Tag Archives: albert ellis

cognitive therapy: the 10 distortions

this is a guest post by damien riley, whose blog i’ve been following for the last year or so, and who is also one of my twitter buddies.


drug therapy and what i call “armchair therapy” that seems to never end are not always the best way to manage neuroses. cognitive therapy, as evidenced in the work of theorists like albert ellis and david d. burns, MD, is often an effective course of action that can cure psychological afflictions.

another proof is my life. near the beginning of a career as a restaurant manager, i had some neurotic issues that had to be dealt with. it was complex, but to summarize: i felt like a failure at life. 🙂 i went to four or five sessions with a licensed clinical social worker and absolutely recovered more robust mentally than ever before. part of what i attribute to my success in therapy was learning the 10 cognitive distortions. i’d like to share those 10 distortions with you, because they really changed my life. then, i’d like to leave you with her words that even over 10 years later bring me strength and mental wellness. first, the 10 cognitive distortions (blockquote is adapted from: wikipedia):

  1. all-or-nothing thinking – thinking of things in absolute terms, like “always”, “every” or “never”. few aspects of human behavior are so absolute.
  2. overgeneralization – taking isolated cases and using them to make wide generalizations.
  3. mental filter – focusing exclusively on certain, usually negative or upsetting, aspects of something while ignoring the rest, like a tiny imperfection in a piece of clothing.
  4. disqualifying the positive – continually “shooting down” positive experiences for arbitrary, ad hoc reasons.
  5. jumping to conclusions – assuming something negative where there is no evidence to support it. two specific subtypes are also identified:
    • mind reading – assuming the intentions of others.
    • fortune telling – predicting how things will turn before they happen.
  6. magnification and minimization – inappropriately understating or exaggerating the way people or situations truly are. often the positive characteristics of other people are exaggerated and negative characteristics are understated. there is one subtype of magnification:
    • catastrophizing – focusing on the worst possible outcome, however unlikely, or thinking that a situation is unbearable or impossible when it is really just uncomfortable.
  7. emotional reasoning – making decisions and arguments based on how you feel rather than objective reality.
  8. making should statements – concentrating on what you think “should” or ought to be rather than the actual situation you are faced with, or having rigid rules which you think should always apply no matter what the circumstances are. albert ellis termed this “musterbation”.
  9. labeling – explaining behaviors or events, merely by naming them; related to overgeneralization. rather than describing the specific behavior, you assign a label to someone or yourself that puts them in absolute and unalterable terms.
  10. personalization – assuming you or others directly caused things when that may not have been the case. when applied to others this is an example of blame.

second, the quote i will never forget:

the negative image you have of yourself is based on your feelings, not facts. the fact is, your life story is an amazing success story. when you judge yourself, make sure you look at the facts, not your feelings.

i hope you got something out of the 10 cognitive distortions. now that i have been a teacher for nearly 10 years, gotten married, and become quite happy in life, i remember how powerful that social worker’s words are. cognitive therapy is the approach that got me back on the path of mental health. though as a guest-blogger on a psychologist’s blog (thank you isabella!) i am not an expert by any means, i do think as a former patient that it’s a highly effective form of psychotherapy.

what do you think of cognitive therapy and the 10 distortions?


about the guest blogger: damien riley, author, teacher and dad, keeps an eye on pop culture, the news, and humor all around us. his blog, postcards from the funny farm, covers topics including teaching, inspiration, humor, and psychology.

albert ellis: empirically, logically and self-helpingly

the other day i was listening to a little audio clip of an interview with albert ellis, the no-holds-barred founder of rational-emotive behavioural therapy (REBT, also known as RET and RBT). ellis was one of the grandfathers of cognitive therapy; he wasn’t too enamoured with the theories he said freud “made up” and jung’s “mystical nonsense”.

but just like jung and freud, ellis’s ideas made their way into mainstream and pop psychology, forever entrenched there – for he is not only one of the grandfathers of cognitive therapy but also one of the people who helped midwife the psychological “arm” of the self-help movement.

in the interview, ellis was asked how he helps people. his response (slightly paraphrased):

we dispute people’s irrational beliefs which lead them to become neurotic. individuals upset themselves, they tell themselves nonsense and then they blame it on their early childhood!

it works usually within the first 5-10 minutes.

they come in with anxiety, depression, rage. so i ask them, what happened? “well so and so did this and that and i got enraged”

and we say, “let’s assume you are right and they treated you unjustly. what did you tell yourself after that?”

“he was wrong and he shouldn’t be doing this!”

well, they may be wrong alright but that doesn’t matter. the problem is that people say this should not be, this must not be.

and here comes my favourite part

so we get them to think about this. and first they think about their thinking and then think about how they think about it – which human beings, being constructivists, can do, but rarely do.

and then we help them to realize, empirically, logically and especially self-helpingly, that it’s unrealistic to say someone should not or must not do XYZ. and that it doesn’t follow that they are no good as a person; just that they act no good.

finally, ellis tells us

then we say, “it’s too bad that he treated you this way – now what are you going to do to change that or to live with it?”

we show them that they’ve become anxious or depressed because of what they told themselves about this event.

then we use cognitive, behavioural and emotional techniques to act help them act otherwise.

i already mentioned some of those techniques in my eulogy to albert ellis back in june. another one is a shame-attacking exercise, and i’ve certainly used that in my practice.

example: a client, let’s call her marion, is always nervous of what people think of her. she doesn’t even want anyone to know that she’s in therapy, and that troubles her a lot. we decide to allocate a whole session to that. i ask her for a list of people who she thinks might think ill of her for being in therapy.

we then pick a person from that list – usually one who is not too “scary” – and i support marion as she calls that person and casually mentions that she’s just come from a therapy session.

after that we debrief. marion is surprised and delighted to shed a light on her thoughts, beliefs and feelings around the experienced – and she is relieved because she knows she’s starting to put down the burden of always looking over her shoulder to see that “they” think.

interested in experiencing how this works? email me at moritherapy at shaw dot ca, and i’ll give a free taste of it.

for a post i wrote on the occasion of albert ellis’ death at 93, go to don’t should on yourself: albert ellis dead at 93

(this post was mentioned in the carnival of quotes)