Distorted thinking

I didn’t write the list of distorted thinking (it’s credited below), but found it helpful and interesting.

From Thoughts & Feelings by McKay, Davis, & Fanning. New Harbinger, 1981.These styles of thinking (or cognitive distortions) were gleaned from the work of several authors, including Albert Ellis, Aaron Beck, and David Burns, among others. 

15 Styles of Distorted Thinking

Filtering: You take the negative details and magnify them, while filtering out all positive aspects of a situation. A single detail may be picked out, and the whole event becomes colored by this detail. When you pull negative things out of context, isolated from all the good experiences around you, you make them larger and more awful than they really are.

Polarized Thinking: The hallmark of this distortion is an insistence on dichotomous choices. Things are black or white, good or bad. You tend to perceive everything at the extremes, with very little room for a middle ground. The greatest danger in polarized thinking is its impact on how you judge yourself. For example-You have to be perfect or you’re a failure.

Overgeneralization: You come to a general conclusion based on a single incident or piece of evidence. If something bad happens once, you expect it to happen over and over again. ‘Always’ and ‘never’ are cues that this style of thinking is being utilized. This distortion can lead to a restricted life, as you avoid future failures based on the single incident or event.

Mind Reading: Without their saying so, you know what people are feeling and why they act the way they do. In particular, you are able to divine how people are feeling toward you. Mind reading depends on a process called projection. You imagine that people feel the same way you do and react to things the same way you do. Therefore, you don’t watch or listen carefully enough to notice that they are actually different. Mind readers jump to conclusions that are true for them, without checking whether they are true for the other person.

Catastrophizing: You expect disaster. You notice or hear about a problem and start “what if’s.” What if that happens to me? What if tragedy strikes? There are no limits to a really fertile catastrophic imagination. An underlying catalyst for this style of thinking is that you do not trust in yourself and your capacity to adapt to change.

Personalization: This is the tendency to relate everything around you to yourself. For example, thinking that everything people do or say is some kind of reaction to you. You also compare yourself to others, trying to determine who’s smarter, better looking, etc. The underlying assumption is that your worth is in question. You are therefore continually forced to test your value as a person by measuring yourself against others. If you come out better, you get a moment’s relief. If you come up short, you feel diminished. The basic thinking error is that you interpret each experience, each conversation, each look as a clue to your worth and value.

Control Fallacies: There are two ways you can distort your sense of power and control. If you feel externally controlled, you see yourself as helpless, a victim of fate. The fallacy of internal control has you responsible for the pain and happiness of everyone around you. Feeling externally controlled keeps you stuck. You don’t believe you can really affect the basic shape of your life, let alone make any difference in the world. The truth of the matter is that we are constantly making decisions, and that every decision affects our lives. On the other hand, the fallacy of internal control leaves you exhausted as you attempt to fill the needs of everyone around you, and feel responsible in doing so (and guilty when you cannot).

Fallacy of Fairness: You feel resentful because you think you know what’s fair, but other people won’t agree with you. Fairness is so conveniently defined, so temptingly self-serving, that each person gets locked into his or her own point of view. It is tempting to make assumptions about how things would change if people were only fair or really valued you. But the other person hardly ever sees it that way, and you end up causing yourself a lot of pain and an ever-growing resentment.

Blaming: You hold other people responsible for your pain, or take the other tack and blame yourself for every problem. Blaming often involves making someone else responsible for choices and decisions that are actually our own responsibility. In blame systems, you deny your right (and responsibility) to assert your needs, say no, or go elsewhere for what you want.

Shoulds: You have a list of ironclad rules about how you and other people should act. People who break the rules anger you, and you feel guilty if you violate the rules. The rules are right and indisputable and, as a result, you are often in the position of judging and finding fault (in yourself and in others). Cue words indicating the presence of this distortion are should, ought, and must.

Emotional Reasoning: You believe that what you feel must be true-automatically. If you feel stupid or boring, then you must be stupid and boring. If you feel guilty, then you must have done something wrong. The problem with emotional reasoning is that our emotions interact and correlate with our thinking process. Therefore, if you have distorted thoughts and beliefs, your emotions will reflect these distortions.

Fallacy of Change: You expect that other people will change to suit you if you just pressure or cajole them enough. You need to change people because your hopes for happiness seem to depend entirely on them. The truth is the only person you can really control or have much hope of changing is yourself. The underlying assumption of this thinking style is that your happiness depends on the actions of others. Your happiness actually depends on the thousands of large and small choices you make in your life.

Global Labeling: You generalize one or two qualities (in yourself or others) into a negative global judgment. Global labeling ignores all contrary evidence, creating a view of the world that can be stereotyped and one-dimensional. Labeling yourself can have a negative and insidious impact upon your self-esteem; while labeling others can lead to snap-judgments, relationship problems, and prejudice.

Being Right: You feel continually on trial to prove that your opinions and actions are correct. Being wrong is unthinkable and you will go to any length to demonstrate your rightness. Having to be ‘right’ often makes you hard of hearing. You aren’t interested in the possible veracity of a differing opinion, only in defending your own. Being right becomes more important than an honest and caring relationship.

Heaven’s Reward Fallacy: You expect all your sacrifice and self-denial to pay off, as if there were someone keeping score. You fell bitter when the reward doesn’t come as expected. The problem is that while you are always doing the ‘right thing,’ if your heart really isn’t in it, you are physically and emotionally depleting yourself.

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6 Responses to Distorted thinking

  1. Amanda says:

    Guilty as charged on lots (if not all) of the above counts! I guess I “should” stop, but it’s not really my fault and after all – everyone does it! 🙂


  2. Bronze says:

    I believe by the end of my marriage (20 yrs) I did nearly every one of them. Living with someone who pulls the rug out from under you regularly, sabotages almost everything good, leave you feeling hated and worthless turns you into a paranoid wreck where everything bad IS magnified. It’s like living in a house of distortion mirrors. By the end, you don’t what is real and what you are imagining. He has since told me his abuse towards me for 20 yrs is a ‘construct of my belief’ and never happened. Lucky, I wrote a diary or I may be tempted to try and minimise it in my own mind the way he has. No more. I am slowly, slowly starting to get back to normal thought patterns where I am no longer paranoid or over analysing everything people say to me the way I had to with him. These men scramble your brain and the only way to heal is to get away from them.


  3. Exodus says:

    My husband displays all of those characteristics but I wanted to comment re: Polarized Thinking because this behavior is the root of most of my marriage problems.

    A couple of years ago I went to see a therapist to just have a place to decompress. After seeing her a few of times, she told me that my husband displays ‘Borderline’ personality traits. I’m still not exactly clear how this disorder manifests but she told me that they rarely ever have successful relationships (friendships, professional) because of polarized thinking. I think that this is a trait of some narcissists as well. My husband is always polarized. There’s never any reasoning or logic or gray area. It’s always all or nothing or him or me. We can’t discuss anything because of his black and white thinking. If I suggest anything about our home, gardens, business or finances or anything, he blows up, makes a big scene, screams childish comments at me that make no sense, won’t give me even a second to respond to his comments and then finally says, ‘ you’re right, I’m wrong’. There’s no negotiating whatsoever and I’m left standing there, speechless and alone because he walks away and of course, this means that he will retaliate in some PA way because I ‘ won’. It’s either I’m right or he’s right and never that ‘ we’ve made a decision together’. It’s interesting too that he always accuses me of ‘ keeping score’ and yet, he’s the one who spends his energy doing that. The drama that ensues each time we get into one of these situations has taken such a toll on my mind and body that I truly cannot handle it anymore. I usually just carefully walk away from him, pretending that I have to go to the bathroom or retrieve something. I have to do this or he will come after me, badgering me constantly about why I ignore him and refuse to talk to him. I’m always between a rock and hard place.
    I can’t handle these moments anymore. I’m going to have a stroke, heart attack or do something illegal in a fit of insane rage.. Does anyone else’s PA husband display this polarized/borderline behavior?


    • WritesinPJ's says:

      Yes, at times. There’s been an awful lot of (and I do mean awful) push me away, pull me back. Push and pull and push and pull until I can’t think straight.

      I’m thinking of my own distorted thinking as well. My version of filtering has too often been the opposite. I tend to look for the good, and filter out the bad. It’s okay if I consciously overlook or set aside a negative reality, but my filter has worked more like a blinder.
      On the other hand, when deeply afraid for some reason, I’m sure I’ve focused on the negative possibilities.

      I’ve definitely been influenced by overgeneralization. One good example is dancing. I had a slumber party when I was about twelve years old. I invited girls that were classmates, not necessarily friends, and a couple of them were just not nice people. It was all girls, and we played records and danced. One of them made fun of my dancing in front of everyone, and I avoided dancing from then on, all through my teens, and until my daughter got married. You know what? I now LOVE dancing. So with the always/never thing, I just took the early imprint that I’d always dance poorly, look stupid dancing, and draw painful attention, and never challenged it.

      Also, I’ve worked hard over the last several years to eliminate the Fallacy of Change kind of distorted thinking in myself. Still working on that!


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