Just below the surface of our awareness is a steady stream of thoughts and perceptions that shape every experience we have. When this dialogue is impacted by trauma and low self-esteem, it can profoundly affect how we see ourselves.
Our inner dialogue is something that we are often not fully aware of. However, this subconscious self-talk lays the foundation for how we feel about or perceive whatever is going on in front of us. When self-talk is full of cognitive distortions, or unhealthy patterns of thought based on irrational beliefs, this can have serious negative effects on how we see the world and our place within it. Becoming more aware of your cognitive distortions and actively working to change the way you talk to yourself can have a significant impact on your outlook and your overall mental health.
Where Do Cognitive Distortions Come From?
Negative thought patterns typically arise from deeply held but irrational core beliefs that are usually a result of childhood trauma and/or low self-esteem. These beliefs may include sentiments like:
- No one will ever really love me.
- The world is a bad place and full of bad people.
- I am not good enough to do anything.
Painful and debilitating, these beliefs do serious harm to a person’s ability to form healthy relationships with themselves and others.
What are Different Types of Cognitive Distortions?
There are a variety of common negative thought patterns that underlie many social interactions and personal experiences. Being able to identify some of these and become familiar with how they shape the way you perceive what is happening is an important first step in breaking free of these destructive distortions.
The “All or Nothing” Pattern
If you see the world in strictly binary terms without any nuance, chances are you fall into an “all or nothing” pattern of thinking. This type of cognitive distortion groups every experience into one overarching category, failing to acknowledge different experiences. This can manifest in thoughts like:
- I can’t trust anyone.
- I’m a bad person.
- I’ll never be good at anything.
The ‘Should’ Pattern
Being unable to accept ourselves or others is another type of cognitive distortion. This can apply to feelings, reactions, or even identity. It assumes that we or others don’t have a right to feel the way they do, or be who they are. This often comes out in thoughts like:
- I have a great job and a loving partner – I shouldn’t feel depressed.
- If I mean well, other people shouldn’t get upset.
- They already said they were sorry, so I shouldn’t be angry.
The ‘False Sense of Control’ Pattern
Also known as “magical thinking,” this pattern assumes we have control over things we don’t. This cognitive distortion falsely claims that certain thoughts or actions will have a definite influence, even over things that are complex or completely beyond our control. This is shown in thoughts such as:
- If I do what they say, then they will like me.
- Making more money will definitely make me happier.
The ‘Telepathic’ Pattern
If you are certain that you know what others are thinking about you, then you have fallen into a “telepathic” pattern of thinking. While we can make a good guess about what a person we know well may be thinking, we can’t truly know unless they communicate it to us. This cognitive distortion obscures that, making us believe that we can read someone’s mind, and the results are usually negative. For example:
- She didn’t smile at me. She must be mad at me.
- He didn’t call me back. He’s clearly not interested.
The ‘Feelings as Reason’ Pattern
It can be very difficult to separate feeling from fact, and in this cognitive distortion, people tend not to. This means that every emotional reaction to something is taken as the way it is, rather than as a response to what is happening. This can look like thoughts such as:
- I feel like she hates me, so she clearly does.
- I feel absolutely hopeless about this situation. There’s obviously no way out of it.
- I feel so great about the interview. I am definitely getting this job.
The ‘Glass Half Empty’ Pattern
As life unfolds around you, you can’t seem to see the positive angle. Persistent pessimism is yet another cognitive distortion, filtering out the good so that all we can see is disappointment, failure, and problems. We can see this pattern in situations like:
- You’re finally out of a terrible, toxic relationship, but all you can think about is how no one will ever want to date you.
- You’ve successfully completed your schooling, but are sure that your degree is worthless and no one will want to hire you.
The ‘Obsessing Over Mistakes’ Pattern
No matter how good something was, you can’t seem to let go of the one hiccup that happened. That laser focus on a moment of weakness or imperfection can override all the joy and success that you may have otherwise felt. This can manifest in thoughts like:
- Yeah, the work presentation went okay I guess, but I messed up that one slide.
- When I accidentally spilled my glass, it ruined the whole dinner.
- I can’t believe I missed two questions on the exam. I could have done so much better.
The ‘Labelling’ Pattern
Putting an immediate label onto something is a hallmark of another type of common cognitive distortion. Usually this happens after a bad experience, and prevents us from seeing how a situation evolves over time. This can show up in thoughts like:
- I was let go from work. I’m unemployable.
- My relationship is over. I’m bad at all relationships.
- I have no idea how to answer this question. I am terrible at this.
The ‘Clairvoyant’ Pattern
You can see the future, and it’s nothing but bad. This is not a superpower – it’s another type of cognitive distortion. Basing all of our future experiences on what has happened in our past isn’t rational because it doesn’t reflect all the changes that can happen to influence different outcomes. “Clairvoyant” thought patterns often sound like:
- I will never fall in love again.
- I’m never going to be able to get the kind of job I want.
- I’m always going to feel this way, no matter what happens.
The ‘Minimising/Catastrophising’ Pattern
This pattern happens when you exaggerate or minimise the importance of something, obscuring the real impact of an event, reaction or person on your life. This can manifest in thoughts like:
- Yes, I don’t like it, but my feelings don’t really matter.
- I can’t believe I didn’t get that job. My life is over.
Tackling Cognitive Distortions in Interpersonal Therapy
Because cognitive distortions are deeply rooted in the subconscious and connected to sources of longstanding pain and trauma, professional support is often needed to guide you in addressing the root causes of these patterns and then practicing new ways of thinking. This essentially rewrites the script for your inner dialogue, and has a profound effect on the way you view yourself and others.
Interpersonal therapy, also known as a process group, is a highly effective way to begin to notice, unpack and reform patterns of thought. Composed of a small number of individuals and one to two therapists, interpersonal therapy first focuses on building trust, commitment, and a shared understanding of confidentiality among the group members. When that is established, members then begin interacting with each other while also noting the thoughts, feelings or reactions that arise as they do so. These are then reported to the group, and the therapist then helps to facilitate a process of understanding, reflection, and revision.
People tend to have a way of trying to protect or reinforce cognitive distortions, even when they ultimately have a negative impact on their quality of life. For example, if someone says “I can’t trust anyone,” they may bring up many examples to back this up even though it is not universally true. The safe space created in a process group is an ideal setting to collectively identify negative patterns and irrational thoughts for what they are, and practice alternatives that can be transformative for those suffering from cognitive distortions.
Seeing the Real You at The Dawn
The Dawn Wellness Centre and Rehab is a unique mental health and addiction treatment centre in northern Thailand, created to foster an environment of personal growth and healing for people who want to change their lives and build a more successful, happier, healthier future.
Call us today to learn more about how we can support your journey of self-acceptance and discovery.