Have you ever tried to converse with someone who simply didn’t think logically? Of course you have. And the person may have been yourself!
Here’s how to spot common thinking errors. My next post will tell how to fix these “cognitive distortions.”
- Black and White Thinking. This distortion creates an “all-or-nothing” approach. Either you are for me or against me. If you can’t have your way exactly, you’ll totally give up. Compromise is death. “Gray areas” are avoided. Exceptions are ignored.
Here’s how it looks: “I really want to redo the whole living room, not just get a new sofa. If we can’t do the entire room, just forget it.” Or, “You’re never on my side! You always take her side of things!”
Here’s the harm: Since you have difficulty compromising or thinking in terms of the “grey areas” you become rigid, inflexible, and demanding. You have problems being a “team player” or engaging in the normal “give-and-take” in relationships. Your intellectual life, personal life and work life will likely suffer.
- Labeling or Stereotyping. This habit gives a false sense of control by assigning characteristics and outcomes based one’s opinion. When we use labels and stereotypes, we can stop thinking about the object’s unique (and unpredictable) qualities. By thinking of someone as a “bimbo”, “jerk,” “geek,” or “thug,” we symbolically place them in a limiting box. We feel some sense of predictability because we “know” how each of these types behave.
Here’s how it looks: “You’re just lazy.” “He’s such a classless jerk!” “That’s just the way I am.”
Here’s the harm: Labels tend to create self-fulfilling prophecies — so don’t be surprised if that jerk continues to be a jerk, and that lazy child continues to be lazy. If people feel hopeless to break out of the “box,” they will stop trying. Also, labels block our view of the unique person and we don’t ever get to know them fully. Finally, we are doomed to be unpleasantly surprised at some point when our predictions are obliterated by reality.
- Magnification or Minimization This error is one of proportion. We take molehills and make them into mountains, or vice versa. Un-resilient people tend to magnify negative stuff and minimize positive stuff.
Here’s how it looks: “What’s the big deal that he asked me to marry him? He should have done it years ago!” or “I can’t BELIEVE you didn’t call me yesterday! What kind of son are you?”
Here’s the Harm: Most of the time, people use magnification to “grow” the bad stuff, and minimization to “shrink” the good stuff. This gets us stuck in a very negative mindset of anxiety, depression, and relational disappointment.
- Catastrophizing. This distortion makes disasters out of too many things. It’s not just a setback — it is Armageddon. It isn’t an inconvenience, it’s a major imposition.
Here’s how it looks: “You lost your job? We’re going to go bankrupt!” or “You burned the roast? I guess we’ll all have to starve tonight.”
Here’s the harm: We get triggered by the ominous qualities we impart to the event. Our reactions of fight, flight and freeze may be activated, just when we need a cool head to solve the problem.
- Personalization makes everything about yourself. Something bad happened? It was because of something I did. Is there something wrong in the situation? It’s up to me to intervene. How do I measure others? By comparing them with me. This egocentric form of thinking places ourselves at the center of the universe which revolves around us in some fashion.
How it looks: “I just know he quit his job because I was a lousy boss.” Or “If I don’t alert them to the problem, nobody else will figure it out.”
Here’s the harm: Being the center of the universe is a bit of a burden. We feel guilty or responsible for events that would exist outside of our influence. We let that inappropriate guilt influence our decisions adversely.
- Externalization. This is somewhat opposite to personalization. Instead of taking on the burdens of the world, externalizers tend to shove the responsibility onto others. This can look like blaming others, waiting for others to solve our problems for us, or even looking outside ourselves for comfort in the form of addictive practices. In other words, the answer is seldom within ourselves — we are convinced that solutions lie outside ourselves.
How it looks: “You’re making my life miserable when you keep doing that!” or “Hey, there’s nothing I can do about it until they do something first.”
Here’s the harm: When we externalize, we give our power to those we blame. We render ourselves helpless to change the situation ourselves. Feeling powerless, we might turn to external sources of comfort (addictions, affairs, etc) to cope – and these will have serious consequences.
- Being Right. This is a form of black and white thinking (I’m Right, You’re Wrong) but in addition to the rigid thinking, the person feels compelled to prove his or her worth by “being right” or better, being validated publicly as being “right.”
How it Looks: Arguments are common, and, as in black and white thinking, compromise is rare. The person who wants to be right has difficulty empathizing with others’ points of view or feelings.
Here’s the harm: If our worth is chained to being right all the time, then our self-regard will be tenuous indeed. As we fight tooth and nail to be superior, our relationships will collapse under the weight of our need to be right.
- Fairness. When we are convinced that life must be fair, and that we are the arbiters of fairness, we will find ourselves in quite a dilemma! We will see ourselves constantly being abused because others aren’t “playing by the (my) rules.” We will view others as violators of the “right way.” We may even find ourselves becoming a crusader to right the wrongs of this unjust world.
How it Looks: “Can you believe what he just did? I NEVER would have done that!” or “There’s no excuse for such conduct! That’s just sick and wrong.”
Here’s the harm: We will constantly feel screwed-over. With that feeling of violation, we will probably be very reactive and difficult to live around. Remember, “Fair” is where you go to see the pigs!
- Reading minds. People who believe they can read minds are probably desperately seeking to dominate others as a way to try to get some control of their “out-of-control” lives. By attributing motives to others, the person can feel like they are not a helpless outsider. By informing their target that their thoughts are known, the person tries to establish superiority and thus, a sense of control of the other person.
How it looks: “I know why you did that!” or “She is jealous of him. I just know it!”
Here’s the harm: When we try to mind-read, we will not usually seek to know what the person ACTUALLY thinks or feels. Why should we? We already have clairvoyance. . . This kills the relationships and causes us to misjudge others.
- Predicting the future. By assuming that we can predict the outcome, we (again) have an illusion of control. Just like reading minds and labeling, predicting the future gives us a feeling that we won’t be shocked and surprised since we already know the result.
Here’s how it looks: “He’s never going to come through. . . watch, I’ll be right.” Or “There’s no way she’s ever going to go to the cops. Trust me.”
Here’s the harm: While we can have hunches about the future, our ability to predict it is a matter of luck and intuition — and the odds are against us. Predicting the future keeps us and others in “boxes” that limit possibilities. It also makes us blind to other options for outcomes. Not only that, but we can become ego-invested in making out predictions “right,” thus falling victim to #7.
When thinking errors cloud our judgment, we will find that we suffer, our relationships suffer and our careers suffer. Read my next post to find out ways to resolve these Thinking Errors.
Aaron Beck first proposed the theory behind cognitive distortions and David Burns was responsible for popularizing it with common names and examples for the distortions.
Beck, A. T. (1976). Cognitive therapies and emotional disorders. New York: New American Library.
Burns, D. D. (1980). Feeling good: The new mood therapy. New York: New American Library.