CBT, or Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, is one of the more established psychotherapeutic modalities that’s been shown to be effective in the treatment of various concerns, including mood disorders, anxiety disorders, and eating disorders, among many others. But CBT isn’t just a treatment for those experiencing psychological distress; we can all use CBT-based practices to enhance our everyday lives.
CBT largely involves exploring our relationship with our thoughts, feelings, and behaviours –reality checks we could all use a healthy dose of from time to time. One exercise that might be particularly useful in our daily grind is to start identifying “cognitive distortions,” or mental habits.
Our brains and our bodies like to be as efficient as possible. We’re built to conserve precious resources. We have a finite amount of energy available for daily expenditure. Something along the same lines as the reasoning behind Steve Jobs wearing the same outfit each day…to cut down on extraneous decision-making mental activity. So our brains become efficient by creating mental shortcuts, or mental habits whichbecome physically reinforced. Neurological pathways that are used most often become stronger and myelinated(i.e. covered with a protective fatty sheath) making them lightening fast (i.e. more subconscious) and more easily activated for super-charged mental habit action. A similar analogy is how our most frequently used muscles become the strongest and most dominant. This allows many of our most common mental actions to become automated (e.g. just how driving a car becomes second nature once we become pros at it). Such mental efficiency is the reason we’re able to accomplish so many wonderful things in a day, but it comes with the downfall of making us susceptible to erroneous thinking. Below is a list of the most common “cognitive distortions” we all do. If you can catch yourself in the act, you can notice when your thinking may be unrealistic in order to come back to a more balanced appraisal of the situation.
- All-or-nothing thinking (either/or, pass/fail thinking; perfectionism): seeing things as black and white and failing to see grey areas. E.g. using words like “always” and “never” as descriptors.
- Overgeneralization: making a very broad conclusion based on a single event; expecting the same result to reoccur in future situations. Seeing a single event as a never-ending pattern of defeat.
- Labeling and mislabeling: Attributing a person’s behaviour to his or her personality or character. E.g. “He cut me off in traffic. He’s a jerk.” “She yelled at me, she must be an angry person.”
- Mental filter (selective attention): Only focusing on negative aspects of a situation and ignoring possible positives. Only focusing on information that confirms what you already believe. E.g. “I forgot a few of my lines. The whole presentation was a disaster.”
- Disqualifying the positive: Rejecting positive experiences by insisting they “don’t count” for some reason or another. You maintain a negative belief that is contradicted by your everyday experiences. E.g. “That person is only flattering me because they’re my friend.”
- Jumping to conclusions: Making hasty assumptions without thoroughly checking the facts.
- Mind reading: Assuming what other people are thinking (and intending) without really knowing or checking it out. (And/or expecting others to know what you are thinking without clearly telling them).
- The fortune teller error: Anticipating that things will turn out a certain way and being convinced that your prediction is an already-established fact.
- Magnification (catastrophizing or minimization): Making things out to be worse than they really are. Magnification of the negative: emphasizing possible weaknesses, failures, and threats. Minimizing the positive: deemphasizing possible successes, strengths, or opportunities.
- Emotional reasoning: Assuming that your emotions necessarily reflect facts and reality. (E.g. “I feel it, therefore it must be true.”)
- ‘Should’ statements: Thinking you’re morally obligated to do things. Using “should” and “shouldn’t” statements to motivate behaviour and avoid guilt. “Musts” and “oughts” are also offenders. The emotional consequence is disempowerment and guilt. When you direct should statements towards others, you feel anger, frustration, and resentment.
- Personalization (or self-centred thinking): Interpreting things as being necessarily and intentionally about you. Over-focusing on oneself and ignoring how events relate to others and the world. Taking things personally without checking them out. Being easily offended. Interpreting most things to be about yourself or personally referring to you.
- Self-Blaming: Taking too much responsibility for situations you don’t have control over. Seeing yourself as the cause of some external event for which, in fact, you were not primarily responsible.
- Other-Blaming: Holding others responsible for things done to you that they may not have control over.
- Double standards: Holding yourself to a different standard than you would apply to someone else.
- The fallacy of fairness: Expecting that life should always work out fairly.
- Catastrophization: Over-exaggerating; making something seem worse than it is.
*We at Heartfulness Psychotherapy appreciate that CBT isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. We recognize that other approaches can be equally as effective and integrate flexible treatment options into our programs. Different strokes for different folks. 🙂