Wellness Refocused Education: Breaking Down Cognitive Distortions

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In psychology and in health coaching, there are thought patterns that can be identified that influence our decisions. These thought patterns are called cognitive distortions.

In 2020, I presented on them twice, which helped me break down my own thought distortions and challenged me to consider how I talk about what I do as a health coach and myself. This is work that I’ve been doing for a while in my own therapy journey, but it’s also something that may always need work – and that’s ok.

As I did this self-exploration because of my practice, I thought about what makes my practice special, and this is a big part of it. While I hadn’t realized it, I had been working with clients to break down these thoughts so we could make a plan that uniquely fits them. I had just never labeled it that. I’ll get into scope in a little bit. A step further, it’s using different methods that meets clients where they are now so that they can grow and move into spaces they want to be in.

Over the past year, I’ve started to talk about these more bluntly on social media and I’ve hinted at them in posts that I’ve written reflecting my own plans and choices. but I’ve never done an educational post that breaks them down so that you can actively go and do your own research.

So, what are cognitive distortions?

Cognitive (thought) distortions are erroneous beliefs about oneself, an event or another person – this is a basic definition, and there are more complex ones, but this is a good place to start.

Below are the 10 most common cognitive distortions. This post will talk about how to navigate through these thoughts so you can move forward. I will highlight a few distortions, however, if you want to learn more about these distortions you can check out my posts here from Instagram as well as this blog post from Psychology Today written by Amy Morin, LCSW and psychotherapist.

  • All or Nothing (“Black and White” or Polarized thinking)
  • Overgeneralization
  • Mental filtering (filtering)
  • Discounting [the positives]
  • Magnification (Catastrophizing) and Minimization
  • Jumping to conclusions (Mind-reading and Fortune-telling)
  • Personalization and Blame
  • Labeling
  • Should and Musts
  • Emotional Reasoning

The theory behind cognitive distortions was first proposed in 1976 by psychiatrist Aaron T. Beck, who is considered the father of cognitive therapy and cognitive behavior therapy (CBT). It was popularized by David Burns in the 1980s by creating common names and examples.

While challenging cognitive distortions is the basis for cognitive behavior therapy, this is also something that can be done throughout any goal-setting work, however, there may be limitations. You’ll see these conversations in many coaching professionals, not just health coaching.

Often the role of a health coach is to help move someone forward with their goals, while the role of a therapist is to deep dive into their history. However, “dipping a toe” into the history can help [you] move forward.

This ties in with what I’ve mentioned before about the Stages of Change by Prochaska and Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. You’re going to flow through the stages, but understanding your needs and those origins can make that flow easier or at least shift mindset around it.

When I’m working with a client, it’s important to me to find connection that triggers or drives the thought or the behavior because acknowledging them can make those thoughts or behaviors less shameful. The explanation of origin is that connection can make it easier to accept them and then move forward to counter them or reframe them. We’ll get into the differences of countering and reframing soon.

Here’s how I break down these thoughts by using a loose formula.

The first step to problem solving is to identify the problem that needs solving. Here we’re not technically identifying a problem, but the negative thought or the negative behavior that may be holding back the thinker.

Once we’ve identified this, we often want to jump ahead and figure out how we can counter or challenge it to move on from the thought or the behavior. However, this jump can make us feel ashamed and can compound those thoughts making us believe that we should have never had them to begin with (this itself is a Should/Must cognitive distortion).

Steps 2 and 3 utilize curiosity to explore the possible origin of the thought or the behavior as well as creating acceptance for its existence. To me, these two steps can be crucial to lessen that shame, open up the conversation for exploration and build bridges from the origin to the future habits that the thinker wants to do.

Read: negative and positive thoughts are allowed to co-exist, but it’s possible that this feel really uncomfortable. The only way to learn how to navigate and manage these though is to sit with them and not ignore them.

To explore steps 2 and 3, questions to consider could be when was the first time this thought came into existence, has anyone ever said this to you, about you or around you about themselves or someone else, has someone done this behavior near you?

Diving a little further, what does it feel like to ask these questions and develop these connections?

Step 4 is the start of either countering or reframing? You can also do both of these here, it doesn’t have to be either or.

A counter thought can help you better see the fallacy in the thought by exploring ideas that disprove it. Example: I failed this test, I’m stupid. Counter thought: That test was really hard. I didn’t give myself enough time to study. I studied to the best of my ability. Failing one test doesn’t mean I’m stupid.

A reframe shifts the thinking in the event or thought, which can help creating more acceptance or understanding so you can see the reality around the thought or event. Example: I failed this test, but I know that I didn’t give myself enough time to study. I know if I use a different strategy so I have more time, I can do better next time.

And step 5, what do you want to do now that you’ve broken this thought down? You can move forward or stand still.

Let’s break down an All or Nothing (Black and White) thought. These are the thoughts that I see most often with new clients.


Example Goal: losing weight for the New Year

Since we’re about 10 days into the New Year, let’s focus around the thoughts that may come up now with those who are setting New Year’s goals.

It’s very common to be enthusiastic and want to hit the ground running. You’ve got new clothes and shoes, you have a notebook, you’ve downloaded a tracking app and you bought all the healthy foods that you think you need have accessible. You’re ready. Like I mentioned in my blog post about how to create a plan for your goals, often extreme goals are set without a specific plan that helps the setter move towards the bigger goal in smaller steps or offers flexibility.

An All or Nothing thought that could happen as you’re starting this new routine may sound like this: I missed my workout this week, I’m just going to start over next week or I got off track with my meal plan, I’m just going to start over on Monday (step 1).

This thought puts an emphasis on perfection by stating that missing a workout or not having a planned meal is grounds for a restart the following week.

Where does this thought come from (step 2)? With social media, it’s easy to adopt the ideas of others who are focusing on their health or fitness or seeking to change their aesthetic. When we see posts of others not taking a rest day or following plans to a T, it can make us feel as though we should be capable of doing the same (this is actually a Should/Must distortion), which can lead to All or Nothing thinking. I need to do this action in this specific way or it doesn’t count.

It’s also possible that these ideas started much younger by watching those around you set goals, go hard and fail.

It’s discouraging when your plan doesn’t happen how you imagined it, but if you reflect you may be able to accept the reality of the situation (step 3). What caused you to miss the workout? Was your eating plan too extreme to be followed? Did something happen that caused the change in your plan that was out of your control?

Acceptance is hard and this step isn’t to negate the feelings you have, but to instead help you change your mindset around this thought and how it is/isn’t a reflection of you.

Be angry or frustrated, be discouraged or sad. But, do you notice if those emotions hold you back? When you think about your reality, your control and reflect on the legitimacy of the thought that triggered those big emotions – can both the feelings you have and acceptance occur?

Thinking about what could have the week to not go as planned, what could a counter or reframe be (step 4)?

Examples of counter thoughts: One meal or one workout do not make or break my path to achieve my goals in the big picture even though it’s frustrating right now. Every day is a new opportunity to be better.

Examples of reframing thoughts: I made the best choices possible with the options I had available, but it was a busy week and I was unable to maintain my routine.

Now what do you want to do because you DO have a choice (step 5).

Do YOU really think that waiting until the next week to restart will help you in your goal? Could this be an opportunity to make an adjustment to your routine so that the rest of the week is still successful? What could success look like with this “bump in the road”? What change can you make for next week to decrease the chance of this happening again? And, ultimately, is this the right goal for you right now?

Remember, you create the rules, but sometimes we adopt from others without even thinking about it.