Cognitive distortions are thoughts we have that are not grounded in reality but which we nevertheless convince ourselves to be true. They tend to be attached to more ‘negative’ thoughts and emotions, and will usually perpetuate these experiences if they remain unchallenged.
Most humans experience these distortions to a certain degree, but people with BPD and other mental illnesses are known to be more vulnerable to them. They can really get in the way of one’s ability to function and quality of life, and so they are patterns of thinking that are often challenged in therapies such as DBT.
There are a number of cognitive distortions that my therapists likes me to keep a tab on. When I am struggling with what I call ‘Thinky Brain’ (my head in major overdrive), she encourages me to label the type of distortions I am experiencing in order to create a gap between my thoughts and what I consequently do about them.
I have read about over 50 common cognitive distortions from various sources – so not exactly easy to keep track! The sheet below includes 10 of these that I have been targeting in DBT:
For example, I have recently been experiencing a lot of distorted thoughts that take me back to my more eating disordered days. I am on holiday at the moment and have been eating more than I usually do – and as a result have noticed a lot of cognitive distortions related to this. With reference to the page above, these distortions include: labeling myself as “fat” and “a failure” etc; using critical words like should and should not to berate myself for certain actions; catastrophising that I am going to gain a ton of weight this week; all-or-nothing thoughts that I have screwed up and may as well ‘fuck it all’ because it is too late anyway; over-generalising that this always happens with me; mentally filtering so that I only pay attention to the instances in which food has been more challenging, etc.
So by saying to myself “I notice that I am struggling with (insert type of cognitive distortion)” when I acknowledge these thinking patterns, it is meant to help take some of the power out of the thoughts and bring me a tiny bit closer to reality. I still feel icky but I’m trying to train my brain to realise that what I convince myself to be true is not necessarily always the case.