The Rational Thinker’s Guide to Distorted Thinking

Rational thinkers guide to irrational thinking

The Rational Thinker’s Guide to Distorted Thinking

Cognitive distortions are patterns of distorted thinking that skewer the way we interpret events and cause us to think inaccurately.  Rational thinking, on the other hand, is the mental process by which we appropriately apply facts, logic and reason in a way that reflects coherency and reasonableness in a particular context.  Behaving rationally, implies, for instance, that we act or think in ways that reflect conformity with our beliefs and values.  It also implies clear thought. 

Mental illness and distorted thinking

Is Distorted Thinking Mental Illness?
Let’s start by stating what might not be obvious: the most fair-minded individuals are all susceptible to distorted thinking.  This is in part because as humans, we are simply brilliant when it comes to self-deception.  Denial is very valid response to pain employed by most of us at some time to deceive ourselves regarding reality or protect a certain self-image.  It is a natural response to protect us from overwhelm.

A typical example is adjusting to the news that someone we love is no longer alive.  We might also employ self-deception to protect ourselves from feeling shame or “less than” to deceive ourselves momentarily about our motivations, identity, or character.  Simply put, sometimes the truth hurts. 

Anxiety as a Cause of Distorted Thinking
To sustain that state of denial and sense of safety, we will sometimes engage, for the most part subconsciously, in irrational thoughts and beliefs to keep the truth at bay.  This is a normal defense mechanism to protect us from feelings of anxiety that might accompany facing the truth.  Sometimes the truth means we must make a difficult choice and we’re not quite ready to do that.  Of course, denial is not a long-term solution and sustaining that state can keep us from resolving issues in a mature and responsible fashion. 

Similarly, distorted thinking becomes problematic because it not only keeps us from facing reality, but there’s a tendency for cognitive distortions to stack one on top of the other to the point that the truth becomes virtually inaccessible. 

Stress and Thinking Errors
No matter how smart or rational we are, we are all particularly prone to distorted thinking when stressed.  Research shows that when sufficiently stressed, the resulting stress hormones such as adrenaline, norepinephrine and cortisol that are pumped into our system to prepare us for “fight or flight” flood our frontal lobes, the part of our cerebral cortex responsible for all the executive functions involved in clear thinking such as reasoning, reality checking, problem-solving, taking perspective, decision-making and planning. In addition, our frontal lobes help us assess our emotions to form judgments that allow us to respond with reason. 


Cognitive Distortion, Depression and Other Mental Health Conditions
In addition, distorted thinking is quite prevalent in mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety, personality disorders and PTSD.  Sometimes a helpful way of viewing distorted thinking is to see it as a “set up” or “mind trap.”  Once you recognize the thinking pattern, it might be better to use an exit strategy/coping skill to release you from that state rather than persist in the train of thought under the (irrational) belief that you’ll come to some satisfactory conclusion.

Distorted thinking and PTSD

Examples of Cognitive Distortions

Because we are not always going to know when we are thinking or behaving irrationally, here are the most common patterns of distorted thinking:

  • Catastrophizing
    • This is characterized by out-of-control “what-ifs” when we jump to the worst-case scenario and see things as being way worse than they actually are. Sometimes catastrophizing can spiral us into deep depressive states.
  • Emotional Reasoning
    • This occurs when we believe something to be true based on how we feel rather than objective evidence.
  • All or Nothing Thinking
    • This is also referred to as “black and white” thinking. It represents thinking at the extreme without any nuance or middle position.  Children ten and under typically reflect this kind of thinking because they are concrete thinkers and lack the ability for abstract thinking.
  • Overgeneralization
    • This is when we take one bad example of something happening and draw an overly broad conclusion. Common flags for overgeneralization are “always,” “never,” “everything,” and “nothing.”
  • Personalization
    • Personalization occurs when we put ourselves at the center of events such that we are responsible or to blame regardless of our lack of control or capability. In other words, we take things personally.   
  • Labelling and Mislabeling
    • This distortion reflects rapid judgment of ourselves or others based on flimsy evidence or single occurrences e.g. “I’m a loser.” “They’re a jerk.” The thinking is usually restrictive and rigid as we continue to judge without any leniency or possibility of redemption.
  • Discounting the Positive
    • This distortion acknowledges the positive but rejects it out of hand or minimizes. It’s particularly problematic because it reinforces the impact of negative thinking.  It’s also a great way to undermine one’s strengths.
  • Jumping to Conclusions
    • When we jump to conclusions, we come to negative conclusions without any evidence and then react our unsubstantiated assumptions. It typically occurs with:
      • Mindreading: This is when we attempt to infer what someone might be thinking without asking them to clarify. It is a common mistake in relationships when we then leap to conclusions or judgments based on those inferences.
      • Fortune telling: This is the tendency to come to conclusions and make predictions with little or no evidence in support. For example, thinking we will never find love because of one break-up or bad relationship.  Include in this distortion, self-fulfilling prophecies.
    • Should/Must Statements
      • These cognitive statements are the thinking traps of perfectionist thinking. At their worst, they live little wiggle room for flexibility or acceptance and can result in that joyless treadmill feeling as we switch out endless goals hoping for eventual satisfaction that is fleeting at most.
      • Should statements often reflect our hopes or desires but are phrased as imperatives that we accept as a personal failure. e.g. “I ought to be married by now” or “I should have told him ‘no.’” 
Ruminating adds to cognitive dysfunction

Fixing Distorted Thinking
Distorted thinking doesn’t fix itself.  In fact, here’s what tends to make it worse:

  • Ruminating: This can result in “cascading” thoughts that drag us into a kind of anxiety vortex where one distressing thought leads to another, and another and another. Are you talking about the same worry over and over and over again?
  • Believing we need anxiety to get things done.

A Few Guiding Principles

A few fundamental principles to bear in mind to evaluate our thinking are:

  • Thoughts are just ideas: Thinking something, doesn’t necessarily mean it’s true.

  • Feelings are not facts.

  • It’s not the narrative/event that matters, it’s how you think about it.

  • Identifying and reviewing ways in which you have coped with bad things can help nurture your inner resilience that the bad things that happen might not be the worst or insurmountable.

Cognitive Behavioral Strategies

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is the primary intervention to help people build the cognitive skills that counter distorted thinking.  Its main goal is to help you see how thoughts, behaviors and emotions impact one another.  Also, one of the prime tasks of CBT is to help individuals identify and challenge the thoughts, beliefs and assumptions underlying cognitive distortions. 

Key steps to overcoming these distortions are recognizing your unique thinking errors and then learning how to ‘gather evidence’ to counter and challenge this thinking so you can make more informed and rational choices. 

Ask your therapist how to do this and when this might be appropriate. Some things to bear in mind: Not all thinking lends itself to the kind of cognitive appraisal found in CBT e.g. Thinking resulting from disorders such as schizophrenia and obsessive compulsive disorder; and rewiring the brain to automate more realistic patterns of thinking takes consistent practice and repetition.       


Below is additional information to help you understand thinking errors and cognitive distortions on a deeper level::

You can find other soundbites related to well-being, self-compassion and healing on our coaching website that adds a big picture perspective on well-being in the context of current events.  Stay in tune with issues related to your well-being and mental health right here in the Urim Recovery Journal updated 2x a week.

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