Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Shadow Beliefs

In Giving Ourselves Permission, I wrote about shadow beliefs, those habitual beliefs that block our access to happiness. Today I read an excellent post on Dandy’s blog The Reflective Self about cognitive distortions. (That term sounds a bit like a space/time anomaly from Star Trek.) Cognitive distortions are like shadow beliefs. Dandy lists the 10 most common cognitive distortions. Here is the list from her post.

1. Overgeneralization: You see a single negative event as a never-ending pattern of defeat.

2. Mental filter: You pick out a single negative detail and dwell on it exclusively so that your vision of all reality becomes darkened, like the drop of ink that discolors the entire beaker of water.

3. Disqualifying the positive: You reject positive experiences by insisting they “don’t count” for some reason or other. You maintain a negative belief that is contradicted by your everyday experiences.

4. Jumping to conclusions: You make a negative interpretation even though there are no definite facts that convincingly support your conclusion.

a. Mind reading: You arbitrarily conclude that someone is reacting negatively to you and don’t bother to check it out.

b. The Fortune Teller Error: You anticipate that things will turn out badly and feel convinced that your prediction is an already-established fact.

5. Magnification (catastrophizing) or minimization: You exaggerate the importance of things (such as your goof-up or someone else’s achievement), or you inappropriately shrink things until they appear tiny (your own desirable qualities or the other fellow’s imperfections). This is also called the “binocular trick.”

6. Emotional reasoning: You assume that your negative emotions necessarily reflect the way things really are: “I feel it, therefore it must be true.”

7. Should statements: You try to motivate yourself with shoulds and shouldn’ts, as if you had to be whipped and punished before you could be expected to do anything. “Musts” and “oughts” are also offenders. The emotional consequence is guilt. When you direct should statements toward others, you feel anger, frustration, and resentment.

8. Labeling and mislabeling: This is an extreme form of overgeneralization. Instead of describing your error, you attach a negative label to yourself: “I’m a loser.” When someone else’s behavior rubs you the wrong way, you attach a negative label to him, “He’s a damn louse.” Mislabeling involves describing an event with language that is highly colored and emotionally loaded.

9. Personalization: You see yourself as the cause of some negative external event for which, in fact, you were not primarily responsible.

10. All-or-nothing thinking: You see things in black and white categories. If your performance falls short of perfect, you see yourself as a total failure.

I don’t know about you, but when I read this list, I recognized each one of these as something I have done. Yep, every one. Do any of these sound familiar to you?

So the question is, if I do this, how do I stop it? I think the answer is in substituting counter beliefs until the counter beliefs become habitual. Counter beliefs, as I wrote earlier, interrupt habitual negative thoughts and create positive thought habits. Several people have asked me to say more about counter beliefs, so I will do that in the next post.


  1. Wow. Who are you and why are you writing about me!? (kidding) That was just what I needed this morning. I'll have to come by here more often! Thank you!

  2. I've definitely done many of these things. I think the hardest part is recognizing when it happens. In the moment, it's so hard to see past all of the emotions. I lean on someone I trust to tell me (nicely) when I'm doing it. Then I ask myself, "What did that person really mean when they said that?" or "What might be going on in that person's life to make them act that way?" or "I know what I did wrong. What did I do well? What can I do better next time?"

  3. I read this post from Dandy a few days ago, and I liked it then. I think for me, it's often been that I over analyze every decision I make (I can probably attribute some of this to Adult ADD, but not all of it). Therefore, it's been difficult for me to come to peace with decisions I make. And then I second-guess myself. These are all things I'm working on to improve and by the end of the year, I intend to master them! :)

  4. Hi Galen,
    I'm so happy you posted this list on your blog! I hope it helps alot of people. I know that when I first heard about cognitive distortions is was a turning point for me! Thanks for getting the word out Galen!

  5. Whoa, I see alot of these in my husband. He's a pessimistic person to begin with. Couple it with a bout of depression from an issue with our son that happened 6 months ago and yeah, self esteem and confidence are right down the toilet. We're (son and I) trying to help him and he is getting better but it's a struggle. He won't seek help. Very frustrating.
    Great post. Helped clarify a couple things with me.

  6. Oh yes, some of these seem familiar! In Buddhist practice, "counter" beliefs" are often called "antidotes." The antidote for anger is love or patience, for example. Counter beliefs are potent ways of changing our minds. Thanks for these examples of our common distortions.

  7. I appreciate your comments.

    My Sweet Prairie, yes I was writing about you. Kidding. I know I was certainly writing about me, or at least the old me.

    I will be interested to hear whether the next post on counter beliefs (or antidotes in Buddhist lingo) is helpful. I hope so.

  8. Hi Galen,

    Yeap I also read Dandy's excellent post. And at one point or other, I had been through all 10 of those cognitive distortion, sometimes all 10 at once! I look forward to your post on counter beliefs!

    Irving the Vizier

  9. I can relate to this list, I used to live in some of this type of thinking or self defeating thoughts and attitudes. Not any more, I've freed myself and today my heart is allowed to dance whenever it chooses to. Actually the first time I ever felt my heart dance I thought I was having a heart attack, but it felt to good so I knew it wasn't that! lol

    I'm now studying in a critical thinking course and even though I've only begun this course I can see more personal growth coming my way and I say bring it on, I'm ready for this!

    I'm not saying that my mind never slips back into what Dandy's labeled "cognitive disorders", it does but I can catch it in a flash and change my thought process, now that takes work and hard work in the beginning but it's 100% worth the effort.

    Awesome post!

  10. Sadly, I fit many of those.

    Its one thing to do them, but another thing for them to actually put a name on them, that is something else. I think its easier to do those things if they didn't have names. Now I will be thinking are you using a Mental filter? Uggg!

    Its like holding up a mirror to myself.


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