NYC Psychotherapist Blog

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Monday, April 3, 2017

How Psychotherapy Helps You to Understand and Change Distorted Thinking

Generally, most people don't spend a lot of time trying to understand their particular style of thinking.  Many people are unaware that they engage in distorted thinking (also known as cognitive distortions).  But when you're in therapy, you have a unique opportunity to understand and change distorted thinking (see my article: The Benefits of Psychotherapy).

How Psychotherapy Helps You to Understand and Change Distorted Thinking

What is Distorted Thinking?
Here's a list of cognitive distortions and definitions:
  • Catastrophizing
  • All of nothing thinking
  • Taking things personally
  • Jumping to conclusions
  • Overgeneralization
  • Fallacy of fairness
  • Blaming or externalizing
  • Emotional reasoning
  • The need to be right
  • Filtering

When people catastrophize, they tend to exaggerate situations.  They can expect a disaster when, objectively, there is no reason to expect disaster.  

Distorted Thinking: Catastrophizing

For instance, a person who catastrophizes can hear a weather report for a few inches of snow and this builds in her mind until she is convinced that there will be a huge snowstorm even when there is no evidence of this.  She will usually go around in a state of anxiety and excitedly tell others to expect a big snowstorm (see my article: Are You Catastrophizing?)

All or Nothing Thinking (see my article: Overcoming All or Nothing Thinking)

Taking Things Personally
People who tend to take things personally see others' words and deeds as being directed at them when it's not.

Distorted Thinking: Taking Things Personally

An example of this might be:  A new policy is announced that changes the way sales managers are compensated.  The person who tends to take things personally will think that the policy is aimed at her when, in fact, it's for everyone on the sales team.

Jumping to Conclusions
People who jump to conclusions will make assumptions without having objective facts, and they will assume that they're right.  For instance, someone who runs into a neighbor, who looks angry, might assume that the neighbor is angry with him--when in fact the neighbor is angry about something that has nothing to do with him.  

People who engage in overgeneralization often take one instance of something happening and make the assumption, based on that one instance, that this is how it is always.  For instance, if a writer submits an article to be published and her article is rejected, she assumes that this is how it will always be when she submits articles.  She is engaging in overgeneralization.

Fallacy of Fairness
Many children grow up thinking that the world should be "fair" and, as adults, when they encounter situations which are "unfair," it contradicts their way of thinking.

Distorted Thinking: Fallacy of Fairness

But, as we know, the world isn't "fair."

Blaming or Externalizing
When people have a tendency to engage in blaming (also known as externalizing), they don't take responsibility for their own thinking, feelings or actions.  

Distorted Thinking: Blaming or Externalizing

Instead, they put the responsibility on others.  An example of this is a person who didn't complete an assignment.  Instead of taking responsibility for not completing the assignment, he blames a coworker for distracting him.

Emotional Reasoning
Emotional reasoning is when a person assumes that whatever he feels must be true.  An example of this would be a person who feels that a person doesn't like her based on her own emotions rather than anything objective that is happening with the other person or the situation.  Reasoning is based solely on emotion.

The Need to Be Right
The need to be right involves a need to prove that one's opinion, feelings or actions are correct even  in the face of contrary facts.  

Distorted Thinking: The Need to Be Right

Someone who needs to be right will argue his opinion regardless of what the other person says.  Being right is more important than the relationship with the other person, how it makes the other person feel or whether or not it's objectively true.

Filtering involves paying attention to only certain aspects of a situation and not to others.  For instance, a person who tends to engage in filtering might only pay attention to the negative side of a situation rather than looking at the whole picture which includes positive aspects.

How Cognitive Distortions Create Problems
As you can see from the descriptions above, these cognitive distortions can be rigid and applied across the board to many different situations.

The problem is that the person who engages in cognitive distortions is usually unaware of it and it can cause many problems for himself as well as others due to his lack of awareness.

How Cognitive Distortions Create Problems

Due to a person's tenacity in using cognitive distortions and their ingrained nature, there is little possibility for change if s/he cannot take in new information from the outside.

Other people, including a spouse, sibling, friend or a supervisor can try to help the person to see how his thinking is distorted, but this is often disregarded by the person using cognitive distortions.

Not only do cognitive distortions create problems for others--they also create internal problems for the person who engages in them.

For instance, in the example above on overgeneralization, the writer, who believes that her writing will always be rejected, might give up too soon and stop writing or stop submitting her writing.  In doing so, she deprives herself of the joy of writing or the anticipated joy of seeing her work published.  She also deprives potential readers of the satisfaction of reading her writing.

How Psychotherapy Helps You to Understand and Change Distorted Thinking
When you're in therapy, your therapist is usually trained to detect cognitive distortions, among other things.

While your family or friends might actually believe in the same cognitive distortions that you do or they might get tired of trying to get you to see the distortions, a skilled therapist will be attuned to distorted thinking and help you in a tactful way to be aware of it and to change it.

How Therapy Helps You to Understand and Change Distorted Thinking

Changing distorted thinking isn't always easy.  You need to feel safe enough in your relationship with your therapist to hear her and also be open to looking at your own way of thinking and relating.  

Even if you feel comfortable with your psychotherapist and you're open to self reflection, there might be other obstacles getting in your way.

It's the psychotherapist's job to help you to identify the underlying reasons why you might be ambivalent about change.  And, let's face it, most people are at least somewhat ambivalent about change even when they come to therapy to make specific changes.

For example, the writer who overgeneralizes based on one rejection will have to look at what it would mean if she let go of this cognitive distortion.  

How Psychotherapy Helps You to Understand and Change Distorted Thinking

One possibility might be that if she opens up to the possibility that she is the one who is getting in her own way of writing or submitting work to publishers, she would need to face her own internal fears, whatever they might be.  

There can be many deeper levels involving the unconscious that will need to be unearthed, exposed to the light of day, and explored.  The underlying unconscious reasons might have nothing to do with what the writer identifies as her conscious reasons.

For example, staying with the same example of the writer:  What if her mother always wanted to be a writer, but because she was a stay at home mom, her lifelong dream of being a writer never materialized?  As a result, the writer feels guilty that she might succeed as a writer and her mother did not.

If these feelings of guilt come up as the deepest layer of unconscious material, the writer might assume that she will ruin her relationship with her mother by succeeding where her mother did not.  And, since she doesn't want to ruin her relationship with her mother, she stops writing, not realizing this underlying unconscious reason.

The writer's assumption (that she will ruin her relationship with her mother by succeeding) might also be a distortion because it's possible that, contrary to what the writer thinks, her mother might be delighted to see her daughter succeed as a writer.

But if this unconscious material is never exposed, the writer and the therapist could go round and round for a long time just talking about how the writer is using overgeneralization.

To get to the unconscious material, a skilled therapist must be trained in how to get to these underlying emotions, whether the therapist uses psychodynamic psychotherapy, clinical hypnosis, Coherence Therapy or any one of a number of modalities that deals with unconscious thinking and emotions.

So, it's not enough to identify the particular cognitive distortion.  A skilled psychotherapist must also be able to get to the deeper underlying causes of the problem, otherwise the therapy will remain superficial.

Getting Help in Therapy
If you suspect that your style of thinking could be getting in your own way or compromising your interpersonal relationships, you owe it to yourself and your loved ones to get help in therapy.

Freeing yourself from cognitive distortions and the underlying unconscious thinking and emotions that are driving them will change your life and the lives of those you love.

Rather than suffering on your own, get help from a licensed psychotherapist who is skilled in helping clients to identify their cognitive distortions, get to the root cause of the problem, and make healthy changes.

About Me
I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist who works with individual adults and couples.

My original training is in psychodynamic psychotherapy.  I also use cognitive behavioral therapy when it is needed.

I have helped many clients to overcome their own cognitive distortions and make lasting changes so they can lead a more fulfilling life.

To find out more about me, visit my website: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during business hours or email me.