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David Burns’ “Daily Mood Log”
Step 4: Identifying Cognitive Distortions

Introduction

          There are 5 steps to the Daily mood log:

          On this page we’ll focus on identifying the cognitive distortions in the automatic negative thoughts (ANTS) you identified in Step 3.

          We’ll describe ten different distortions that are commonly used by cognitive behavioral therapists.  Any one ANT will  likely contain at least one, maybe several – and don’t be surprised if some of your ANTS contain as many as all 10 distortions!

Preparation

          As we suggested with each of the previous three steps, it will be helpful to take a moment to “remember to breathe” – that is, to relax, take a few slow deep breaths, and be calmly mindful of what you’re feeling.  As you begin to identify the distortions in your ANTS, if you notice yourself starting to tense up, see if you can pause for a moment to breathe and let go of the tension.

          You may even start to notice a new crop of automatic negative thoughts arising as you work your way through this exercise:  “I can’t do this.” “I’ve never been good at this stuff.” “Some people may find this kind of thing helpful, but my problems are different.” 

          If you do start to notice an ANT . . . or two . . . or ten, see if you can breathe calmly as you observe the thoughts from the “hub” of your wheel of awareness, keeping some sense of connection to your “core” of calm, ease, and contentment. 

Remember Your Brain

          It will also be helpful to remind yourself once again that it’s not the event that’s causing your suffering, it’s the story your upstairs brain is telling you – under the influence of the desires, fears, and biases of your downstairs (emotional and instinctive) brain.  Your downstairs brain doesn’t much care about a constructive or reasonable view of the situation. It’s interested in assuring your survival (that is, survival of your body and your personality), in gaining greater pleasure, avoiding pain, maintaining the relationships you depend on, and in general, having more control over your life, circumstances, and other people.

          In this step of the Mood Log, you’ll be using your upstairs brain to identify the distortions generated by your downstairs brain.  This will help to free your upstairs brain from their influence, enabling it to see more clearly and accurately.  

          As your MPFC and heart intelligence become more well-developed, they will naturally help to modify the survival instincts of your downstairs brain, tempering them with core qualities such as compassion, wisdom, tranquility, and generosity.

Ten Cognitive Distortions

          The following is David Burns’ list of ten basic cognitive distortions.  It’s kind of remarkable that most automatic thoughts seem to fit into at least one of these categories.  It seems that even in our distortions, we’re more alike than we tend to realize.  

          It’s possible, however, that you may come up with an ANT that defies these categories – in which case, do your best to figure out what it is about the thought that’s inaccurate or irrational.  And feel free to make up your own distortion categories.

          Without further ado, here they are:

1.    All-or-Nothing Thinking: 

This is when you think in terms of absolutes.  It’s a function of the difficulty your emotional brain has in detecting shades of grey, making it inclined to see things as either black or white.

“This is a complete disaster.” “This is the worst thing that’s ever happened to me.” “I’m a total failure.”  These are all examples of this distortion.

If you’re a perfectionist, you’ll probably find that many of your ANTS contain this distortion – something along the lines of, “If I don’t do this perfectly, if it’s not the best I’ve ever done, it’s totally worthless.  And I’m totally worthless.” 

2.    Overgeneralization:

This is when you take one negative event and assume that it represents a long-term pattern.  Generally, ANTS characterized by overgeneralization contain words like “always” or “never.”  

An example would be when someone insults you and you think, “Nobody cares about me (all-or-nothing thinking).  Nobody ever did and nobody ever will  (overgeneralization).”

3.    Mental Filter: 

This is a thought that reflects a tendency to see the glass as “half-empty” – one that focuses only on the most negative aspect(s) of your event.

You may know someone who always manages to find the cloud for every silver lining. If you say, “Gee, it’s a nice day, isn’t it?” they’ll say, “Are you kidding? The stock market’s down, I missed my train, and besides, they say it might rain tonight.”

4.    Discounting the Positive:

This is similar to the “Mental Filter.”  It’s when you reject anything positive by refusing to give it validity.  

For example, someone praises you and you think, “I know I’m not that good, they just don’t know me well enough.”  We knew an amateur golfer who was quite good at the game, but no matter how often he got a good score, he’d dismiss it with the thought, “This was just good luck, I won’t do that well again.”

5.    Jumping to Conclusions (this often takes two forms): 

Mind reading:
This is when you assume someone is thinking bad things about you even though you really have no idea what they’re thinking. You may remember the example we gave of someone taking a test who, without any evidence, assumed that the teacher was thinking how stupid he was.

Fortune telling:
This is when you assume something bad will happen in the future when you have no way of knowing that.  An example of this would be when you’re about to go on a blind date, and you’re convinced it’s going to be awful and that (s)he’s going to hate you.

6.    Magnification / Minimization:

Magnification:
Burns describes this as making a mountain out of a molehill.  An example of this would be someone performing a very difficult, very long piano piece who makes one mistake. The audience erupts in thunderous applause at the end, but the pianist feels like a failure because of the one mistake (s)he can’t stop thinking about.  
    
Minimization
This is the flip side of magnification.  In the above example, at the same time as the pianist was magnifying the one mistake, (s)he was also minimizing his or her overall excellent performance and the hugely positive audience response.

Most events have some combination of positive and negative aspects.  So these two distortions often work together to make us feel bad about whatever happened.

7.    Emotional Reasoning:

This is when you assume that because you feel something, it must be true.  What’s happening brain-wise with this distortion is that your emotional brain has hijacked your thinking brain.  Examples would include: “I feel bad, therefore I’m a worthless person.” “I feel frightened, therefore something bad is going to happen.” 

8.    "Should” Statements:

Cognitive Behavioral Therapist Albert Ellis refers to this as “shoulding” on ourselves.  The pianist in the above example felt terrible because, whether (s)he was aware of it or not, (s)he had the thought, “I shouldn’t have made that mistake”.  Perhaps you’ve accidentally said something rude and felt awful afterwards, because you had the thought, “I should always be nice.” 

Generally, when your “should” statement is about yourself, you tend to feel depressed, frustrated, or guilty. When your “should” statement is about someone else (“She shouldn’t have said that to him”), you’ll probably feel some combination of annoyed, resentful, self-righteous, and angry.

9.    Negative Labeling:

This is similar to all-or-nothing thinking. When we think of ourselves or someone else in terms of a particular label, we ignore everything about them except for that one thing. For example, when you have the thought, “He’s an insensitive person,” you’ve just reduced a complex person to one single characteristic.  When you have the thought, “I’m a loser,” you’re no longer a normal, complex person who succeeds at some things and fails at others.  You cease to be yourself and become a caricature of a loser.

Negative labeling is one of the most pervasive distortions – and one that’s easy to miss because, in the moment, the label seems to be justified.  It’s a distortion that leads to many negative emotions about ourselves and others.  And when we begin to notice it and let go of the label, it can not only free us from negative emotions, but also free us to be more insightful and creative.

10.   Personalization / Blame:

Personalization is when you make something about you that wasn’t.  For example, your friend snaps at you about something trivial and you assume it’s because (s)he’s annoyed with you – when it was really just that (s)he’d had a rough day and was cranky.  

Another variation of personalization is when you blame yourself for something you had no control over.  For example, children often blame themselves when their parents get divorced.

Blaming is the opposite of personalization – it’s when you blame something or someone else for something that’s your responsibility.  An example could be refusing to take any responsibility for problems in a relationship, but instead always blaming the other person. Blaming is also a very common way to avoid taking responsibility for your own negative emotions: “If only so-and-so would do things differently, I would be happy.”

          Now you can go through each of the automatic negative thoughts you identified in Step 3 and figure out which distortions they contain.




          When you’ve completed this step, you’re ready to go on to the last step where you’ll use all the work you’ve done so far to transform your negative distorted thinking into thinking that is more realistic and constructive. This has the potential to powerfully transform the way you experience your life.