“I just had pizza for lunch, I might as well finish off the chips, ice cream, and chocolate, too! I’ll start being good tomorrow…”
“If I miss a workout, I’ll never meet my goals.”
If you’ve ever had one of these thoughts, you’re not alone! These are examples of cognitive distortions that are common to the human experience. Cognitive distortions help us to think quickly and make fast judgments about the world around us, but they can also get in the way of living our best lives.
Background Information on Cognitive Distortions
Our brains are programmed to adapt to our environments and situations in order to protect us from harm. Particularly in times of high stress, the human brain develops cognitive strategies to help us make decisions quickly and with the least error possible (Beck, 1976). These are what we call cognitive distortions, though they are not necessarily errors in thinking, as they were adaptive for us at one point in time (Gilbert, 1998). However, sometimes these adaptations our brain makes in order to protect us only work against us long-term within our daily lives. Let’s take a look at some of the most common ones.
Magnification and Minimization
Magnification is exaggerating the importance of events, while minimization is the act of downplaying or minimizing the importance of events. For example, when we have an achievement in our life, we can blow it out of proportion in either direction. Either way, this means that we aren’t recognizing the situation for what it is—and we lose touch with reality. For example, if we run our first 5k race and think “it’s not that good, a lot of people can run a 5k” that is minimization of the hard work and effort that went into training for such an accomplishment. The key is to be realistic with recognizing our achievements.
One specific form of this is catastrophizing or only seeing the worst possible outcome that will come from a situation. For example, let’s say that you are training for that aforementioned 5k and miss a training day. An example of a severe cognitive distortion would be to think, “I missed a run, so I’m never going to finish this 5k.” This mindset makes it easy to give up on the 5k altogether.
Overgeneralization means applying one experience broadly to all experiences, particularly those in the future. For example, overgeneralization might occur if you fail on a lift and then think, “I couldn’t increase my weight today, I’m never going to be able to increase my weight.” This takes a unique scenario and paints a (often negative) picture of how the future will go based on that one event.
Personalization involves taking personal responsibility for things that are beyond our control. For example, when you invite a friend over to do a workout with you and they happen to get hurt. If you think, “it’s my fault that they have a sprained ankle,” you might be personalizing. Chances are good that their injury has nothing to do with you. This cognitive distortion can lead to a lot of negative emotions that are disproportionate to the situation.
Jumping to Conclusions
Jumping to conclusions involves making assumptions about a situation without sufficient evidence to make that assumption. One specific form of this is mind reading, in which we assume what others are thinking about a situation. For example, when we invite a friend to go for a walk with us, but she says no. If the following thought is, “she wouldn’t go on a walk with me. She thinks I’m too slow,” you might be mind reading. There could be any number of reasons she said no.
Another form of jumping to conclusions is fortune telling, in which we assume things will go poorly in the future without evidence for that. For example, when we think, “I just know I’m going to do terribly at that HIIT class,” before ever trying it, that is assuming the worst without true evidence for that.
Emotional reasoning is assuming that our emotions are our reality. For example, thinking, “I feel guilty for skipping that workout, I must have made the wrong decision to take a rest day.” This is using our emotion (guilt) to explain what we perceive to be our reality. Emotions are important communicators, but are extremely complicated and not the only factor in understanding reality.
Disqualifying the Positive
Disqualifying the positive involves focusing on the negative components of a situation while completely ignoring the positive aspects of that same situation. It is common when receiving feedback about something to only hear the negative. Similarly, when someone compliments us, the discomfort that we feel can cause us to downplay or minimize the positive intention behind that compliment. This paints a skewed and incomplete picture in our mind, and one that doesn’t help us in the long-run.
“Should” Statements (take away autonomy)
Should statements are the common experience of telling ourselves what we “should” be doing at any given point or that things “should” be a particular way. Should statements are judgments about ourselves that we treat as facts. When we say, “I should eat a salad” or “I should work out before work,” we are telling ourselves that our typical or desired way of being is not acceptable. This mindset is often stripping us of our sense of autonomy and living not based on our needs and preferences, but rather based on the internalization of external messages. Who says I “should” eat a salad? Related: What is Radical Acceptance and How Can We Apply It to Health and Fitness?
All-or-nothing thinking involves thinking in the extremes or absolutes. This thought process tends to label things as “good” or “bad” and ignores the many variations that exist between those two extremes. This is often related to perfectionism and individuals holding themselves to unrealistically high standards. It then causes that person distress when they are inevitably unable to live up to those standards day after day. All-or-nothing thinking is the culprit behind “cheat” meals/days; thinking that we are either eating “healthy” or “unhealthy” is an absolute. This mentality fuels the thought process of needing to be perfect except on designated days or for certain meals. Not only do we then feel sick after overindulging on foods, but we experience the additional feeling of failure.
Cognitive distortions can cause us significant distress, particularly when we are using them frequently and without awareness of them. Therefore, it is important to be able to label these cognitive distortions to allow us to get some distance from the thoughts and recognize the potential flaws in logic. When we label these thoughts, we can begin to challenge them and shift our thought process in a way that is more realistic and flexible for our lives. If you remember the article on Compassion Over Criticism: Understanding and Dealing With Negative Thinking, you will remember some of the practical tips for managing cognitive distortions.
Which of these resonate most with you and how do you manage cognitive distortions in your own life?
Written for Fitness Blender by Haley S, PhD
Beck, A. T. (1976). Cognitive therapy and the emotional disorders. Oxford, England: International Universities Press.
Gilbert, P. (1998). The evolved basis and adaptive functions of cognitive distortions. British Journal of Medical Psychology, 71, 447-463.