Unit 103: Varieties of Emotional Cognitive Distortions


Competencies and Learning Objectives:

  1. Knowing what emotional cognitive distortions are
  2. Learning the benefits of recognizing and minimizing your emotional cognitive distortions
  3. Recognizing common emotional cognitive distortions
  4. Learning how these emotional cognitive distortions negatively affect your relationships
  5. Learning how these emotional cognitive distortions negatively affect your thinking
  6. Learning how these emotional cognitive distortions negatively affect your dreams
  7. Learning how to catch and stop using emotional cognitive distortions

What are emotional cognitive distortions? 

Emotional cognitive distortions, also known as cognitive distortions or thinking errors, are patterns of irrational and negative thinking that can distort your perception of reality and contribute to emotional distress. These distortions often occur automatically and can be habitual ways of interpreting situations. They are emotional because they are believed, thought, or spoken because they feel right, regardless of how right they are in terms of objective reality. They are cognitive because these feelings express themselves as specific, concrete thoughts, such as “I won’t ever be happy!” They are distortions in that they are not rational, objective, or conform to the consensus reality assumed by others. As a consequence, emotional cognitive distortions not only generate inaccurate conclusions and poor decision-making, but disrupt communication and relationships as well as generate depression, anxiety, and confusion.

Recognizing and challenging emotional cognitive distortions is an important step in promoting inner peace and developing improved problem solving and healthier relationships. Reducing them is a form of cognitive healing that creates space for life balance and transformation. Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) often focuses on identifying and modifying these patterns of thinking to promote healthier emotional responses and behaviors.

In this unit we will identify a number of important and common emotional cognitive distortions and explore ways to reduce or eliminate them. 

Benefits of learning to recognize and minimize your emotional cognitive distortions

Recognizing and challenging cognitive distortions is important for promoting emotional resilience, improving problem-solving skills, and enhancing overall well-being. By developing awareness of these patterns and learning to challenge them with more balanced and rational thinking, you can reduce emotional distress, improve relationships, and cultivate greater psychological flexibility and resilience.

The reason “emotional” cognitive distortions are important is because our moods largely determine our happiness and peace of mind. All preferences are based on degrees of emotional preference: liking, disliking, liking a lot, disliking a lot, loving, hating, and not caring. To control our emotional state and therefore our degree of happiness, stress, and peace of mind, we have to do two things. First, we have to be aware of what we are feeling. Most of us, most of the time, take our feeling state for granted. It operates in the background of our awareness and we normally don’t pay much attention to it. It is only when something out of the ordinary occurs that we are likely to register some feeling: happiness, sadness, anger, fear, or confusion. However, it is possible to live in a perpetual state of one or another of these feelings and not get out. This is, with the exception of happiness and equanimity, a state of misery and mental hell. We become aware of what we feel by naming it: “I feel sad.” “I feel happy.” “I feel angry.” 

Secondly, after being aware of what we are feeling, we have to recognize that we get to choose what we are going to feel and at what intensity. This is not easy, because we identify with our current feeling state and we can’t just wish ourselves out of it or eliminate it by thinking happy thoughts. However, we can change how we think about our feelings, and that’s the key to objectifying them and being able to move out of depression, anger, fear, jealousy, possessiveness, or confusion if we want to. 

The Analogy of the Chariot 


The ancient Hindu Analogy of the Chariot is a metaphor that has stood the tests of time. It made its way into Western civilization by way of Plato’s Phaedrus and into psychology through Freud\s application to explain the relationship between the three ego states, id, ego, and superego. In its earliest and simplest version, from the Katha Upanishad, it reads, 

“Know the atman to be the master of the chariot; the body, chariot; the intellect, the charioteer; and the mind, the reins. He who has the understanding of the driver of the chariot and controls the rein of his mind, he reaches the end of the journey, that supreme abode of the all–pervading.”

Let’s unpack this pithy statement and look at its relevance to clear thinking and overcoming emotional cognitive distortions. 

Imagine you are driving a chariot drawn by horses, which you control by reins. There is a passenger that you are largely unaware of, but to whom the chariot belongs. You are just his charioteer. If your instructions to the horses are clear, you go either where you want to go or where your Master tells you to go. If your instructions to the horses are not clear, the horses will either get confused, do what they want, or react to stimuli, such as snakes or gunshots and do unexpected and largely unpleasant things. 

In this analogy you are your thoughts, and your thoughts control where the chariot, personifying your body, goes in waking, dreaming, or mystical experiences. Wherever your body goes it carries with it your thoughts, emotions, and this somewhat mysterious passenger, the master of the chariot.. The horses personify your emotions: powerful, strong-willed, obedient when trained and directed, unpredictable when untrained and undirected. The reins personify the choices that you make regarding how you control your emotions. If you fail to control them, have conflicting, confusing feelings, or self-destructive instructions, then bad things happen to the chariot and to you. The horses do the heavy work, the actual pulling. This is because your preferences, including good and bad, right and wrong, left or right, high or low, are likes and dislikes. What you like is an emotion that you are drawn toward while what you don’t like is an emotion you want to avoid. 

None of these elements – you (the charioteer), your choices (the reins), your emotions (the horses), your body (the chariot), your goals (the path you follow), or the Master of the Chariot, (called “Atman” in the Hindu tradition and your “Life Compass” by Integral Deep Listening), are either good or bad. 

Now that we have a basic understanding of the analogy, let’s consider some questions. What happens if:

You have temperamental horses?

Your horses get spooked and stampede off the road?

Your horses ignore you and decide to graze?

Your chariot gets a broken wheel?

You lay down your reins?

You give the horses conflicting directions through your reins?

You set a course that is different from that desired by the Master of the Chariot?

Emotional cognitive distortions are represented by two alternatives in this analogy. First, when. You surrender to emotion-based thinking, it is as if the horses are in charge and determine where the chariot goes – on the path, off and over rocks, over a cliff, or nowhere, grazing in a pasture. This is the normal state of affairs, in which we are scripted as children into thinking emotional cognitive distortions are normal and right. We use them and are confused and angry when we destroy our relationships and fail to meet our goals or find peace of mind. This occurs largely because emotional cognitive distortions are true on an emotional level. They feel true, honest, and authentic. However, they are false on a rational level. The more we are identified with our emotions the less likely we are to give up our cognitive distortions. However, the more we objectify our emotions and identify with reason, the more likely we are to control the horses and not allow them to take us where we would not go. 

Secondly, emotional cognitive distortions are like you giving instructions to your horses that you do not intend and getting results that are unexpected and unpleasant. You intend to show concern and it comes across as anger. You intend to help and it comes across as control. The horses do not obey; the chariot is endangered or damaged. This is a communication problem, in which we are confident we are clear and honest in our communication when what we say is heard in ways that cause confusion and sound irrational. 

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, as with most psychological approaches, are focused on health and productivity, meaning that you make better choices, set clearer goals, have better relationships, and have greater control over your life. These are all good and useful things, and they are quite enough for most people most of the time. However, Integral Deep Listening is a transpersonal yoga. What that means, in this respect, is that it is not focused on you giving correct instructions to your horses so much as you communicate to them what the Master of the Chariot, that is, your life compass, sets as its agenda, in consultation with you. It is not that your goals are wrong or incorrect, but that they are partial, when they do not reflect integrative priorities of your interviewed emerging potentials or your life compass. You are more likely to produce healing, balance, and transformation if these priorities are also taken into account. This is a consideration and perspective that many approaches to self-development neglect or fail to appreciate. 

Ways emotional cognitive distortions can destroy your peace of mind

Emotional cognitive distortions significantly impact your emotional well-being by amplifying negative emotions such as anxiety, depression, anger, and guilt. By distorting reality, they contribute to a cycle of negative thinking and mood disturbances. Emotional Cognitive distortions can distort perceptions of others’ intentions, leading to misunderstandings, conflicts, and damaged relationships. For example, assuming the worst about someone’s behavior based on your own biases can strain relationships and erode trust. 

Emotional distortions can impair decision-making abilities by clouding judgment and lead to impulsive or irrational choices. They may prevent you from accurately assessing risks, considering alternatives, and making informed decisions. Cognitive distortions can also negatively impact your self-esteem and self-concept by fostering negative self-talk and self-criticism. Believing distorted thoughts about yourself, such as “I’m a failure” or “I’m unlovable,” can undermine your confidence and self-worth. 

Emotional distortions are also closely linked to various mental health issues, including depression, anxiety disorders, and eating disorders. They can hinder effective problem-solving by leading you to focus on perceived threats or obstacles rather than potential solutions.

Common emotional cognitive distortions

Here are some common emotional cognitive distortions and how they relate to IDL:

All-or-Nothing Thinking (Black-and-White Thinking): This distortion involves seeing things in extremes, without considering any middle ground. It can lead to rigid thinking and unrealistic expectations, causing unnecessary stress and disappointment. For example, thinking, “If I’m not perfect, then I’m a failure.” “He either says ‘yes’ or I should write him off.” 

If you start looking for this cognitive distortion you are likely to find it everywhere. The news typically presents facts in a black and white way in order to activate strong emotional preferences and drama, which are addictive, and in order to generate support for some particular narrative desired by advertisers, corporations, or government. 

The ability to tolerate ambiguity and multiple, even contradictory perspectives is a sign of cognitive maturity. The inability to do so is a sign of pre-rational, dogmatic, and ideological emotionally-based reactivity.

Interviewing multiple perspectives from dreams and life issues teaches multi-perspectivalism, which is the opposite of black-and-white thinking. You will then be more likely to suspend your assumptions while listening to and interacting with others or dealing with the various aspects of healing, balancing, and transformation in your life.

Dreaming itself is normally a form of polarized thinking in that we assume that our perception within the dream is accurate, because we know what we are experiencing. Interviewing dream characters teaches us to take a multi-perspectival attitude rather than a polarized one, both toward our dreams and while dreaming.

Overgeneralization: Overgeneralization involves making broad conclusions based on limited evidence or experiences. It can lead to negative self-perceptions and a sense of hopelessness, as you may believe that one negative event or failure defines your entire self-worth or future.  For example, after one rejection, thinking, “I’ll never find love.”

Overgeneralization results from a failure to ask questions about a situation, proposal, or person. For example, we limit a conclusion about a person or a project to a specific ability or set of circumstances.  When we employ this distortion we draw global conclusions about the personality of a person or the viability of a project. This results in inaccurate assessments and poor decision-making. 

We typically generalize our waking experiences, feelings, and reality to our dreams while we are dreaming, because we think we are awake. When we stop making such a generalization we stop projecting our waking assumptions onto our dream experience. 

Mental Filtering: Mental filtering involves focusing exclusively on negative aspects of a situation while ignoring any positive elements. It’s the “glass half empty,” instead of being half-full, phenomenon. This can amplify feelings of sadness, anxiety, or frustration, leading to a skewed perception of reality.

In mental filtering we discount evidence that contradicts the reality of our feelings, whatever they may be. For example, we amplify events and evidence that justifies our fear, confusion, anger, sadness, or happiness. If we filter out negative aspects of a person or a project because we want to feel happy, we set ourselves up to be surprised, confused, and dismayed when negatives sabotage our progress or relationships. 

As is true for nightmares in general, post-traumatic stress syndrome is generally about making an entire experience about a single negative element – our fear. We react to a being or situation we encounter in real life or our imagination with fear. Instead of asking questions or gathering information, we shut down, go on automatic, and react in a stereotypical way, even if the actual threat is in the past or only in our imagination. 

Jumping to Conclusions: Jumping to conclusions involves making assumptions about the intentions or motives of others without sufficient evidence, leading to misunderstandings, conflicts, and unnecessary worry or distrust in relationships. We typically do fortune telling with nightmares. We are convinced we know that an antagonist wants to hurt us in some way. Does it? Generally, when they are interviewed, they say that they scare us to get us to pay attention, to wake us up to some reality. Unfortunately, this generally backfires, and we simply repress the dream.

Mind Reading: This distortion involves assuming you know what others are thinking without any evidence to support it. For example, believing, “They must think I’m stupid because I made a mistake,” or “They didn’t invite me to the party because they don’t like me.” When we tune people out or interrupt them because we “know” what they are saying and what their point is, we are practicing this emotional cognitive distortion. Mind reading is basically a defense against exposing ourselves to new information that may require us to think, to examine our assumptions, and perhaps change what we think, feel, or do.

When we assume that we know what a dream character will tell us or what a dream element, like a rock or cloud is, we are jumping to the conclusion that we already know the perspective of the character or the element. Do we? How do we know if we don’t interview it?

Fortune Telling: This cognitive distortion involves predicting negative outcomes without evidence. For example, a student might think, “I know I’m going to fail the exam.”

We typically do fortune telling with nightmares. We are convinced we know that an antagonist wants to hurt us in some way. Does it? Generally, when they are interviewed, they say that they scare us to get us to pay attention, to wake us up to some reality. Unfortunately, our fortune telling generally backfires, with us simply repressing the dream. In waking life it backfires by creating the negative outcomes we fear. 

Discounting the Positive: This distortion involves dismissing or minimizing positive experiences, accomplishments, or feedback. It can contribute to low self-esteem and a persistent sense of dissatisfaction, as you may overlook your strengths and achievements. For example, dismissing compliments by saying, “They’re just saying that to be nice.”

Discounting the positive may be based on a recognition that happiness and pleasure are not permanent states. To avoid disappointment, due to unrealistic expectations, we go out of our way to deprive ourselves of any genuine happiness or pleasure that exists in the moment. Is it any surprise that depression is a natural outcome? 

Our common dreaming assumption, that dream characters have nothing important to tell us, since we understand who and what they are already, is an example of disqualifying the positive in our dreams. This is all the more so for mundane dreams, like losing our keys, or for background objects in our dreams, like  a door or a road. We are sure we already know what they are, so why should we waste our time interviewing them? This is disqualifying the positive, and we know that this is true because when and if we DO interview mundane dream objects we typically discover they reveal a treasure trove of useful information about our life issues. 

Catastrophizing (Magnification or Minimization): Catastrophizing involves greatly exaggerating the importance or consequences of negative events while minimizing or ignoring positive aspects. It differs from overgeneralization by degree. Catastrophization can intensify feelings of anxiety and lead to avoidance behaviors or irrational decision-making. For example, thinking, “I made a mistake at work; I’m going to get fired and ruin my career.”

Our perception of our dreams is generally distorted in one of these two ways. We either amplify perceived threat where there is very little, if any, or, on the other hand, we ignore or discount value because it appears in forms we think are not valuable. Interviewing life issues teaches us that we routinely do the same thing about our waking experiences: we either project meanings onto others and situations that are more dramatic than they actually are, or we ignore sources of meaning and value that are present but misperceived or underestimated.

Emotional Reasoning: Emotional reasoning involves basing beliefs or decisions solely on our emotions rather than on objective evidence or logic. It can lead to impulsive or irrational behavior, as you may act on exaggerated or distorted perceptions of reality. For example, thinking, “I feel anxious, so there must be something dangerous happening.” In a sense, all emotional cognitive distortions are varieties of emotional reasoning, because they use thoughts to validate some underlying feeling rather than to use thinking to observe, objectify, and consider the legitimacy and appropriateness of our feelings.

In a dream, if we feel scared and conclude that therefore the source of that feeling must be a real threat, we are using emotional reasoning. As a result, our reactions in our dreams are controlled by our feelings rather than by reason or questioning. We thereby deprive ourselves of peace of mind, both while dreaming and when we are awake, because we are pushed through life by our reactions to what we feel. 

Labeling and Mislabeling: This involves identifying with negative labels or making global statements about others, life, or ourselves based on specific behaviors. For example, after making a mistake, thinking, “I’m such a loser.”

Dream interpretation and symbology are examples of labeling and mislabeling. We know that houses represent our state of consciousness and that dream villains represent disowned, “shadow” aspects of ourselves. Really?  How do we know these things? Have we asked this or that house if it personifies some aspect of ourselves and if so, what? Have we asked the villain if, in fact, it is a villain?

Personalization: Personalization involves taking responsibility for events or circumstances that are beyond our control or attributing them to personal flaws or shortcomings. This can lead to feelings of guilt, shame, or self-blame, even when we are not responsible for the outcome. For example, thinking, “I made a mistake at work; I’m going to get fired and ruin my career.”  Or a friend cancels plans to meet up, and we immediately assume it’s because they don’t want to spend time with us. We think, “They canceled because they must not enjoy my company.”. 

Personalization is grandiosity. It ignores the reality that life goes on without us and that other people are much more consumed by their life issues than by who we are and what we are doing. IDL refers to personalization as “psychological geocentrism,” in which reality revolves around us, the way the Sun revolves around the Earth in the Ptolemaic worldview. Everything is all about us. Dream characters act the way they do because it is about us and our life issues. Really? How do we know? Similarly, this is the magical thinking that causes us to think that when people are whispering or laughing that it must be about us, or that the words of the minister or guru were meant especially for our ears. 

When we recognize that all emotional cognitive distortions are misguided attempts to protect our image of who we think we are, we are understanding that personalization is the fundamental emotional cognitive distortion, the parent from which all the others spring. Stop personalizing and you will be on your way to eliminating all emotional cognitive distortions.

Should Statements: “Should” is a toxic word that puts us into the Persecutor role of the Drama Triangle, as described in the unit on language. Should statements exemplify how toxic language also expresses emotional cognitive distortions. We make statements about what we or others “should,”  “ought,” or “must” do, imposing a set of unrealistic expectations. 

When we hang on too tightly to our “should” statements about ourselves, the result is often guilt that we cannot live up to them. When we cling to our “should” statements about others, we are generally disappointed by their failure to meet our expectations, leading to anger and resentment.

We often approach our dreams with expectations about what they “should” be like and what interpretations “should” apply to this or that type of dream. The result is that our assumptions either become a self-fulfilling prophesy, in that we find what we are looking for because we rule out anything else, or we learn to distrust our dreams when they fail to conform to our expectations about what they “should” be like or what they “should” mean. 

Control Fallacies: A control fallacy manifests as one of two beliefs: (1) that we have no control over our lives and are helpless victims of fate, or (2) that we are in complete control of ourselves and our surroundings, giving us responsibility for the feelings of those around us. Both beliefs are damaging, and both are equally inaccurate.

No one is in complete control of what happens to them, and no one has absolutely no control over their situation. Even in extreme situations where an individual seemingly has no choice in what they do or where they go, they still have a certain amount of control over how they approach their situation mentally.

Control fallacies are the two extremes of polarized thinking. Either we are in complete control or are helpless. Lucid dreaming is often pursued as a way to gain control over the illusory, delusional world of our dreams so we are no longer victims of our dreams. The problem with such an approach is that it simply amplifies the control fallacy by making us feel like we have more control than we do. By demanding control we leave ourselves unprepared for the inevitable situations that we have no control over. On the other hand, we can exercise much more control in dreams than we normally do, not by becoming lucid, but by suspending our assumptions and emotional reactions and instead asking questions of characters in our dreams. 

Fallacy of Fairness:  While we would all probably prefer to operate in a world that is fair, the assumption of an inherently fair world is not based in reality and can foster negative feelings when we are faced with proof of life’s unfairness. A person who judges every experience by its perceived fairness has fallen for this fallacy, and will likely feel anger, resentment, and hopelessness when they inevitably encounter a situation that is not fair.

This fallacy is one reason why people don’t remember or work with their dreams. Dreams are not interested in depicting or creating a “fair” world. They do not exist to fulfill our hopes or to live up to our expectations. This reality is threatening to a lot of people who don’t recognize or challenge their fallacy of fairness. 

Fallacy of Change: This cognitive distortion involves expecting others to change if we pressure or encourage them enough. It is usually accompanied by a belief that our happiness and success rests on other people, leading us to believe that forcing those around us to change is the only way to get what we want. A man who thinks “If I just encourage my wife to stop doing the things that irritate me, I can be a better husband and a happier person” is exhibiting the fallacy of change.

The Fallacy of Change is a way of understanding the desire to manipulate others to give us what we want and to stop giving us what we don’t want. In Transactional Analysis, this is an aspect of the Child ego state called “the little professor.” The problem with this approach is that our peace of mind, success, and self-image is dependent on how others treat us, and so we must manipulate them to control how they treat us. Since people generally resent being manipulated and treated like they have only instrumental value to others, these attempts easily backfire. 

The Fallacy of Change shows up in dreams when we attempt to manipulate other characters to get what we want. Because they represent aspects of ourselves, at least in part, this amounts to attempting to manipulate ourselves, which is generally useless. Dreamwork generally requires that we give up our Fallacy of Change. 

Always Being Right: Perfectionists and those struggling with Imposter Syndrome, or a sense of phoniness, will recognize this distortion as the belief that we must always be right, and if we know that is not true, that we are not always right, then feeling we are living a lie. For those struggling with this distortion, the idea that we could be wrong is absolutely unacceptable, and we will fight to the metaphorical death to prove that we are right. For example, internet commenters who spend hours arguing with each other over an opinion or political issue far beyond the point where reasonable people would conclude that they should “agree to disagree” are engaging in the “Always Being Right” distortion. To them, it is not simply a matter of a difference of opinion, it is an intellectual battle that must be won at all costs.

Always being right is a variety of control fallacy. The fear of loss of control keeps us from remembering and looking at dreams, because they often confront us with scenarios in which we lose control. This is another example of how dreamwork causes us to either outgrow our cognitive distortions or else give up dreamwork. 

Heaven’s Reward Fallacy: The “Heaven’s Reward Fallacy” manifests as a belief that our struggles, suffering, and hard work will result in a just reward. The American Dream is one manifestation of this cognitive distortion. When one’s struggles, suffering, and hard work do not result in a just reward people can become embittered, feel misled, and betrayed. This fallacy is about staying in the role of Victim in the Drama Triangle. Ideally, what we do becomes an end in itself because it is aligned with our emerging potentials and life compass. 

How each emotional cognitive distortion negatively affects your relationships

Emotional cognitive distortions can significantly impact your relationships by distorting perceptions and creating barriers to effective communication and understanding. For example, All-or-Nothing Thinking can lead to unrealistic expectations and a lack of flexibility, making it difficult to compromise or find common ground. If you get in an argument in a relationship, you might conclude that the entire relationship is flawed, the cognitive distortion of overgeneralization, leading to resentment and a lack of trust. Mind Reading can prevent you from seeking clarification or discussing your concerns openly, leading to communication breakdowns. Personalization could lead you to blame yourself for your  partner’s bad mood, leading to feelings of inadequacy and strain the relationship. Catastrophizing can lead to anxiety and avoidance behavior because you may fear taking risks or confronting issues for fear of making things worse. If you feel insecure in a relationship, you may interpret your partner’s actions as confirming your fears, an example of emotional reasoning, even if there’s no evidence to support this belief, leading to mistrust and insecurity in the relationship. Discounting the Positive can lead to a skewed perception of your relationships, undermining feelings of gratitude and appreciation, leading to dissatisfaction and resentment over time. Should statements can lead to frustration and disappointment when those expectations aren’t met. This can create tension and conflict in your relationships.

How emotional cognitive distortions negatively affects your thinking

Negative Filtering can lead to a pessimistic outlook and clouded judgment, causing you to overlook potential opportunities or solutions. Catastrophizing can lead to excessive worry and anxiety, impairing your rational thinking and problem-solving abilities. Overgeneralization can lead to false assumptions and biases, distorting your perceptions and hindering objective reasoning. All-or-Nothing Thinking may cause you to struggle to see alternative perspectives or consider nuanced solutions, leading to rigid thinking patterns. Mind Reading can undermine effective communication and collaboration, hindering your logical reasoning and decision-making processes. Emotional Reasoning can lead to irrational conclusions and impulsive decision-making, as your emotions may not always align with facts or logic. Should statements can undermine your confidence and motivation, impairing rational thinking and problem-solving abilities. Discounting the Positive can lead to a biased perception of reality, undermining your confidence and resilience and impairing your ability to cope effectively with challenges and setbacks.

How emotional cognitive distortions negatively affects your dreams

Emotional cognitive distortions can influence your nighttime dreams by shaping their content, themes, and emotional tone. Dreams can amplify worries or fears as a form of Negative Filtering, leading to restless sleep and waking up feeling emotionally drained. Dreams involving Catastrophizing can evoke feelings of helplessness or panic, disrupting sleep and contributing to feelings of fatigue upon waking. Overgeneralizing thoughts and beliefs can influence dream content by distorting perceptions of yourself, others, and the world. Dreams may do so by depicting exaggerated scenarios or unrealistic portrayals of relationships, leading to confusion or distress upon waking.  Dreams can also reflect extreme, black-and-white interpretations of events or situations. For example, if you are experiencing relationship difficulties you may have dreams depicting total failure or complete success, exacerbating feelings of uncertainty or dissatisfaction. Dream characters may exhibit behavior consistent with mind reading distortions, such as making assumptions about others’ thoughts or intentions without evidence. This can lead to interpersonal conflicts or misunderstandings within dreams, reflecting underlying insecurities or anxieties. Since dreams often reflect the emotions and emotional conflicts present in waking life, if you tend to rely heavily on emotional reasoning, your dreams may amplify emotional distress or confusion, leading to vivid, emotionally charged dream experiences. Your may incorporate themes related to expectations or obligations, reflecting the pressure you feel to meet unrealistic standards. Dream scenarios may involve failing to fulfill expectations or facing consequences for not living up to perceived standards, contributing to feelings of guilt or inadequacy. Dreams influenced by discounting the positive may focus on negative or unpleasant experiences, overlooking positive aspects of life or relationships. This can lead to dreams characterized by frustration, disappointment, or a sense of unfulfillment.

How to catch and stop using emotional cognitive distortions

Catching and stopping the use of emotional cognitive distortions involves developing self-awareness, challenging your irrational thoughts, and practicing cognitive restructuring techniques. Recognizing and challenging cognitive distortions can be instrumental in managing stress and improving coping skills. By reframing negative thoughts and adopting more balanced perspectives, you can reduce the impact of stressors on your mental and emotional well-being.

Start by becoming familiar with the common cognitive distortions we have discussed above and how they manifest in your thinking patterns, relationships, and dreams. Pay attention to your thoughts and emotions in different situations to identify when you might be engaging in distorted thinking. Keep a thought journal or use a mental health app to track your thoughts and emotions throughout the day. Whenever you notice yourself experiencing negative emotions, examine the thoughts that precede them to identify any cognitive distortions. Challenge the validity of your thoughts by asking yourself critical questions:

Is there evidence to support this thought?

Am I focusing only on the negative aspects?

Are there alternative explanations for this situation?

Would I say the same thing to a friend in a similar situation?

Once you’ve identified a cognitive distortion, replace it with a more balanced and rational thought. Reframe the situation by focusing on more realistic interpretations and positive aspects. Here are some examples for different emotional cognitive distortions:

All-or-Nothing Thinking: “It’s not a total failure; there were still some positive outcomes.”

Overgeneralization: “Just because I failed this time doesn’t mean I’ll fail every time.

Mental Filtering: “Yes, there were challenges, but there were also moments of success.”

Discounting the Positive: “I may not have reached my goal, but I still made progress.”

Jumping to Conclusions: “I don’t know for sure what others are thinking; I should give them the benefit of the doubt.”

Catastrophizing: “This situation is challenging, but it’s not the end of the world.”

Personalization: “Not everything is my responsibility; I can’t control everything.”

Emotional Reasoning: “Just because I feel anxious doesn’t mean something bad will happen.”

These are only examples. Substitution works best if you take your specific cognitive distortion or negative thought, write it down, and then write down your own unique rational antidote to it. Then you need to carry that around with you, to look at and ask yourself, “Have I had any of these negative thoughts today?” “If I did, did I remember to substitute a positive antidote?” As you work with them, expect to add to the list of distortions and negative thoughts, as well as expecting revision and updating of  your positive substitutions.

Cultivate mindfulness to increase awareness of your thoughts and emotions without judgment. When you notice yourself engaging in distorted thinking, gently bring your focus back to the present moment and reframe your thoughts. Identify any underlying core beliefs that may be contributing to your cognitive distortions (e.g., beliefs about worthiness, perfectionism, or control). Challenge these beliefs by examining the evidence and considering alternative perspectives. Like any skill, challenging cognitive distortions takes practice and persistence. Make a habit of monitoring your thoughts, questioning their validity, and replacing distorted thoughts with more rational ones regularly.

The payoff for your effort should be significant. You should find yourself worrying less, experiencing less distress and more eustress, feeling more balanced in your life, falling less often into arguments or disputes with others, and able to focus on pursuing positive solutions to pressing life issues. 

Assignments and Homework 


Under “Essays and Interviews,”  read:


In the IDL video curricula, watch:

Recognizing and Defusing Your Cognitive Distortions: 1

Watch on

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Cognitive Distortions 2: Black and White and Polarized Thinking

When you are using the cognitive distortion of black and white, or polarized thinking, something or someone is all good or all bad. For example, you might think, “Either I vote for a corrupt politician or the other one, who is even more corrupt will win.” “Either I win or I am a loser.” “Either I succeed or everyone will reject me.” “Either I support my country or I am not patriotic.” “Either you make me happy or you don’t love me.” “You are either trustworthy and my friend or untrustworthy and my enemy.” In this video we discuss how Black and White thinking shows up in the Drama Triangle, dreams, and mystical experiences.

Watch on

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Cognitive Distortions 3: Overgeneralization

When you overgeneralize you are exaggerating because your feelings are emphatic. Because your feeling at the moment is absolute, the way you think about it is absolute as well. But while your pre-rational feeling can indeed be absolute at the moment, absolute thoughts about it are distortions. When you dream, and think you are awake when you are dreaming, that is a sort of generalization from waking into another state of consciousness. It’s not a thought, but a generalization of your experience. So just as you can overgeneralize your feelings you and I routinely overgeneralize our waking experience onto our dreams. We can easily believe falling in a dream will kill us, just as it would in real life. The result is that we respond to the experience of falling as if it were a waking threat, which is an experiential over-generalization and a cognitive distortion. This is the case regardless of the “threat” that you have in a dream. How do you know it’s a threat? Most likely, because you have drawn that conclusion from your waking experience, and you think you’re awake.

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Cognitive Distortions 4: Filtering

When you use the “Filtering” cognitive distortion, you ignore information and events that disprove your untrue or delusional beliefs, assumptions, and worldview. Filtering keeps you in the Drama Triangle by “rescuing” you from objectivity, clarity, evidence, facts and the truth. It’s like voluntarily wearing a blindfold and earplugs or walking around with Oculus simulated reality goggles on. As a result, you can maintain the feelings of righteous judgmentalism that often accompany self-criticism and self-persecution. At the same time, filtering validates staying stuck in the role of Victim. An excellent example of filtering is the social scripting you went through as a child. You were taught that in order to survive and grow within your family, you had to accept and internalize your worldview and values, including your cognitive distortions. For example, if you grew up with an alcoholic parent, you had to deal with the ensuing chaos somehow. Chances are, you distorted reality in one way or another to do so. filtering is also at work in your dreams. You filter your dreams because of your emotions, your world-view, your life scripting and your biology. The very nature of this filtering is to distort reality – but of course, only for your own safety and happiness! Consequently, filtering in dreams and mystical experiences is broader than the traditional concept of filtering for waking cognitive distortions,

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Cognitive Distortions 5: Jumping to Conclusions

When you use the “Jumping to Conclusions” cognitive distortion, you ignore information and events that disprove your untrue or delusional beliefs, assumptions, and worldview. Dream experience is mostly about jumping from one conclusion to the next without ever bothering to check to see if we are correct. When you make assumptions, both while dreaming and later, while awake, about the nature of your dream, without first asking questions and gathering information, you are jumping to conclusions. Therefore, most interpretive approaches to dreamwork involve the cognitive distortion of jumping to conclusions because they do not consult perspectives embedded in the dream itself. Even if the conclusion is positive, helpful and even transformational, as a tarot reading, psychic channeling, or dream interpretation can be, if you didn’t first ask questions and gather information, your conclusions are likely to be colored by this cognitive distortion. IDL attempts to counteract this perceptual habit by teaching you to interview dream characters, so that you can gain information that will allow you to draw realistic conclusions about them.

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Cognitive Distortions 6: Catastrophization

“I always fail at love. I’m never going to find someone.”
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. We catastrophize to justify the avoidance of risk. We commonly do this during nightmares, but we also do it with national emergencies, like 9/11. Catastrophizing keeps us out of touch with our life compass and inner peace. If we don’t recognize it and defuse it, we will continue to scare ourselves needlessly, both awake and dreaming.

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Cognitive Distortions 7: Personalization

Personalization is an indicator of a person who thinks emotionally rather than rationally. One of the most destructive cognitive distortions, 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. IDL calls it “psychological geocentrism,” because the world and reality revolves around us, our perceptions, and our feelings. Personalization is perhaps most easily seen in adolescence, when we are uncertain about who we are and are trying to find ourselves. We are constantly vigilant for cues from others as to whether we are “OK” or not. When you personalize, you assume that everything that others say must be about you. That is grandiose, narcissistic and egotistical. It’s also not true.

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Cognitive Distortions 8: Emotional Reasoning

This cognitive distortion is the exact opposite of what cognitive behavioral therapy teaches. It says that how you feel determines what you think. Cognitive behavioral therapy says that if you want to change how you feel, you need to change how you think. 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. Emotional reasoning is another example of a “living fossil,” like an ancient fish discovered still living in the ocean. It is a way of being that was perfectly normal and common during an earlier era of your development. You have created conditions that have allowed it not only to survive, but to flourish in a time when your needs and challenges have evolved far past it. As a child, your feelings made something real or unreal, good or bad. You didn’t have any choice, because you hadn’t yet developed the ability to think about your feelings. You probably know adults who are quite smart and capable, yet still are controlled by your emotional preferences. They don’t think; they feel; they don’t respond; they react. Therefore, your preferences define your reality. What they like is good, true and real, while what they don’t like is bad, false and illusory. Consequently, your life is an emotional roller coaster in which they constantly move toward what they like and away from that which they dislike, even when what they like is killing them, and what they dislike is what they need.

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Cognitive Distortions 9: The Fallacy of Fairness

The Fallacy of Fairness says life should be fair.
The tell for this cognitive distortion is when someone comes out with some version of,“That’s not 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?

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Cognitive Distortions 10: Blaming

Blaming is a cognitive distortion, because it is irrational. Taking responsibility is one thing, but blaming is another. Is it rational to blame yourself? 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. Is that what you want to do? If someone hurts you, is it wise for you to then turn around and hurt yourself by blaming? In addition, blaming is regressive. It’s behavior you mastered when you were five. When you blame, you are demonstrating your proficiency at five-year-old behavior. That’s fine, but what about your ability to act like an adult? Can you do that? It’s easy to be mature, competent, friendly and responsible when people are nice to you and when things are going well, but what about those times when people treat you badly or you are under pressure? Character is defined by how you act at such times, not by who you are when everything is either wonderful or cruising along on automatic. When you blame, you give somebody or something power over how you feel and what you can or cannot do. It’s your fault; therefore, you are claiming you are powerless in the face of God’s will, the government’s power or your boss’s policies. Is that smart? Is it rational?

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Cognitive Distortions 11: “Shoulding” On Yourself

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. Eliminating the persecution and self-persecution of “Should” is necessary if we are to get out of our own way, listen to and follow the priorities of our life compass.

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Cognitive Distortions12: Fallacy of Change or “Waiting for Santa Claus”

This 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. “Waiting for Santa Claus” gives your power away to someone else or to the future. Santa Claus can make you happy, but since he’s not here yet, you can’t be happy. Without the power to make yourself happy, you are helpless and hopeless, stuck in the role of the Victim in the Drama Triangle.

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Cognitive Distortions 13: Global Labeling

A global label is a universal generalization about yourself, others or life itself. Why and how are these statements cognitive distortions? They are exaggerations, and exaggerations are untrue. When you say them, you make yourself wrong. You make it easy for other people to dismiss what you say, because you’ve already undercut your argument. They also put you in the role of the Persecutor in the Drama Triangle, necessitating an eventual descent into the role of the Victim.

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Cognitive Distortions 15: Heaven’s Reward Fallacy

This cognitive distortion is based on the delusion that in the end, you’ll win. Heaven’s Reward Fallacy 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. The other basic problem with Heaven’s Reward fallacy is that when you use it, you are not living for today. You are living and waiting for the day when you “come home,” and all accounts are made right. What is delusional about this is that there is no future. The only time that you are ever alive is now. If you are postponing living now until tomorrow, when tomorrow comes, you’ll postpone living until some other tomorrow. You will be like Sisyphus, Godot or the squirrel in the wheel, always going someplace but never getting there.

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Cognitive distortions 16: Control Fallacies

There are two types of control fallacies. The fallacy of external control says you are a victim of circumstances beyond your control. The fallacy of internal control says you are responsible for other people’s feelings and happiness. EXTERNAL control fallacies ignore the part that you play in how you think or feel, or in what happens to you. INTERNAL control fallacies ascribe too much responsibility and power to you over the lives of others. Whenever you feel out of control in a dream, you are probably using the external control aspect of this cognitive distortion. Whenever you blame yourself for dream events, you are probably trapped in the internal control aspect of this cognitive distortion.

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Cognitive Distortions 17: “I’m Right”

This a cognitive distortion, because 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. As noted above, 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. Is that wise?

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Cognitive Distortions: Summary: Getting Rid of Your Cognitive Distortions

Cognitive distortions are so important as a barrier to happiness, peace of mind, and global health that it is worth taking the time to focus on concrete steps you can take to get them out of your life, once and for all.
First, assume everything you think is one or another of the above cognitive distortions until proven otherwise. This step is necessary, because if you aren’t on the lookout for your cognitive distortions, you won’t see them. Beware of the fear that you will then fall into some sort of fatalism, in which everything is a cognitive distortion and that there is no escape from them, something that some people do with the concept of the Drama Triangle as well. This is where IDL interviewing comes in, because it keeps you in touch with perspectives that are, in relationship to you, regardless of how “clear” you may think you are, are relatively free of cognitive distortions.

Cognitive Distortions: Summary: Getting Rid of Your Cognitive Distortions

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Check for study questions and/or create some of your own.


Look for emotional cognitive distortions in the dreams and life issues that you interview, both yourself and others. Look for them in the responses characters give to interviewing questions. . 

At a minimum, do one interview a week, getting experience with both dream and life issue protocols.

One week, interview yourself.

One week, interview a subject. It can be a fellow team member, a family member, friend, or client.

One week, be interviewed by someone else. 

Submit your written interviews to your supervising team member. To have your interviews automatically created for you, use the on-line interviewing format on this site.


  1. Write down your answers to the following questions. 
  2. Share your answers with your other study team members.
  3. Discuss.
  4. Submit your written answers.

What emotional cognitive distortions do you find yourself most likely to use?

How have emotional cognitive distortion negatively affected your relationships in your life?

How have emotional cognitive distortion negatively affected your thinking in your life?

How do you think emotional cognitive distortion have shown up in your dreams and your thinking about them?

Setting Intent

What do you want to take away from this unit to improve your life?

How would you like it to influence your dreams tonight?

How can you format that as a statement of intention to read over to remind yourself, before you go to sleep, to incubate in your dreams tonight?

For more information, contact joseph.dillard@gmail.com. While IDL does not accept advertising or sponsored postings, we gratefully accept donations of your time, expertise, or financial support.