What is a ‘cognitive distortion’?

cognitive distortionsThese negative statements are examples of cognitive distortions. ‘She never gets it right! What a complete loser! I mean, who could forget all that went into making that decision and then pflooey! It’s like we never went through any of that training and all those discussions. I can’t believe it! What’s wrong with her! Geez! In fact, I think they’re all like that! Bunch of losers! What did you expect?! I betcha he’ll screw it up too. They can’t get anything right! It’s ALL going down the tubes!’ Ever hear people make statements like this? The person making the statements is really overgeneralizing and then, jumping to conclusions about the person in the beginning and at the end of the statement. You can expand (magnify) upon the statement- and turn it into a catastrophe (it’s all going down the tubes). You can see how this might cause a problem in cyber-bullying. ‘She’s a complete disaster.’

Other examples of cognitive distortion include personalizing. ‘It was all my fault the computer went down’; ‘Juan was late getting here; that’s why we lost the match’. (His fault) There are several related distortions such as believing one is the victim of fate or assuming responsibility for the happiness or unhappiness of people in our lives. ‘Are you upset because of something I said?” A teen might blame a sibling for feeling bad, ‘Joey made me miss that basket! He makes me feel like a loser!’ The realization is that we’re the ones in control of our emotions and reactions to outer situations. Your feelings are not Joey’s fault.

Related to this is when we expect a child or partner to change with enough coaxing to fit our agenda. A teen girl in a first relationship might think, “if I love him enough he’ll dress up/stop drinking/get a job/quit being abusive/pay more attention to me”. The unrealistic expectation that we are responsible to change someone else’s behavior can trip a person up all the time. This is called ‘Fallacy of Change’. Life isn’t fair, but applying a hoop or yardstick to one’s own life can set a person up for a feeling of failure. ‘Barbara was born on the right side of the tracks with a silver spoon in her mouth. Gee, it must be nice to always win.’ (Implying that you weren’t born on the right side of the tracks, and can’t win, or aren’t a ‘winner’ or even, ever win.)

Another distortion is the classic ‘should’ or ‘shoulda/coulda/woulda’ that many people beat themselves up over. ‘I should say no to that piece of cake. I must not have any willpower.’ These go alongside ‘ought to’ and ‘must’ as emotional guilt triggers which fuel frustration and disappointment. You should have gone to the gym instead of going to Olive Garden for that pig out! The recipient might experience resentment, defensiveness, or anger. Granted, we all do it! However, you might take this further. A teen with an eating disorder might be feeling fat and ugly looking through a magazine; therefore it must be true (even though they’re a normal size). This is called ‘emotional reasoning’. Labeling or mislabeling often causes a lot of pain for teens who are bullied: ‘ugly’, ‘stupid’, ‘fat’, ‘slut’- are not very nice labels whether said by ‘mean girls’ or immature boys. An example of internalizing this might be when an adolescent gets a poor mark on a math test and assumes he is a ‘dummy’; incapable of doing well in the subject- ever.

The adolescent’s dad might also employ cognitive distortions by always having to be right, to have the last word, regardless of anyone else’s feelings. ‘Some day, you’ll appreciate me!’ he might bellow. In cognitive behavioral theory, therapists work on identifying the distortions and helping a teen to correct them. “Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a form of treatment that focuses on examining the relationships between thoughts, feelings and behaviors. By exploring patterns of thinking that lead to self-destructive actions and the beliefs that direct these thoughts, people with mental illness can modify their patterns of thinking to improve coping. CBT is a type of psychotherapy that is different from traditional psycho-dynamic psychotherapy in that the therapist and the patient will actively work together to help the patient recover from their mental illness,” according to the NAMI website. You can download fact sheets and access further information here.:

Cognitive behavioral therapy helps a teen to recognize thought patterns that might contribute to problems and how changing and managing these thoughts can help him/her to feel and act differently. CBT connects the dots between thoughts- feelings-beliefs-behavior. It’s not just ‘talk therapy’ but includes education, redirection, and is goal-oriented with long-term results. It is participative and time-limited with specific outcomes and homework. There are several types of therapies. In a residential treatment context, CBT-informed therapy is effective alongside a structured schedule, individual and group counseling as well as the medical/psychiatric care provided.

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Communications and Social Media @ Sequel-Pomegranate Health Systems
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