Developing Cognitive Flexibility
Part of developing perspective is recognizing that the judgments we make are often automatic and subconscious which means they are often outside of our awareness. The Greek Philosopher Socrates said: “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Similarly, the unexamined thought or belief is not worth holding. The Problem with automatic thoughts is that they are largely unexamined yet exert an enormous amount of influence on our lives. However, automatic thoughts definitely serve a functional purpose in helping us survive.
As human beings, our brains are designed to make quick, efficient judgments about things, such as whether something or someone is “safe” or “unsafe.” In fact, our brains are so efficient that we often aren’t even aware that we are making these judgments on a daily basis. These thoughts can become habitual and may be occurring unconsciously. This is not a bad thing because this efficiency allows us to adapt quickly to threats and survive.
However, this efficiency can become problematic when our automatic thoughts are distorted or unhelpful. When distorted or unhelpful automatic thoughts become too frequent, mood disorders start to develop. The problem with automatic thoughts, is that we can treat them as if they are facts and not tenuous interpretations subject to further investigation and reality testing. A fact is an indisputable truth about reality while an interpretation is our opinion on those facts.
For example, “My boss yelled at me” may be a fact but there are many interpretations as to what that fact means. “My boss hates me,” “I am going to get fired,” and “My boss is having a bad day” are just some of the valid interpretations that people may have about the fact. Developing perspective is about slowing down, becoming aware of the automatic judgments we make and consciously assessing them in terms of their scope and depth of understanding. It also involves learning to recognize when we are treating our interpretations as facts and learning to generate a range of different interpretations on any fact. This skill is often referred to as “cognitive flexibility.”
In summary, automatic thoughts are characterized by the following qualities:
- Content: Automatic thoughts can come in the form of words, images, intuition or physical sensations.
- Unconscious: Automatic thoughts often occur outside of our awareness. Sometimes we just have a feeling and haven’t put words to the unconscious belief that is causing that feeling.
- Believable: Studies show that the more we repeat something the more we believe it. If you are repeating distorted beliefs you are more likely to start believing them simply through repetition.
- Unexamined: Automatic thoughts are often just accepted as facts and not understood to be interpretations that may be distorted or inaccurate. If you never examine these thoughts then you can never detect error and bias that are distorting your mood.
- Quality of Life: Automatic thoughts have a large effect on how we experience life and the emotions that we feel. Every situation in life requires some degree of interpretation and meaning-making so every waking moment is affected by your control over and awareness of your automatic thoughts.
Automatic thoughts can be divided into categories based upon two dimensions: validity and utility. Validity is a measure of whether a thought is accurate or not and utility is a measure of how useful a thought is in moving the person towards desired goals. From these two dimensions come several different categories:
- Useful Truths (High Validity and High Utility): These are the ideal automatic thoughts to have. They are accurate and useful in that they facilitate achieving desirable goals. “I can do this” is a basic example of a thought a seasoned performer might have that is accurate and helpful.
- Useful Fictions (Low Validity and High Utility): These are thoughts that help us move towards goals but might not be true. For therapeutic purposes, these thoughts are not problematic. An amateur performer who thinks: “I’m the best performer in the world” and really believes it is using this type of thought. It is useful to her and facilitating goal achievement so does not need to be targeted for change.
- Harmful Truths (High Validity and low Utility): These thoughts are accurate but not useful in that they prevent achieving goals and focus on the negative. For example, ruminating about past failures is technically accurate but not helpful. A performer about to get on stage who thinks: “Last time I failed” is technically accurate but this thought is not helpful in making her achieve in the present.
- Harmful Fictions (Low Validity and Utility): These thoughts are the worst type to have as they are not true and they are not useful. A seasoned performer who thinks: “I am the worst actress in the world” before going on stage is thinking something that is demonstrably false and unhelpful if her goal is to perform well.
If you compare the mind to a city then thoughts are like the roads or paths that we use to get from one place to the next. The more often we think certain things the more established those thoughts become or the more established the roads become. A city with lots of accurate and useful roads will be a joy to navigate in.
In contrast, a city with lots of inaccurate and useless roads will be a chaotic experience and getting from one place to the next will be incredibly difficult.
Every time you think a thought you are strengthening the roads they form in your mind. You need to purposefully identify accurate and useful thoughts that you can continually construct until your mind is functioning like a beautiful highway and not like a chaotic maze.
Correcting Distorted Thinking
The opposite of adopting a perspective that is broad in scope and rich and nuanced in detail is to take an oversimplified and distorted perspective on things. A distortion is something that is not a complete representation of the facts or reality. Another word for distortion may be misrepresentation. When we distort something we give a partial representation of the facts but neglect to account for the rest of those facts. This is why distortions can be so convincing, as they are usually based on truth and are often partially true. We can take the concept of distortion and apply it to thoughts to create cognitive distortions. A cognitive distortion is an automatic thought, rule or belief that is misrepresented in an unbalanced way. When distorted thinking is taken to an extreme many mental health disorders begin to arise.
The first category of distortions involve selective focus. People with mental health disorders often focus on selective truths but neglect the whole truth of reality. Their distorted focus leads to a distorted belief system that leads to distorted emotional experiences. Ultimately, if a client’s belief system is distorted so that it only recognizes the negative truths about reality then their emotional experience will be proportionately distorted towards the negative as well.
For example, take a look at the picture below that includes both light and darkness.
A complete description and representation of this picture would have to include mentioning both dark clouds and rays of light. However, a distorted description of this picture would only mention either the dark clouds or the rays of light. It is technically true that this picture includes dark clouds, however if that were our final analysis we would have distorted reality by neglecting the totality of the picture. In the same way, people with mental health disorders tend to selectively focus on the dark clouds of reality but ignore the rays of light that are also shining. A popular proverb says “That which you gaze upon you become” and approximates the principle we are discussing here. Another way to say this is what you focus on will determine your experience. Developing perspective means learning to adopt a more balanced and holistic view of reality, not skewed by a selective focus on the negatives.
While one kind of distortion involves selective focusing, another kind of distortion occurs when we project our own biases, expectations and beliefs onto a relatively objective view of reality. This type of processing is known as “top-down” processing in cognitive psychology and occurs when we add our own biases, judgments and beliefs to the objective “bottom up” processing of the sensory data from our environment. We can distort reality when we engage in overactive top-down processing in our attempt to interpret, judge and evaluate our life experiences. For example, look at the picture below of a man viewing himself through different mirrors for a good example of how these projective distortions work.
As you can see, each mirror reflects a different picture of the man so that the end result is a distorted view that does not correspond with what the man truly looks like. The mirror is analogous to the mind and the distorted images of the man represent the distorted beliefs and views of reality we create. Our distorted interpretations are influenced by:
i.) Biases: Tendencies, inclinations, feelings or opinions that are usually unreasoned. Many are completely unaware of their biases and do not evaluate them for validity and utility.
ii.) Beliefs: Having confidence in the truth of something that is usually not certain. Many people, in the face of uncertainty and ambiguity, adopt rigid beliefs with strong conclusions not justified by the inherent uncertainty of reality. These people need to become open to the idea that other beliefs may be just as valid and more adaptive in helping the person reach their goals.
iii.) Expectations: These are beliefs about what is likely to occur in the future. People often uncritically overestimate how accurate they are in predicting the future as they ignore the confounds of the self-fulfilling prophecy and confirmation bias. You need to learn that what you predict often comes true because you act in subtle ways to bring about that future. For example, if I predict that someone is a jerk then I am likely to act awkward around or dismissive of that person. My actions can therefore elicit the future I have predicted and the person may indeed start acting like a jerk to me. Similarly, confirmation bias occurs when we see what we expect to see through selective focus and filtering. If I expect someone to be a jerk I’m likely to filter out evidence that might suggest this is not true and emphasize and exaggerate little signals that might confirm my belief.
iv.) Learning history: We all have different learning histories where we make different associations between things or ideas. We all have also had different behaviors, ideas and feelings either punished or reinforced according to different reinforcement schedules. For example, if someone has had nothing but punitive experiences with authority figures when they see new authority figures they will project “punitive” onto that new person whether or not it is true. Similarly, if a person has had hard work encouraged and rewarded in the past they are likely to do so in the future. However, if hard work yielded little results they may conclude that it is not reinforcing and not adopt that behavior in the future.
v.) Moods and Emotions: Our current affective state will also influence how we process and interpret reality. Researchers have identified that we tend to remember negative things when we are in a negative mood and positive things when in a positive mood. This is called mood-congruent memory. Similarly, it will be easier for us to recall positive events in life if we are in a positive mood and negative events if we are in a negative mood. This is mood-dependent memory.
Specific Cognitive Distortions
There are 10 very common ways that people tend to distort and oversimplify their experiences which leads to errors in perception and judgment. I will now examine each of these 10 distortions in detail and give examples of how to challenge and correct for each distortion.
1. All or Nothing Thinking: All or nothing thinking occurs when anything less than perfect is interpreted as if it were zero or not good enough. It involves interpreting life situations in absolute terms and is also referred to as “black and white thinking” or “polarized thinking.” Look for words like: Always, Never, Perfect, Awful, Terrible, Ruined or Disastrous. Common beliefs that reflect this distortion include: “If I have not gotten perfect, I have failed.” “People should always keep my rules or they will be cut off from my life.”
For example: A student who scores an 85% on a test where the average was 70% concludes…”I am a failure.” In this students mind, anything less than 100% would be interpreted the same, whether it were 90%, 50% or 20%. This is a distortion because it involves failing to recognize the degrees in between the extremes which make up the majority of outcomes in life. If most outcomes are somewhere in between the extremes, this distortion involves converting all of these outcomes to the extreme and failing to recognize the nuances of life.
Metaphor: A metaphor for this distortion could include something like: “A farmer planted a crop and when it came time to harvest 20% of his crop was damaged. This outcome was unacceptable so he refused to harvest the other 80% and then starved during the winter.” As you can see, this kind of thinking can cause more disaster than the situation that triggered it.
Ways to Challenge: You need to learn about the opportunity cost of pursuing perfection in any area. Since time is a scarce resource, the allocation of most of it to any single pursuit will lead to the neglect of other areas of life and put your life out of balance. Thus, the cost of perfection in one area, are the opportunities for development in other areas. There are diminishing returns on the time we invest in things. If it will take you 10 hours of study to achieve an A but then 30 hours to achieve an A+, you have to consider whether that 20 extra hours is really worth the 10% difference in your grade or whether that 20 hours could have been spent somewhere else, creating a more balanced life. Also, perfectionistic thinking actually decreases performance in the long run, and does not increase it. You may need to learn to determine when something is “good enough” and accept that the cost of moving from “good enough” to perfection may be too high and may have net harmful effects in the long run. You can also use the cognitive continuum technique to challenge these beliefs (will be discussed later).
2. Overgeneralizing: Overgeneralizing involves making broad generalizations based upon a limited amount of experiences. When we overgeneralize, we make predictions about ourselves, other people or situations that may not be warranted by the data. Common beliefs that involve overgeneralizing include: “I will always fail at math” or “People will always hurt you if they get the chance.
For Example: A person concludes: “I will always be rejected” after being made fun of by someone at school. In this situation, the person who felt rejected assumes that based upon this experience, all future experiences with other people can be predicted. It involves assuming that everyone is like the bully and that everyone will reject him just because one person did.
Metaphor: A metaphor for this distortion may be: “A new farmer planted a crop for the first time but a drought led to a scant harvest. As a result, the farmer assumed every year his crops would fail and gave up farming.” Again, the distortion may cause more long-term damage than the situation that caused it.
Ways to Challenge: Overgeneralizing is a statistical error. When we overgeneralize, we make conclusions about a whole population based upon a biased or limited sample. You may need to realize that the conclusions you are making about a whole population of people or situations are not justified by your limited experience (sample size). In the above metaphor, the farmer would need to attempt to plant crops over multiple years before drawing conclusions and the person being bullied would need to try and reach out to many different kinds of people before concluding that all will reject him. When we overgeneralize we draw conclusions based on samples that are limited in size and not representative of the whole.
3. Mental Filter: The mental filter is a distortion of focus in that it involves only paying attention to certain types of evidence that support our beliefs and “filtering” out any disconfirming evidence that might challenge our beliefs. It is similar to the “confirmation bias” which is a general human bias that suggests people have a tendency to “confirm” their beliefs through emphasizing supporting evidence and dismissing disconfirming evidence. Common thoughts that might indicate this bias include: “I can’t think of any evidence that might suggest I am not a failure.” “There is no other way of looking at this situation.”
For Example: An accomplished former champion athlete performs poorly and concludes “I am a failure” and filters out his past accomplishments to support the belief. A person is convinced another student, who he has not met, is a bad person based upon rumors he has heard. When he meets that other person he confirms this belief by exaggerating signals that confirm it and ignoring or explaining away evidence this might not be true. The person thus “confirms” their initial beliefs through a mental filter.
Metaphor: A rookie farmer whose first harvest was scant but who has had much success working on his uncle’s farm concludes: “I am a terrible farmer” and gives up farming. The filter prevents recognition of disconfirming evidence and dangerously influences decision making.
Ways to Challenge: One of the major tools used to challenge the mental filter is the positive data log (will be explored later) in which the person practices searching for and recording evidence that might disconfirm core beliefs. The best friend technique is great to counter this distortion as well as it forces the person to consider arguments that a loved one would make on their behalf. The Best Friend Technique involves some variation of the following question: “If your best friend was in this situation, what would you say to them? If you have a really wise and loving best friend, what would they say to you if you told them your thoughts? What would I/a therapist say?
4. Disqualifying the Positive: This distortion occurs when a person becomes aware of a positive experience or attribute and then devalues or minimizes their importance. It involves taking the positive for granted and often involves the words: “Yes, but that doesn’t count because…”
For Example: A brilliant student finds math easy but assumes everybody does and says “It’s no big deal” or “that skill is useless.” The student disqualifies the positive things about himself, suggesting that they are not important.
Metaphor: A farmer planted a crop that failed and concludes that he is not good enough to be a farmer. When he is reminded of his past success with his uncle he concludes: “Yes but those successes don’t count.” Disqualifying his prior successes will influence his judgment about whether he should continue as a farmer or not.
Ways to challenge: Disqualifying the positive often results from a bias called the “false consensus effect.” This bias suggests that we tend to overestimate how similar other people are to us in terms of beliefs, opinions, abilities and values. Since we assume everybody is like us, it’s easy to dismiss our unique gifts and abilities because “It’s no big deal, everybody can do that.” However, what comes easy to one person is often very difficult to another. You may need to learn to stop minimizing the positive things about yourself or your life situation and to place appropriate value on them. The evidence technique can help you evaluate the reasons why you are dismissing the positives and can help you generate new evidence as to why the positives matter. Gratitude journals and mental subtraction are other common techniques used. Mental subtraction occurs when a person imagines not having a positive or even lives without the positive thing in their life for a while. This exercise helps you see the importance of some of these positive things and can aid in placing appropriate value on them.
5. Jumping to Conclusions: This distortion manifests in two different ways: mind reading and fortune telling. Both involve making negative predictions in the absence of enough evidence to justify those predictions. Mind reading occurs when you assume that you can accurately infer the intentions or thoughts of another person. For Example, a woman walks into a busy room and isn’t immediately acknowledged. She concludes: “These people are purposely ignoring me and are thinking I look like an idiot.” Fortune Telling occurs when you assume that you can predict the future, usually in a negative way. For example, a man who is beginning school predicts: “I will not be able to handle it.” Another man who is afraid he is going to lose his job predicts: “I will become homeless and live on the street.”
Metaphor: A farmer who had a scant harvest went to the market one day and told the other villagers what happened. They offered him some help but he refused because he thought: “They are thinking I am an incompetent provider and are only offering help to prove their superiority.” This prediction about what the people were thinking was not justified by the evidence but determined whether he would accept help or not. The farmer also predicted his next harvest would be a failure and that the people would “rub it in his face” again next year.
Ways to Challenge: Mind reading can usually be challenged through reality testing and understanding falsifiability. If you are convinced that you know what others are thinking then check your interpretation by asking the other person if they are really thinking what you think they are. If you still don’t believe the person then consider whether you have an unfalsifiable belief or not. When possible, the beliefs we form should be capable of being proven false. If there is nothing that can happen that would prove your belief false then it is an unfalsifiable belief and is thus unreasoned. Ask yourself: “What could happen that would prove my interpretation was inaccurate?” “What are some other things that person may have been thinking of me?” “Is there not just as much evidence for both interpretations?”
Fortune telling is usually challenged through conducting behavioral experiments that allow you to test out whether your behaviors will lead to predicted outcomes or not. Hopefully, the behavioral experiment will disconfirm the negative predictions and give new evidence to change the belief. However, you have to be sure to rule out self-fulfilling prophecies.
6. Catastrophizing/Minimizing: These are distortions of impact, in that we either exaggerate the negative consequences of an event (catastrophizing/magnifying) or we minimize them (minimizing). Catastrophizing and fortune telling often occur together and involve making predictions about how terrible a situation is going to be.
For example: A person with social anxiety explains: “If I say hello to a new friend I will look awkward and will be rejected. I will then be a total outcast and people will think I’m a loser every time they see me.” In this example, the person exaggerates the impact that one person rejecting them will have. In reality, the person will most likely have an uncomfortable situation but then move on and invest in others who will not reject him. Catastrophizing also occurs when we say things like: “I can’t stand doing this activity” or “This is unbearable.” We overuse these statements when we apply them to situations that are really just mildly uncomfortable. An example of minimizing might be: A man struggling to fulfill role expectations concludes: “My drug habit isn’t interfering with my family.”
Metaphor: A farmer plants a crop and realizes that some pests have destroyed 5% of it. The farmer concludes: “This means my family will starve and we will all be dead by the end of winter.” In reality, the farmer has enough food to survive the winter but he has jumped to catastrophic conclusions and magnified the impact this event will have on his life.
Way to challenge: Catastrophizing is problematic in that you can overestimate how probable a catastrophe is but also underestimate your ability to handle it if it does occur. Consider the actual statistical probability of what you are predicting happening and think of times that you have coped in emergency situations before. Make a balanced prediction of what is likely to happen but also how you would handle the catastrophe if it did occur and what sources of help would be available to you. If you are minimizing the impact of something negative in your life then learn to evaluate the evidence and examine role functioning. Create a “moderation pie” in which you can chart how time is spent and therefore see what she might be neglecting.
7. Emotional Reasoning: Emotional reasoning occurs when we believe that something is true because we feel that it is. We use our emotions or feeling as evidence for why our beliefs are true or not. It is circular reasoning because it involves using the conclusion as the premise of the same argument.
For example: A depressed person states: “I feel like a loser and therefore I am.” A person with an eating disorder believes: “I feel fat so I must be.”
Metaphor: A farmer planted his crops and his experienced uncle said that he had done so accurately. However, the farmer felt depressed and concluded he was a failure. Even though an experienced farmer said he had done a good job, he used his emotions as evidence that he did not.
Way to challenge: Emotional reasoning can be easily refuted with a ridiculous example such as: “I feel I’m the Prime Minister of Canada” or “I feel I’m the best soccer player in the world.” Does that make it true? Obviously not, and these examples can help you see that just because you feel a certain way doesn’t mean it’s true. Emotional reactions cannot tell us whether something is true or not but they simply tell us how we would feel if a certain thing were true. “I would feel depressed if there were strong evidence that I were a loser” is an accurate statement but “I am a loser because I feel depressed” is not.
8. Shoulding: This distortion occurs when we create rules for ourselves and others that are unrealistic, rigid or that focus on what is out of our control. This is one distortion that even therapists often misunderstand. No, this does not mean that all shoulds or rules are undesirable. We all have healthy shoulds that we follow. “You shouldn’t have shoulds” is itself a should and contradicts the very rule it’s trying to advocate for. We are concerned with rigid and unrealistic shoulds, not healthy and realistic ones.
For Example: A depressed person may conclude: “I should not be depressed.” Why not? This assumes that we are all born into the world with a perfect working knowledge of the causes, maintenance and treatment of mental health problems. If that were the case, we wouldn’t need mental health professionals nor would we need education. This is an example of an unrealistic rule that results in a negative judgment about the self.
Metaphor: A farmer planted his crops and when it came time to harvest them he realized that a hail storm had destroyed some of them. He concluded: “A farmer should never lose any of his crops” and felt bad about his abilities as a farmer. As you can see, this rule is rigid and unrealistic since the farmer can’t control nature.
Ways to challenge: Shoulds can be challenged through examining their utility (the effects they have on your life) and validity (whether this rule could be applied to others). Since shoulds are usually related to who is responsible for certain outcomes, you can also use the responsibility pie to help yourself see that factors outside a person’s control need to be considered and thus rules need to be updated. Behavioral experiments can also be used to help you try out new rules for living and to evaluate their effects.
9. Labelling: Labelling occurs when we oversimplify a complex person or situation and exaggerate the prominence of a certain characteristic or event. Labelling is a distortion because it reduces the identity of a complex person or thing to one dimension. Labelling is similar to the nominal fallacy in which a person explains something simply by naming it.
For example: A lethargic child is given the label “lazy” by his father. The father has attempted to explain lethargy through applying a label but he hasn’t explained lethargy at all, he has simply given it a new name with negative connotations. The problem with the label is that the child’s complex identity comprised of numerous characteristics has been ignored and an oversimplifying label has been applied instead. Other common labels people put on themselves include: “Fat” “Stupid” “Ugly” “Failure” etc…
Metaphor: A farmer who has had a long history of success as a father, husband, painter and friend gathers a scant harvest one year based upon a mistake he made. The farmer labels himself a “failure” because of this mistake and reduces the complexity of his character to one dimension.
Ways to challenge: Labels can be challenged through the pie technique. Create a pie listing your roles, characteristics and accomplishments. Next, cover up the entire pie and exaggerate the importance of a single piece and apply that label to the whole pie. You should see that the label has distorted the whole and misrepresents what the pie truly is. Labels can also be challenged through examining their utility and through best-friend technique to help you see the double standard you are most likely holding.
10. Personalization & Blame: This distortion occurs when we magnify or minimize how responsible we or other people are for certain outcomes. When we personalize, we take more responsibility than is appropriate for an outcome and when we blame we place more responsibility than is appropriate on someone else.
For Example: A woman whose husband beats her concludes: “He wouldn’t beat me if I were a better cook.” In this case, the woman is taking responsibility for the husband’s abuse, even though she has no control over it. In contrast, if the abusive husband says: “I wouldn’t hit her if she didn’t make me so angry” then he is distorting responsibility by placing blame on someone other than himself.
Metaphor: A farmer plants his crops and realizes when it is time to harvest them that a hail storm has destroyed some of them. The farmer concludes: “This is all my fault, I’m a terrible farmer.” Conversely, the farmer may blame his neighbor saying: “This wouldn’t have happened if my neighbor didn’t tempt fate by being so arrogant.” In both situations, responsibility for the outcome of the crop failure has been distorted.
Ways to Challenge: The best way to challenge this distortion is through the responsibility pie. Responsibility pies will help you identify all of the contributors to an outcome and help you evaluate how much each factor contributed to the outcome. This will challenge the simplistic conclusions of “it’s all my fault” or “It’s all their fault” and help you develop a more balanced conclusion.
Developing Nuanced Thinking: Pies and Continuum’s
Two other common tools are used to help counter distorted thinking that include: Cognitive Continuum’s and Responsibility Pies.
The Cognitive Continuum is a technique designed to counter all-or-nothing thinking, overgeneralizing and labelling by helping the client see the degrees in between their extreme ways of thinking. It involves creating a continuum (a line) with poles labeled 0% and 100% and then placing markers at 25%, 50% and 75%. The exercise simply involves identifying what each percentage of a quality looks like. It is an exercise that will help you become better at differentiating between degrees rather than converting to extremes.
For example, if you believe: “I am a failure” then the continuum would prompt you to describe what a 100% failure looks like as well as a 75%, 50%, 25% and 0% failure is. The point of the exercise is to help you more accurately interpret where you land on the continuum to challenge the extreme conclusion you have come to.
An example of a cognitive continuum for health anxiety is provided below for your convenience.
The responsibility pie is an exercise designed to help you challenge distortions of responsibility, including personalization and blame. Sometimes we don’t understand that rarely can an outcome be solely attributed to one thing or understood in only one way.
This exercise simply involves identifying the belief of distorted responsibility and then brainstorming all the different factors that contributed to the outcome. After you have listed the factors, determine how much each contributed to the outcome and then draw the results in pie form. For example, a person who has the belief: “It’s all my fault that my husband left me” can do a pie listing factors that were outside her control in determining the outcome. For example, the husband’s decision, situational stressors and the influence of others could all be part of her new pie. After doing the pie, a new balanced belief should look something like: “While I probably contributed to this outcome, many other factors out of my control were also involved.”