Feeling Good and Cognitive Distortions

During my last year of University I was introduced to a book that dramatically changed the way I view and engage the world. It’s too bad it wasn’t one of the assigned readings. Feeling Good – The New Mood Therapy by David D. Burns, M.D. was an eye opener for a couple of reasons. The content of the book is first rate. When you read it you are hit with that “of course this is how it is” feeling that makes it very easy to understand. But the gem of Dr. Burns’ book is the practical exercises he presents for you to do to try and help you see the truth of what he is saying as it is manifested within your behavior. It would be a good book without the exercises, it is a life changing book because of them. Reading the book cover to cover and doing the exercises will improve your life, even if you are feeling good already.

As I worked my way through the book a strange feeling gripped me for the first time. I became aware that I had never learned how to think or how my brain works with information. As a psychology student I was exposed to a lot of scientific evidence that documented the outcome of thought processes. But we didn’t touch very much on our conscious experience as it comes to how we create an understanding of the world. I realized that we are born and as we mature we are schooled in language, math, science, history, etc…. all things that will increase the likelihood that we’ll be come productive members of society; the goal is to produce tax payers who will find their role, procreate and raise more tax payers. Very little of our socialization this has anything to do with the individuals themselves, it is gear towards creating the functioning parts that make up the whole.

Burns take on the task of illuminating the thought process as it deals with the individuals. What I think is the best part of the book are the sections devoted to cognitive distortions because I found myself making a lot of these perceptual errors.

First off realize that what we think about the world is NOT necessarily what is actually going on in the world. Our interpretation of events is based on our past experience with the world. If we make the right interpretation we will be fine, our world view will be in line with reality. But if we make the wrong interpretation, we can run into trouble. Take the actions of a young child who see fire for the first time. They have no behavioral event inventory with fire, they have no world view of it, and may decide that it is bright and warm like the sun but not damaging to touch and choose to grab it. They end up getting burned. It’s a valuable lesson for them because fire does burn you more quickly than the sun does.

The child making the decision that the fire is just like the sun is a cognitive distortion. It is an assumption they make that they believe is true, but which isn’t. In the case of the fire, the outcome is fairly obvious, a lesson that hurts. But with higher level things, the outcome can be more insidious and damaging. If the child who sees his father lighting the fire that eventually burned them creates a connection between the fire and his father, he has made a damaging cognitive distortion because it *may* impact the way the child views their father. They could end up thinking that there father is capable of burning them directly and withdraw from this parent in a protective reflex.

This example is fairly simplistic, but it is how the brain works. It’s an effect pattern matching engine that looks for patterns that will improve chances of survival.

Dr. Burns has a list of 10 cognitive distortions that he has observed people making:

  1. All-or-nothing thinking: You see things in black and white categories. If your performance falls short of perfect, you see yourself as a total failure.
  2. Over generalization: You see a single negative event as a never-ending pattern of defeat.
  3. Mental filter: You pick out a single negative detail and dwell on it exclusively so that your vision of all reality becomes darkened, like the drop of ink that discolors the entire beaker of water.
  4. Disqualifying the positive: You reject positive experiences by insisting they “don’t count” for some reason or other. You maintain a negative belief that is contradicted by your everyday experiences.
  5. Jumping to conclusions: You make a negative interpretation even though there are no definite facts that convincingly support your conclusion.
  • Mind reading: You arbitrarily conclude that someone is reacting negatively to you and don’t bother to check it out.
  • The Fortune Teller Error: You anticipate that things will turn out badly and feel convinced that your prediction is an already-established fact.
  1. Magnification (catastrophizing) or minimization: You exaggerate the importance of things (such as your goof-up or someone else’s achievement), or you inappropriately shrink things until they appear tiny (your own desirable qualities or the other fellow’s imperfections). This is also called the “binocular trick.”
  2. Emotional reasoning: You assume that your negative emotions necessarily reflect the way things really are: “I feel it, therefore it must be true.”
  3. Should statements: You try to motivate yourself with shoulds and shouldn’ts, as if you had to be whipped and punished before you could be expected to do anything. “Musts” and “oughts” are also offenders. The emotional consequence is guilt. When you direct should statements toward others, you feel anger, frustration, and resentment.
  4. Labeling and mislabeling: This is an extreme form of over generalization. Instead of describing your error, you attach a negative label to yourself: “I’m a loser.” When someone else’s behavior rubs you the wrong way, you attach a negative label to him, “He’s a damn louse.” Mislabeling involves describing an event with language that is highly colored and emotionally loaded.
  5. Personalization: You see yourself as the cause of some negative external event for which, in fact, you were not primarily responsible.