What Are Cognitive Distortions?
Everyone’s thought processes take mental shortcuts from time to time. For example, you may predict the length of your commute based on what traffic was like yesterday. Sometimes, however, these shortcuts are unhelpful and do not always reflect reality. A cognitive distortion is a mental shortcut our minds take that is rooted in feelings of shame, judgment, and self-blame. Such shame-based mental shortcuts are especially common among survivors of child sexual abuse.
An example of a shame-based shortcut might be:
Situation: You have a headache.
Thought: “I am so incapable of coping with life that even the smallest things give me a headache. I shouldn’t even try to function as an adult.”
Ultimately, cognitive distortions (sometimes referred to as “thinking errors”) often reinforce the shame that a survivor is already feeling, rather than providing a different, more compassionate perspective.
Cognitive Distortions Commonly Experienced by Child Sexual Abuse Survivors
Recognizing the mental shortcuts you take can help you evaluate if they are actually helpful or not. Here are five types of cognitive distortions that many survivors of child sexual abuse commonly experience:
Thinking in Extremes
This includes seeing things in black-and-white terms, with no in between, as well as exaggerating our idea of what is happening.
- “It’s impossible for me to connect with anyone.”
- “I’m always alone and I never get to do things with friends.”
Stuck in a Single Event
Taking one instance and expecting all current and future situations to be similar to that single instance.
- “It was really hard to share my story, and the person I just disclosed my abuse to responded cruelly. I shouldn’t tell anyone about my abuse because they will have the same reaction.”
Filtering out the Positive
Acknowledging positive experiences but then rejecting them as meaningless or exceptional.
- “I didn’t experience any setbacks today, but that’s probably just a fluke.”
- “I received good feedback on my project, but it’s only because they didn’t read it closely enough to see all my mistakes.”
Jumping to Conclusions
Making assumptions about the future or about what other people are thinking based on your current emotions, past experiences, or small bits of information.
- “My friend hasn’t been supportive in the past, so she probably won’t be supportive in the future.”
- “Others see me as damaged.”
Making It Personal
Assigning blame to yourself or assuming the situation hinges on your actions rather than other circumstances.
- “She seemed upset. It must be something I said.”
- “They changed that policy. It was probably because I was late two months ago.”
How to Challenge Cognitive Distortions
Once you identify a cognitive distortion you may be having, you can challenge that thought with several questions. These questions can help you analyze a shame-based thought as well as provide alternate ways of looking at the situation that brought about the thought. Below is an example of a cognitive distortion, the questions you might pose to challenge it, and possible answers to those questions.
Be Patient and Self-Compassionate
Identifying the mental shortcuts your mind sometimes lends itself toward, as well as how those shortcuts may be reinforcing shame, is a long-term process. But if you start by recognizing certain shame-based thoughts you experience now and challenging those thoughts with the questions above, it will become easier to identify your cognitive distortions in the future. It will also begin to feel more natural to view the world from a different angle—rather than from a lens of shame—and to allow space for additional self-compassion, context, and understanding. We encourage you to apply this activity, along with other self-compassion techniques, with patience and curiosity.
As you identify and challenge your cognitive distortions, you are practicing:
- Acknowledgement by recognizing the shame-based thoughts you are experiencing and how those thoughts may be impacting your perception, emotions, and behaviors.
- Mindfulness by observing your thoughts with curiosity, sympathy, and self-compassion.
- Aspiration by working to build the skill of reframing your thoughts in order to help manage shame you may experience in the future.