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Cognitive distortions are distorted, exaggerated, negative ways of thinking. For example, your boss tells you that your presentation was not as good as she had expected, and you take that to mean your boss hates everything you do and thinks you’re terrible at your job. This kind of distortion is called overgeneralization: You take one isolated instance and assume it applies to everything in your life.
Most people think in distorted ways from time to time, but addicts are especially prone to many types of cognitive distortions. They tend to filter all information through a negative lens. This kind of thinking is really dangerous, because it leads to hopelessness, inaction, feelings of worthlessness, and a belief that change is not possible.
When your thinking is so distorted, you no longer see the world as it really is. You’re living in your head, rather than living in the real world.
The first step in clearing out this kind of distorted thinking is to recognize it. When you know what to look for, you can catch yourself thinking in distorted ways, re-examine an event and understand it for what it really is. In the example I just gave about the boss and the presentation, you might realize your boss was being critical of only one thing that you did. And the fact that she expected better work from you means she generally thinks your work is good.
Psychologists recognize the following 10 cognitive distortions as being the most common. See if any of them seem familiar.
1. All-or-nothing thinking: You see things as black and white—total success or total failure.
2. Overgeneralization: You see a single event as evidence of an endless pattern.
3. Mental filter: You pick out a single negative detail and focus exclusively on that, so that you never se the good in anything.
4. Disqualifying the positive: You reject positive experiences as being irrelevant; somehow, they “don’t count.”
5. Jumping to conclusions: You interpret things negatively and assume everything will turn out badly. You might assume everyone dislikes you without even asking them, or assume things will turnout badly without even trying them.
6. Magnification or minimization: You exaggerate the importance of bad things in your life and minimize the importance of good things.
7. Emotional reasoning: You assume your negative emotions reflect the way things really are.
8. Should statements: You try to motivate yourself and others by saying “you should do this,” or you “shouldn’t do that,” as if you and everyone else must be punished and made to feel guilty before you will actually do anything.
9. Labeling and mislabeling: You negatively label yourself or others based on a single event. So, for example, you forget to say “thank you” once and you conclude, “I’m a rude person.”
10. Personalization: You see yourself as the cause of external events that you really had nothing to do with.
This list of cognitive distortions comes from work done by David D. Burns, MD (you can read about it in his book The Feeling Good Handbook, William Morrow and Company, 1989). Also, check out http://depression.about.com/cs/psychotherapy/a/cognitive.htm—a web site that explains these cognitive distortions really well.