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  • Writer's pictureDeric Hollings

Cognitive Distortions


When using Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT), I find it useful to define terms for people so that our shared understanding may benefit the practice of this psychotherapeutic modality. For instance, in a blogpost entitled Belief in Knowing, I stated:


“[B]elief” relates to that which one considers to verifiably exist. Nevertheless, not all beliefs are valid—well-grounded or justifiable in accordance with logic and reason (rationality). In fact, I submit that people maintain a significant number of irrational beliefs. This includes me.


Furthermore, although people often express to me that they “feel” one way or another, they often conflate hunches, suspicions, thoughts, and beliefs with the true nature of feelings – emotions or bodily sensations. I suspect you have familiarity with this occurrence.


Person X may say, “I feel like I’m worthless.” In this case, “feel” doesn’t represent joy, fear, anger, sorrow, disgust, surprise, or other emotions. Likewise, it’s not the same thing as saying, “I feel hot,” or, “My throbbing head feels like it’s going to explode.”


Thus, person X’s statement doesn’t represent a feeling at all. (Not even a little bit.) Rather, this individual could accurately say, “I believe I’m worthless.” You may wonder why this distinction matters. For the purpose of understanding, consider one of the key tenets of REBT.


REBT theory uses the ABC model to illustrate how when Activating events (“Actions”) occur and people maintain irrational Beliefs about the events, these unhelpful assumptions – and not the actual occurrences – are what create unpleasant cognitive, emotive, bodily sensation, and behavioral Consequences.


In particular, there are four predominate irrational beliefs which people use: demandingness, awfulizing, frustration tolerance, and global evaluations. Addressing these, the ABC model incorporates Disputation of unhelpful assumptions in order to explore Effective new beliefs.


When disputing, I don’t challenge actions or consequences. To dispute whether or not an activating event occurred would be akin to practicing denial. Likewise, disputing realistic emotions and bodily sensations a person may experience constitutes a rejection of reality.


However, disputing the irrational beliefs one uses about an action and which cause unpleasant consequences is precisely what the ABC model was developed for. Thus, an irrational belief is merely what a person considers to verifiably exist, though in actuality isn’t logical or reasonable.


In addition to unhelpful beliefs of this kind, people also tend to use unproductive inferences. In a blogpost entitled Distorted Inferences, I addressed this matter by stating:


[S]ometimes people disturb themselves not solely by what they Believe (B) about an Activating event (A), though they become upset when using distorted inferences—misleading conclusions based on illogical and unreasonable information—concerning the point of A rather than B.


As an example, when person X’s internet service provider is experiencing overload that results in slower service (Action), this individual may unhelpfully infer, “I bet they’re slowing down my service on purpose,” while irrationally Believing, “They should treat customers with respect!”


The inference in this example represents a victimhood narrative while the belief is an example of an absolutistic should statement. Both of these unfavorable cognitive narratives would then be worth disputing.


From time to time, people conflate the meaning of unhelpful inferences and irrational beliefs with cognitive distortions. I, too, have been guilty of merging the meaning of these words. And why wouldn’t? Isn’t it like differentiating between the terms “chilly” and “nippy”?


In fact, I suspect that if you conducted an internet search to find the difference between irrational beliefs and cognitive distortions, you’d encounter many sources claiming they’re essentially synonymous. One source, which conflates thoughts with beliefs, describes the difference thusly:


A cognitive distortion is a thinking habit. Thinking about reality in an unreal way. You are aware of reality and what is realistic and factual, but you use thinking habits to distort or interpret reality into how you want or wish reality would be. Cognitive distortions can be mild or major distortions that you may no longer consciously think about.


Cognitive distortions can include irrational beliefs and irrational thoughts. You can mindfully examine and reflect upon your thinking habits to discover your cognitive distortions. Once you become aware of your cognitive distortion thinking habits, you can change them … if you want to. Cognitive distortions can make your life better or worse.


Irrational thoughts are thoughts not based on reason, facts or reality, but are based on fantasy, emotions or opinion. Irrational thoughts are just made up. There is no pattern or habit of irrational thoughts, as they can be about anything that isn’t rational or real. Irrational thoughts can make your life better or worse.


To use a metaphor, imagine our thinking process is a mirror’s reflection. Normal cognitions [are] seeing an accurate reflection of reality. For a cognitive distortion, the mirror warps and distorts our reality. For irrational thoughts, there is no mirror, we just make up a reflection we want to see.


I posit that the reason for overlap between irrational beliefs – proposed by the late psychologist who developed REBT, Albert Ellis – and cognitive distortions – submitted by the late psychiatrist who developed cognitive therapy, Aaron Beck – is because different people addressed similar phenomenon when developing their psychotherapeutic models.


Noteworthy, both Ellis and Beck have been credited with developing cognitive behavior therapy (CBT). Clarifying the distinction between REBT and CBT, one source proposes:


REBT: Addresses both emotional distress and distorted thinking. REBT delves deeper into the underlying philosophies behind negative thoughts, aiming to identify and dismantle irrational beliefs that contribute to emotional disturbance.


CBT: Primarily targets cognitive distortions. CBT focuses on identifying and replacing negative thought patterns with more realistic and helpful ones to improve emotional well-being.


Do these two descriptions sound synonymous to you? They do to me and I’m a professional REBT practitioner. Therefore, I can understand how a person may be confused about the difference between inferences, irrational beliefs, and cognitive distortions.


For clarity, one article lists the following cognitive distortions, reportedly characteristic of CBT:


·  All-or-nothing thinking

·  Overgeneralizing

·  Discounting the positive

·  Jumping to conclusions

·  Mind reading

·  Fortune telling

·  Magnifying (catastrophizing) or minimizing

·  Emotional reasoning

·  Should statements

·  Labeling and mislabeling

·  Personalization


Still, a prominent REBT practitioner commented on the article by clarifying:


The cognitive distortions mentioned in this article are typical of CBT rather than REBT. The latter has only four dysfunctional beliefs: demandingness, awfulizing, frustration intolerance and global negative rating of self, others, life, the world, and some add psychological processes.


Thus, cognitive distortions are self-disturbing thoughts or thought habits (patterns) while irrational beliefs reflect the key tenets described by my aforementioned explanation of the ABC model. Ellis proposed for major irrational beliefs, though Beck used his version of similar occurrence.


Essentially, this is a branding issue – CBT versus REBT – and isn’t something with which I suspect the average person is concerned. Nevertheless, and somewhat confusingly, page 157 of The REBT Therapist’s Pocket Companion advocates challenging inferences, beliefs, and distortions.


In any case, I assist people with the reduction of self-disturbance. Irrespective of hair-splitting terms – whether related to inferences, irrational beliefs, or cognitive distortions – I teach people how to dispute mental narratives which impact emotions, bodily sensations, and behavior.


If you’re looking for a provider who works to help you understand how thinking impacts physical, mental, emotional, and behavioral elements of your life—helping you to sharpen your critical thinking skills, I invite you to reach out today by using the contact widget on my website.


As a psychotherapist, I’m pleased to help people with an assortment of issues ranging from anger (hostility, rage, and aggression) to relational issues, adjustment matters, trauma experience, justice involvement, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, anxiety and depression, and other mood or personality-related matters.


At Hollings Therapy, LLC, serving all of Texas, I aim to treat clients with dignity and respect while offering a multi-lensed approach to the practice of psychotherapy and life coaching. My mission includes: Prioritizing the cognitive and emotive needs of clients, an overall reduction in client suffering, and supporting sustainable growth for the clients I serve. Rather than simply helping you to feel better, I want to help you get better!



Deric Hollings, LPC, LCSW




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