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  • Writer's pictureAli McNab

What happens when our brain distorts our thinking?

“She's given me negative feedback, she obviously hates my work”

“I was just in the right place at the right time”

"I messed up that interview, I'll never get a job"

“There is no point me trying, I’m hopeless at it”

“He always gets the best jobs”

“I got it wrong again, I’m such a loser!”

The negative or limiting statements we put on ourselves and others can have a detrimental impact on how we behave and feel. However, these statements are often irrational and unfounded. They are products of the vastly complex way our brain processes information.

Our brain simplifies and filters information to help us make sense of it, and in doing so it; links experiences, without evidence that they are truly connected; sees patterns in our thoughts that may be unfounded; and it interprets the consequences of our actions in a way that may not be real.

We use dialogue, words and emotions to represent these experiences, but detail and context are often lost in translation.

Known as “Cognitive Distortion” this process affects our feelings, actions and behaviour. It informs our underlying beliefs and the assumptions we make about ourselves and the world around us. It tells us what we are capable of or what we are allowed to do and holds us back from making certain decisions, taking certain steps or trying new things. This negative interpretation of our experiences can lead to anxiety, stress and low self-esteem.

It gets in the way of us achieving our aspirations!

These irrational thoughts and beliefs are unconsciously reinforced over time, and therefore become very hard to change. But you can change them! It isn’t easy but through recognising and understanding your cognitive distortions you can challenge and change your limiting negative thoughts.

David D Burns, a leading psychiatrist in the field of cognitive behaviour, identified the below 10 key cognitive distortions in his "The Feeling Good Handbook " (1989).

I’ve included examples of how these have played out in my or my clients' experience.

Which ring true for you?

1) All or Nothing Thinking:

Seeing things as black-or-white, right-or-wrong with nothing in between. Essentially, if I'm not perfect then I'm a failure.

“There's no point in playing if I'm not 100% in shape.”

“We’re not going on holiday this year because we can’t afford to fly to the Bahamas.”

“I’m not going to do that presentation because I’m not a naturally brilliant speaker.”

2) Overgeneralisation:

Using words like always, never in relation to a single event or experience.

“I didn’t get the job, I’m always terrible in interviews.”

“I never do anything fun.”

“He always wins.”

3) Minimising or Magnifying (Also Catastrophising):

Seeing things as dramatically more or less important than they actually are. Often creating a "catastrophe" that follows.

“I didn't finish that report! My boss won't trust me again and the whole project will fail.”

“She hasn’t responded to my email, she obviously thinks I’m a complete loser, and will tell all her friends.”

4) "Shoulds":

Using "should", "need to", "must", "ought to" to motivate oneself, then feeling guilty when you don't follow through (or anger / resentment when someone else doesn't follow through).

“I need to work every night to do my job well.”

“I’m the head of the team, I must know all their projects inside out.”

“I am their mother I should to be there for them.”

5) Labelling:

Attaching a negative label to yourself or others following a single event.

“I didn't stand up to my boss, I'm such a wimp!”

What an idiot, he couldn't even see that coming!”

“I forgot to call mum on her birthday, I’m a horrible daughter.”

6) Jumping to Conclusions:

Mind-Reading: Making assumptions about how people see you without evidence or fact

“He ignored me, he still hasn't forgiven me for .....”

“She hasn’t thanked me for that piece of work, she thinks it’s rubbish.”

Fortune Telling: Making negative predictions about the future without evidence or facts

“There are no jobs with the same flexible working option, so there’s no point looking.”

“If I move house I'll lose this sense of community and my kids won't make new friends.”

7) Discounting the Positive:

Not acknowledging the positive. Saying anyone could have done it or insisting that your positive actions, qualities or achievements don't count

“They only gave me the job to avoid an expensive external recruitment process.”

“I was just in the right place at the right time.”

“I’m making decisions based on nothing” [discounting own expertise]

8) Blame and Personalisation:

Blaming yourself when you weren't entirely responsible or blaming other people and denying your role in the situation

“I won’t succeed in this industry, I’m too old.

If only I hadn't said that, I would have won that contract.”

If only I hadn’t listened to her, I would have done it differently.”

9) Emotional Reasoning:

I feel, therefore I am. Assuming that a feeling is true without exploring if this is accurate

“I feel guilty, I must have done something wrong.”

“I feel really bad for yelling at my partner, I must be really selfish and inconsiderate.”

“I feel anxious before presentations, I must be terrible at public speaking.”

10) Mental Filter:

Allowing (dwelling on) one negative detail / fact to spoil our enjoyment, happiness, hope etc

"My meal was undercooked and that spoiled the whole evening."

"It was a terrible holiday because the flight out was delayed"

"My presentation went really badly because I stumbled on that one slide"

Being aware of your own cognitive distortions can help you better understand yourself, enabling you to challenge your limiting beliefs and live a more progressive and fulfilling life.

Which of your cognitive distortions would you like to challenge?

Ali McNab is a Transformational Coach helping people who feel frustrated, stuck or lost to reach a more fulfilled and balanced life. She will help you clarify where you want to be, explore your strengths and obstacles and define what needs to change to get you there. Ali works directly with individuals and with charities and social purpose organisations supporting their approaches to staff well-being and development.


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