The key components of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) are to 1) identify your cognitive distortions, 2) challenge the distorted thoughts, and 3) replace cognitive distortions (aka thinking errors) with more accurate thoughts, beliefs, and self-talk. CBT is based on the understanding that your thoughts affect your feelings and behavior and your behaviors also affect your feelings and thoughts. So, when you change your thoughts, you will interrupt the cycle and the result will be feeling differently and acting differently.
Cognitive distortions are also called negative automatic thoughts because they happen automatically with little awareness that they are inaccurate and skewed toward the negative. Once you are aware of your cognitive distortions, you can begin to challenge them to find out if they are really accurate or whether you’ve focused on the negative, overgeneralized, or blamed yourself.
Sometimes cognitive distortions are the result of assumptions. When we don’t have all of the information, we have a tendency to fill in the gaps and these assumptions are often negative.
Let’s consider some examples:
Nicole notices her boyfriend, Will, keeping his phone on him at all times. He takes it into the bathroom and never leaves it unattended. Nicole worries that Will’s talking to another woman and feels angry. She goes through Will’s wallet while he’s sleeping. She snaps at him whenever he checks his phone.
Chloe’s been unemployed for five months. She’s been on several interviews, but hasn’t gotten any job offers. When she doesn’t get a call back, she thinks she’ll never get hired and falls into a depression and stays in bed all day. She finds fault with everything she did during the interview and blames herself.
Nicole and Chloe have focused on the negative, made assumptions, and distorted reality. That resulted in difficult emotions (anger and depression) and destructive behaviors (snooping, yelling, staying in bed). They can use questions like those below to help challenge their cognitive distortions and check for thinking errors.
- How do I know if this thought is accurate?
- What evidence do I have to support this thought or belief?
- How can I test my assumptions/beliefs to find out it they’re accurate?
- Do I have a trusted friend whom I can check out these thoughts with?
- Is this thought helpful?
- Are there other ways that I can think about this situation or myself?
- Am I blaming myself unnecessarily?
- What or who else contributed to this situation?
- Is it really in my control?
- Am I overgeneralizing?
- Am I making assumptions?
- What would I say to a friend in this situation?
- Can I look for “shades of gray”?
- Am I assuming the worst?
- Am I holding myself to an unreasonable or double standard?
- Are there exceptions to these absolutes (always, never)?
- Am I making this personal when it isn’t?
You can counter your assumptions and distortions by making a list of all the other possible explanations for what’s going on. This can be hard, because those cognitive distortions are deeply embedded in our thinking. Try to have an open mind and consider all possibilities. Simply doing this exercise can remind you that there are many, many other possible explanations beyond what seems like a fact to you.
Nicole’s list of reasons why Will is glued to his phone might look like this:
- He never got any privacy growing up and now he really guards his privacy
- He broke his last two phones and is afraid it’ll get broken
- My Ex cheated on me and maybe I’m over reacting
- He’s planning a surprise party for my birthday
- He’s obsessed with an online game and knows I hate those
- He’s slow to open up and maybe he’s just not ready to let me see his phone
- He has confidential business email on his phone that he can’t let anyone see
- He’s got embarrassing photos of himself on there
- His dad sends him demeaning texts and he doesn’t want me to see them
- He’s secretly working a second job because he doesn’t want me to know how broke he is
- He’s got a lot of porn on there
- We’re still getting to know each other
- I’m assuming the worst
- Wanting privacy doesn’t mean he’s doing something that will hurt me
- Are there other signs he’s being unfaithful?
The assumption that he’s being unfaithful is certainly easy and common. You may think that Nicole’s alternate explanations are unlikely, but at this point she doesn’t know what the truth is. It’s helpful to consider all possible explanations and, if possible, check to see if there’s evidence to support the original belief.
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