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.

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