Thursday, February 10, 2011

Challenging and Changing Cognitive Distortions

Here is my promised post on Challenging and Changing Cognitive Distortions & Irrational Beliefs. You can see my previous posts on Cognitive Distortions here and here.

One question that I get from many of my clients (and I asked myself this question many years ago when I first started addressing my own distortions) is the following: "Ok, so now I know that I'm thinking irrationally, but now what do I do? How do I start to think differently." I'm assuming you've asked this question yourself, which is why you're still reading! Changing thinking definitely takes time, just like learning how to sign your name. Remember those first few times you tried to write your name? It looked awkward, and maybe you missed some letters. But by practicing over and over again, you finally learned to print and then sign your name. It took time, right? If you had given up after a few times of it "not working", would you have ever gotten to the point you're at now? Absolutely not! The same goes with changing your thinking. So be patient!

Ok, so now a few suggestions:

1. Increase your awareness of the times you use various cognitive distortions. If you aren't aware, you can't make any changes.

2. Cut the words "always", "never", "everyone", "no one" out of your vocabulary. Horrible, terrible, intolerable, and similar words can go too. Obviously these words are occasionally more then appropriate. But in general, they are exaggerations and send us into the cognitive distortion snowball.

3. Stop the "yeah-but...". We all do this occasionally. We do well at something, or someone gives us a praise, and we say "yeah, but I just got lucky this time" or "yeah, but most of the time I fail miserably." Watch the yeah buts, because it discounts your accomplishments and the positive in your life.

4. Ask yourself the following questions: (these are from
  -What's the evidence for and against this thought?
  -What would I tell a friend with the same situation?
  -What's the worst that can realistically happen? How bad would that be?
  -Is it really true that I must, should, or have to...?
  -Am I over-generalizing from a past occurrence?
  -Are there other explanations besides blaming myself?
  -Is there ay conceivable way to look at this positively?
  -Is this situation really in my control?
  -What difference will this make next week, month, or year?
  -Is thinking this way in this situation making it worse or better?
  -What can I accept about this situation?

5. When you identify a cognitive distortion, change it to a rational belief. You will not always believe that the new rational belief is true, but say it anyways. The more you train your brain to think rationally, the easier it will be to get their more naturally!

6. Refute the belief. This sort of goes along with number 5, but tell yourself why the irrational belief isn't true! This is an example conversation you might have with yourself: "I can't stand this person. They are always nagging and being rude and I cannot stand being around them--change to: This person is challenging for me to be around. They sometimes nag and are rude, which can be frustrating. I may not enjoy being around them, but I can tolerate it or I can choose to walk away...".

Remember: PRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE. If you don't practice over and over again, the beliefs won't change. Share the list of cognitive distortions with those close to you, and ask them to help you catch when you are using them in your conversation. If you can decrease the amount of cognitive distortions, you will increase overall health and happiness in life! If you have any other tips or steps to changing that you'd like to add, please leave a comment!


  1. This is fantastic! #2 particularly speaks to me. My husband (who has a degree in Psychology) always jumps up and down over the fact that I tend to use absolutes a lot. This is such a well-written post. Thank you so much for writing it!

  2. Those words are incredibly easy to use, and they've been part of our regular vocabulary since we were young. It's great when we can get others close to us on board with changing irrational beliefs, so they can point them out to us! I'm glad that you found it helpful:)

  3. I have such a hard time with the words like always and never.. I have been trying to be really conscious about not using them but I find it so easy to slip!

  4. @Jennifer -Try to get those around you on board to help catch when those words occur in conversation!
    When I use always and never (or similar words) in a conversation, I try to switch it on the spot (yes-I still use those words sometimes too!). So, my sentence may go something like this "Ugh...I never get to do anything fun on the weekend because I'm always, that's not true. sometimes I have to work on the weekends, but I remember two weekends ago when I spent an evening with my group of friends...". Although it may seem awkward to fix it in the middle of conversation, it not only helps retrain how your brain thinks, but will also help model this behavior to others as well! Good luck!