emotional Reasoning.

Go to Overgeneralization

Cognitive Distortions

Copyright 1996 John Tagg