Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is considered the most effective therapy for depression and anxiety. Principles of cognitive behavioral therapy include:
- How you feel is determined by what you think.
- Change how you think if you want to change how your feel.
- Thoughts that make you feel depressed, anxious, self-doubtful or crazy are called “cognitive distortions.”
While traditional CBT focuses on the relationship between thinking and negative feeling states, Integral Deep Listening (IDL) recognizes three types of cognitive distortions, emotional, logical and perspectival. The latter two are higher order psychopathologies not normally encountered by mental health professionals, because they are dysfunctions of normalcy, a state to which most people in the care of a psychologist want to return. However, when a person’s interest is not normalcy but growth, they begin to look around themselves and question the consequences of normalcy. They notice that most people do not think rationally or make logical decisions and that everyone is caught in delusional belief systems that are products of their culture, work, family, religion or other belief systems. Therefore, IDL notes that anyone interested in waking up out of the self-created dream of normal experience needs to recognize and neutralize all three forms of cognitive distortion. In what follows we will give examples of each, explain their importance, and explain how they can be minimized.
Examples of Common Cognitive Distortions, Their Importance and Remedies
Black or White or Polarized Thinking
Example: “I am good and the causes I fight for are noble and right; otherwise, I’m a horrible person and deserve to burn in Hell eternally.”
Something or someone is all good or all bad. It is also an example of “all or nothing” thinking, often called the “false dilemma” or “excluded middle” logical fallacy. Therefore, it is both an emotional and a logical cognitive distortion. Polarized thinking is closely related to the “straw man” fallacy, which essentially presents one side of an argument as being so extreme, that no can agree with it. If you can imagine living your life based on dividing everything and everyone into good and evil, friend or foe, believers or heretics, saints or sinners, then you have an example of a perceptual cognitive distortion; black or white thinking becomes so pervasive that it constitutes your world view or belief system. This is also found in mid-prepersonal personality disorders.
Healthy alternative thought: “I am not always good and I make mistakes, but that doesn’t mean I am a bad person that deserves to be punished.”
Examples: “I must be a complete loser and failure.” “I’m always late.” “You never listen to me.”
You exaggerate things. Exaggerations are never accurate; to believe them or to use them is irrational. When you overgeneralize, you weaken your case, because it’s clear that you are exaggerating. The other person only needs to think of one exception to undercut your entire argument and ignore you. Overgeneralization is a characteristic of many different logical fallacies, such as the “argument from authority.” It says, “because Einstein knows a lot about physics, he must also know a lot about God, religion, philosophy, psychology, relationships and ballet.”
Counterexamples: ““Because I sometimes fail, it doesn’t mean that I’m a loser and failure.” ““I’m late a lot, but I’m not always late.” “You don’t listen to me a lot of the time.”
Examples: “Nobody is ever nice to me.” “I can’t ever do anything right.”
You ignore information and events that disprove your warped beliefs and assumptions. Filtering ignores evidence that does not validate your biases and prejudices. Your world view or perceptual cognitive distortion which runs your life is maintained by filtering. You only see what you are conditioned to see and either ignore or minimize what you have not learned to pay attention to.
Counterexamples: “That’s not accurate. Martha smiled at me in the hall and John asked me how I was doing.” “I got to work on time today; that’s something. I returned Max’s phone call. That’s something. So it’s not true that I can’t do anything right.”
Jumping to Conclusions
Examples: “They didn’t say hi or look at me. They must not like me.” “I’m going to lose my job because I said I was sick when I wasn’t.”
You assume and react instead of checking out, thinking things through and responding. “Mind reading” and “intuition,” also called “fortune telling,” are examples of jumping to conclusions. You know what other people are thinking about you without asking, or what is real or true or right, because you just “know.” “I’m going to lose my job because I said I was sick when I wasn’t.” How do you know this? Are you psychic? This is an outcome that you fear; you are presenting it to yourself as if your fear is a reality when it is not. It is a possible future outcome.
When you jump to conclusions, you are using a logical fallacy called “Begging the Question” or “Circular Argument.” You do this when you repeat a claim, belief or feeling without ever providing support for your assumptions.
Counterexamples: “Maybe they are thinking about something else. It may or may not be true that they don’t like me.” “I don’t know that; I’m just afraid that might happen.”
Examples: “My chest hurts! It’s a heart attack! I’m going to die!!” “I always fail at love. I’m never going to find someone.”
You don’t just assume; you assume the worst. Catastrophizing is not simply an exaggeration or filtering; it takes the worst possible outcome imaginable and treats it like it is a reality, as if that is what will inevitably happen. You do this in an attempt to be prepared for anything, but rather than preparing yourself, you simply scare yourself silly.
Catastrophizing is an example of a type of logical fallacy called “Non Sequitur,” which is Latin for “it does not follow.” This means that the conclusion does not follow the premises. There is a logical gap between the premises or evidence and the conclusion you draw from it. “He didn’t ask me out; no one is ever going to find me attractive.” ‘Nobody liked my lecture; I’m a failure as a public speaker and teacher.” Chicken Little said, “Something fell on my head, so the sky is falling.”
Catastrophizing as a perceptual cognitive distortion is seen when governments gin up threats of Russians or terrorists in order to increase their power and control over a scared population. Jews use a history of catastrophic persecution to maintain cultural solidarity and “specialness.”
Counterexamples: “My chest hurting could mean a lot of things. I’ll get it checked out before I think the worst.” “You’ve gotta kiss lot of frogs before you find a prince.”
Examples: “She looks angry. It must be something I did.” “This patient is getting sicker. I must be doing something wrong.
Whatever happens, it’s all about you. That is grandiose, narcissistic and egotistical. It’s also not true. Personalization prevents the development of empathy toward others and compassion toward yourself. Sometimes referred to as “adolescent girl syndrome,” personalization is painfully exaggerated self-consciousness.
Personalization is a curious type of ad hominem logical fallacy. You assume other people are attacking you instead of evidence or logic. Or, if they attack your evidence or logic, you take it as an ad hominem attack on yourself.
Personalization is the core perceptual cognitive distortion because it generates both psychological geocentrism and heliocentrism, the belief that the self is real and it therefore requires protection from death and salvation.
Counterexamples: “Maybe she’s having a bad hair day.” “Maybe I better get more information before I assume this is about me.”
Most of what people do or say to you or about you is a reflection of their own beliefs, thoughts and values, not yours. If you didn’t exist, people would pretty much be saying and doing the same things.
There are two types of control fallacies. The fallacy of external control says you are a victim of circumstances beyond your control. Here is an example:
“I can’t help it if the quality of the work is poor: my boss demanded I work overtime on it.”
The fallacy of internal control says you are responsible for other people’s feelings and happiness. Here is an example:
“Why aren’t you happy? Is it because of something I did?”
The first type of control fallacy ignores the part that you play in how you think or feel, or in what happens to you. The second type ascribes too much responsibility and power to you over the lives of others. You are not without responsibility, but you’re not responsible for everyone and everything, either.
Both of these play a big role in creating perceptual cognitive distortions. The law of karma is a type of internal control fallacy. Capitalism is an example of the external control fallacy because it takes too little responsibility by justifying selfishness, thus encouraging and validating exploitation.
Counterexamples: “It’s partially my responsibility that my work is not up to my usual standards.” “Why aren’t you happy?”
Fallacy of Fairness
Example: “That’s not fair!”
Life should be fair. When you insist that life must be fair, you are assuming that your rules for life are the universe’s rules. How likely is that? The problem here is with irrational expectations, clung to out of either a belief in your exceptionalism or an unrealistic sense of justice. The reality is that life is neither fair nor unfair. That it is not is your projection of your own social standards onto life.
The fallacy of fairness is an example of a logical fallacy called “hasty generalization.” It involves mistaking a small incidence (something that happens to you) for reality. Your partner cheats on you and you conclude that’s not fair, which leads to you justifying feelings of hurt, anger and fear.
Counterexample: “There are a lot of things in life that don’t live up to my expectations. I can learn to deal with that.”
Stop thinking in terms of fairness and unfairness but do negotiate relationships based on mutual respect. Our sense of fairness is arbitrary and changes based on convenience and self-interest.
Examples: “Stop making me feel bad about myself!” “I would be happy if it weren’t for…”
Somebody’s always to blame! It couldn’t be me, could it? If others represent those aspects of yourself that you project onto them, then to blame someone else is to persecute the parts of yourself that they represent. If someone hurts you, is it wise for you to then turn around and hurt yourself by blaming?
Blaming is another example of the ad hominem logical fallacy, whether directed toward others or toward yourself. In this fallacy, instead of examining the thinking that caused you or someone else to make a mistake, you attack yourself or that other person. Blaming always feels justified but looked at objectively, it’s always a self-defeating and stupid reaction to life’s challenges.
When blaming to avoid responsibility becomes a life strategy it rises to the level of a perceptual cognitive distortion.
Counterexamples: “You don’t have the power to make me feel bad about myself unless I give it to you. Why would I want to do that?” “I can choose to be happy independently of what happens or what other people say or do. It’s not always easy, but I can do it.”
“Should-ing” on Yourself
Examples: “They shouldn’t be doing/saying that…” “I ought to be better/more professional, happier, wealthier, better-looking…” “I must exercise more. I shouldn’t be so lazy.” “I should be loving toward everyone.”
Self-persecution (and persecution of others) as a lifestyle. Thinking or talking in terms of “shoulds,” “musts,” or “oughts” is a cognitive distortion, because it is based on the belief that shame, guilt and abuse are effective and worthwhile motivational tools. In the short term, they are effective, in that they get others to discipline themselves so that you don’t have to. If you can brainwash a child, spouse or employee into doing what you want them to do because they should, your life is much simpler. However, you are generating compliance based on fear. That reflects poorly on you and produces resistance in healthy children, spouses, workers and citizens. Shoulding is also a cognitive distortion, because it is dishonest and manipulative. If you love someone, you don’t attempt to scare them or make them feel guilty. For example, some parents who love their children use fear and guilt because they lack patience, tools or self-discipline. Other parents are selfish and use guilt to socialize their child into behaving.
In addition to being another example of the ad hominem logicalfallacy, “should-ing” demonstrates another, called “moral equivalency.” It equates two moral issues that are, in fact, different. The first is your unrealistic expectation for yourself or for others, based on what you have been taught to expect or want to have happen. The second is reality. For example, if you set for yourself the moral expectation not to be lazy, then you will “should” on yourself whenever you don’t exercise “enough.” But since “enough” is always more than what you are doing, you feel justified in constantly beating yourself up. The only way out of this moral fallacy is to identify and give up your unrealistic expectations for yourself and others.
Counterexamples: “I think it would be better if they didn’t do/say that…” “I think it would be better if I were…” “I need to exercise more. It would be better if I wasn’t so lazy.” “I would like to be more loving toward everyone.”
Example: “Because this feels stupid and boring, it must be stupid and boring.”
“I feel it, therefore it must be true.” This distortion says that you can’t change how you think, because your feelings are real. The point is not that your feeling are unreal, but that they make poor masters of the house of your consciousness. When you use this your preferences define your reality. What you like is good, true and real and what you don’t like is bad, false and phony.
Whenever you attempt to win an argument inside your head or with someone else by getting angry, “hurt,” excited, defensive or funny, rather than focusing the quality of the reasoning or the evidence, you are using the logical fallacy of “emotional appeal.” It is either an implicit threat: “Bad things will happen if you don’t agree with me.” (I’ll blame you, throw a fit, ignore you, you’ll hurt my feelings and then you’ll be sorry, I’ll withdraw my financial support, cut you off sexually, etc.) It can also be an implicit promise: “Good things will happen if you play along with me. I’ll make you feel good and forget about your problems. I’ll make your life seem easier.” These are promises that you know the other person can’t fulfill because happiness is an inside job, but you will forget that for now because you want to feel good, and they make you feel good.
Counterexample: “Just because I have strong feelings toward something or someone, that doesn’t make those feelings true, right or good.”
Fallacy of Change, or “Waiting for Santa Claus”
Examples: “I can’t be happy unless you change.” “I can’t be happy until you change.” “I can’t be happy until I change.”
Your happiness depends on change, in others, yourself or both. This is a cognitive distortion because it puts happiness in a future that does not yet exist and perhaps never will. That makes it impossible to be happy now, which is untrue, since you can choose to be happy now, regardless of how things turn out in the future. Santa Claus can make you happy, but since he’s not here yet, you can’t be happy. Waiting for Santa Claus is another example of the non sequitur logical fallacy, because it does not follow that happiness depends on change.
An example of “Waiting for Santa Claus” as a perceptual cognitive distortion is found among rapture groups announcing and preparing for the Second Coming and, on the other hand, the eschatologists waiting for Armageddon. This second group is like a hypochondriac, always predicting world sickness and death. People who base their lives on luck and play it out as gamblers, buyers of lottery tickets, believing in fate or predestination or a promotion or prince charming have raised this irrational delusion to the level of a life script and perceptual cognitive distortion.
Counter-examples: “I can be happy whether or not you change.” “I can be happy now.” “I can be happy whether or not I change.”
Examples: “You’re a real jerk.” “Because people don’t treat me fairly, the world is a bad, evil place.” “Hobbes was right. Because some people act like animals, the human race is a Darwinian survival of the fittest.” “She abandons her children to strangers.” (If you put your child in childcare.)
A global label is a universal generalization about yourself, others or life itself. It is a cognitive distortion for all the reasons that over-generalizations are. These are a particular type of over-generalization designed to abuse or persecute someone else or ourselves. When we want certainty and need Truth, we tend to reach for the cognitive distortion of global labeling.
Global labeling is another example of the ad hominem logical fallacy. Because we can’t or won’t think things through, we stop thinking and start attacking the person rather than the argument. Doing so is a sign of defeat. You’ve already lost the argument when you indulge in this fallacy; you just don’t realize that you have. However, anyone who understands logical fallacies will recognize that you are merely demonstrating your ignorance and intellectual immaturity.
Counter-examples: “S/he thinks I’m a real jerk.”“Because people don’t treat me fairly I don’t have to believe the world is a bad, evil place” “Hobbes may have been right. However, there’s a lot of evidence that he was wrong.” “I am trying to make sure my children are cared for by getting help from childcare.”
Always Being Right
Examples: “I’m right.” “If I’m wrong, that means I’m inferior.” “If I am wrong, that means that I’m stupid or weak, or that I’m a failure.” “It’s more important to be right than it is to be loving.”
It’s irrational to expect yourself to be right all the time. In addition to it being impossible, it’s not healthy. You learn from your mistakes and failures. Your character is determined more by how you handle yourself in times of challenge, than by how much of the time you are right. It takes a lot of energy to be right all the time, energy that could be better spent enjoying life. With this cognitive distortion, you’re always fighting against parts of yourself that you think are a mistake or a failure. Needing to be right is compensation for a pervasive fear that you are in the wrong and out of control, that you are a failure.
True Believers in any cause, religious, political, gender or social are excellent examples of this psychopathological perceptual cognitive distortion. They know what is right and tell others in the hope that by doing so, it will somehow expiate their pervasive feelings of inadequacy.
Counter-examples: “Being wrong means I’m human. It means I’m alive.” “Being wrong means I have an opportunity to pay attention and learn something.” “Needing to be either right or loving pretty much guarantees that I’m neither.”
Heaven’s Reward Fallacy
Examples: “If I sacrifice enough today, I’ll be rewarded someday.” “In the long run, people will realize what a great person I am.”
In the end, you’ll win. This fallacy is most clearly exhibited as a perceptual cognitive distortion. It can effectively motivate you into a lifetime of irrational action. It has been used to justify cruelty, abuse, slavery and the withholding of basic human needs and rights from women and children for millennia. In India, it has been used, in the form of the concept of karma, to keep people in their social strata in order to maintain social order. In the West, the belief in salvation by a messiah or other rescuer, or by a place in heaven, has been used to keep human work horses under the yolk. Once this cognitive distortion has been internalized, it becomes “God’s will” or “dharma,” (divine law) that you are where you are in life. It doesn’t have anything to do with oppression by the ruling castes or classes, and even if it does, it’s okay, because someday all will be made right when you get your reward in heaven.
Heaven’s Reward fallacy is another example of the non sequitur logical fallacy. There is no evidence that you will get the reward that you believe you or others deserve; there is only your belief that this will happen. You want to claim your belief is sufficient evidence, because that belief is so foundational to your world view. If you stopped basing your life on your beliefs and instead started basing it on clear thinking, your life would be disrupted. You would find that others who base their lives on their beliefs are threatened by you, because you no longer mindlessly support the assumptions upon which they base their actions. The consequence is that you may experience extreme social pressure to stop thinking clearly and to go back to a life based on the logical fallacy of appeals to authority: to do what you do because it’s what you were taught to do, because it is “God’s will” (as defined by your culture), or because it will bring you rewards and allow you to avoid social punishment. If you learn to think clearly, you will be respected, but you may not be liked; you may be admired, but you may be despised as a threat. It has always been so. Whenever anyone grows beyond the typical level of acceptable clarity within a particular culture, they become an outcast. Why should you expect it to be different for you?
Counter-examples: “Now is the only time I can be happy and alive. I’m going to live for today, not sacrifice for some mythical tomorrow.” “In the long run, no one will remember me. If I want to feel alive, I’d better find time for it today, because tomorrow never comes.”
It is definitely not only possible but relatively easy to eliminate your emotional and logical cognitive distortions. First, you have to learn both types and look for examples in your life. Then you need to write down those examples and a thought that you have that is an example of each. Beside each example write a counter-example, like those above. Whenever you find yourself using a cognitive distortion, substitute your counter-example. Carry them on a piece of paper if you need to. Enlist the help of a friend or family member to catch you when you use them. This is particularly helpful for eliminating “target words” that indicate you are caught in a cognitive or logical distortion or both. These include “should,” “ought,” “must,” “fault,” “blame,” “always,” “never,” and “can’t.” All of these words need to be removed from your vocabulary as quickly and as completely as possible.
There is a much more thorough explanation of all three types of cognitive distortions as well as how they appear in dreams, the Drama Triangle, and near death and mystical experiences in Waking Up.