Cognitive distortions or unhelpful thinking styles refer to the way our minds convince us of something when it is most likely to be false or inaccurate. These false perceptions frequently perpetuate negative thinking habits, and they may cause serious damage to our confidence and ability to succeed.
Everyone experiences cognitive distortions to some degree, especially during times of stress. For example, an athlete under competitive pressure might be constantly distracted by thoughts related to how everyone will look down on him if he loses. A sales executive may conclude that she is a failure for not being able to meet the quarterly sales target.
There are different (but related) cognitive distortions, and these include:
Mind-reading – Believing that we know what others are thinking and assuming they think the worst of us without adequate evidence.
Catastrophizing – Seeing only the worst possible outcome of a situation. Labelling a situation as huge, overwhelming, “the worst ever.”
Over-generalizing – Making conclusions with little data and believing that the outcome of a single or few events are evidence of a pattern that will recur.
All-or-nothing thinking – Seeing the world in absolutes; everything is either good or bad, a win or a loss, success or failure, with no middle ground.
Personalization – Believing what others do or say is a direct reaction to something we have done or feeling personally responsible for events outside of our control.
Should-s and Must-s – Also known as expectations, “Should” and “Must” statements reflect our (often unreasonable) standards (“I should do this”, “I must do that”) and frequently lead to feelings of frustration, shame, or guilt.
Overcoming Cognitive Distortions
Identifying, understanding, and rephrasing these irrational beliefs is a powerful way to develop confidence and resilience. However, identifying these irrational beliefs may be challenging because they often feel like logical and accurate. You believe them because they make sense to you at some level.
Socratic Questioning is a common and practical technique that can help you to identify and challenge irrational and harmful beliefs. The basic outline for this technique is to ask the following questions:
“Is this thought realistic?”
“Am I basing my thoughts on facts or on feelings?”
“What is the evidence for this thought?”
“Could I be misinterpreting the evidence?”
“Am I viewing the situation as black and white, when it’s really more complicated?”
“Am I having this thought out of habit, or do facts support it?”
For a more in-depth guide to Socratic Questioning, check out this worksheet. It can help you identify some of these potentially problematic thoughts and to rephrase them. For athletes who may be struggling with confidence, I have developed the e-program ‘Proactive Confidence’ to help you identify and challenge the irrational beliefs that are limiting your ability to perform freely.
Seeking professional help may be necessary, especially if you notice that these thoughts are increasing your anxiety level and adversely affecting your work or relationships
Burns, D. Thinking About Thinking: Patterns of Cognitive Distortions. The Resilience Alliance. 2011.
Dunsmoor JE, Paz R. Fear generalization and anxiety: Behavioral and neural mechanisms. Biol Psychiatry. 2015 Sep 1;78(5):336-43.