Distorted thinking is when we misinterpret a situation as awful and a threat to our well-being, when in reality it is not. Because our thoughts generate emotions, and our emotions cause reactions, distortions in our thinking can lead us into an undesirable reaction.
Everyone is guilty of distorted thinking at one time or another. The less we do it, however, the more likely we are to respond appropriately rather than with an over-sized reaction. Identifying distorted thinking, then challenging it, is the best way to reduce the number and size of our bad reactions.
Need some examples of distorted thinking to help you see your own? Wondering how to challenge your distorted thoughts? This page is for you. The left column introduces common types of distorted thinking. As you move to the right you’ll find an example of a distorted thought that fits the type, and then tips for challenging those distorted thoughts when they happen.
Distorted thinking type
My wife forgot to buy the BBQ sauce I asked her to buy. She’s so forgetful.
Challenges to distortions
Maintain a balance in your perspective: She did get a whole bunch of other groceries for us. The BBQ is not a big deal. I can go back and get some if we need more.
2. Polarized or “black and white” thinking.
Things are either black-or-white, good or bad. People or situations fit into either/or categories with no middle ground.
My daughter’s new boyfriend has a tattoo and wears his hair too long. I know he’s no good.
Most people and situations are complex. Allow for shades of gray: He doesn’t do a very good job with personal grooming, but he is friendly, make my daughter laugh, and gets her home on time.
Coming to a general conclusion based on one incident or a single piece of evidence.
I stopped at that new parts store down the street. I waited 15 minutes and never got help. Their service is lousy and I’m never going back there again.
One experience may not be the case all the time: It looked like they were short on help and still training employees. Maybe I’ll give them another chance after they have more time to get established.
4. Jumping to conclusions.
Without individuals saying so, we assume we know what they are feeling and why they act the way they do. In particular, we assume we know how people are feeling toward us and the motivation for their actions.
I asked my girlfriend out to dinner but she said she has other plans. She doesn’t like me and doesn’t want to be with me.
Reading someone else’s mind is not possible and can needlessly take us down a very negative path: She usually says yes when I ask her out. Maybe she wanted to go but really does have other plans. I could ask her for another night, or ask her if everything is okay between us.
Expecting disaster to strike, no matter what. We act as if possible what if scenarios are certain.
Because my husband wasn’t ready for the company picnic at noon like I asked him to be, we’re going to be late. I’m going to look like a fool and am never going to get that promotion I’ve been working for.
Personalization is a distortion where a person believes that everything others do or say is some kind of direct, personal attack.
That guy changed lanes right in front of me and cut me off. He’s has no respect for me and doesn’t care about my safety.
People are seldom even aware of us, much less doing things intentionally to us: He must be in a hurry. Maybe he didn’t see me and it was an innocent mistake. I changed lanes last week and didn’t see the car in my blind spot until they honked their horn.
7. Control fallacy.
If we feel externally controlled, we see ourselves as a helpless victim of fate. Or, in the fallacy of internal control, we assume responsibility for the pain and happiness of everyone around us.
(External) I can’t help it if the quality of my work is poor. My boss gives me too much to do.
(Internal) If my wife had a bad day, I have to make her happy.
Take responsibility for what you can control and let go of the things you can’t: I’m going to spend a little more time checking for my mistakes.
My wife had a bad day. I’ll try to cheer her up, but if she’s not ready for it, I’ll know that I tried.
8. Fallacy of fairness.
Feeling resentful because we think we know what is fair, but other people won’t agree with us.
It’s not fair that Bob got promoted before me. I’ve worked harder and contributed more than he did.
Things will not always work out in our favor, even when we think it should. Judging every situation in terms of fairness will often leave us feeling badly: No one said life was fair. This is one of those times.
Holding other people responsible for our pain, or taking the other track and blaming ourselves for every problem.
When you complain about the washing machine not working, you make me feel like I’m not a good provider.
Nobody can make us feel any particular way — we get to choose how we feel: I feel inadequate knowing the washing machine is broken but not having enough money to buy a new one.
These are ironclad rules about how people should (or should not) behave. Others who break the rules make us angry, while we feel guilty when we violate our own rules.
My neighbor should rake his leaves before they blow into my yard.
I really should exercise.
Remove the should and make the rule more optional:
It would be nice if my neighbor raked, but there’s no code that says he has to.
Exercise would be a good choice for me.
11. Emotional reasoning.
Believe that what we feel must automatically be true.
I feel stupid when I try to read about investments. I must be stupid.
Don’t assume that your emotions are really true. Try to rationalize: I’m feeling stupid right now, but just because I feel stupid doesn’t make it true.
12. Fallacy of change.
The expectation that other people will change to suit our wishes if we just pressure them enough.
I’m never going to be happy until my husband quits his job.
Don’t pin your hope for happiness on someone else’s behavior: I don’t understand why my husband likes his job. I don’t have to work there, however, so I guess it doesn’t impact me.
13. Global labeling/mislabeling.
Labeling or mislabeling involves describing a person or event with highly colored and emotionally loaded language.
When I was down-sized from my job, I say, “I’m a loser.”
When my partner gets angry with me for staying out late, it becomes, “She’s a crazy bitch.”
Avoid labels. Stick with the facts:
I got down-sized from my job.
My partner was upset with me for staying out late.
14. Always being right.
Feeling continually on trial to prove that our opinions and actions are correct. Being wrong is unthinkable. We go to any length to demonstrate we’re right.
I’m going to ask all my friends their opinion because I know I’m right and you’re wrong.
Put harmony in your relationship above your desire to be right: I think I’m right about this, but I’m going to let it go. There’s no upside to proving my partner wrong.
15. Heaven’s reward fallacy.
Expecting our sacrifice and self-denial to pay off, as if someone is keeping score. We feel bitter when the reward doesn’t come.
I work full time and then come home and do all of the cooking, cleaning, and laundry to take care of this family. No one ever thanks me.
Let your sacrifice and knowledge that you’re doing the right thing be the reward: I work my butt off to support my family on the job and at home. I feel good about myself because I know it’s the right thing to do.
A hat tip to Aaron Beck who first proposed the theory, David Burns who named the different types of distortions, and the PsychCentral website for making these so available.