Why We Have Cognitive Distortions And How To Make It Better


why we have cognitive distortions

My husband and I were sitting together listening to the list of infractions our son had committed in his first grade classroom.

Behaviorally, my son was not doing well. Academically, he was doing quite well.

As the kindly school administrator continued to talk my mind raced,

“He is going to get moved to a special ed classroom. His curriculum will not be the same. He will become insecure and have low self-esteem. He’ll probably get kicked out of school. I know somebody that happened to in my district!”

The teacher chimes in, “…and his reading comprehension is quite good. Oh and his spelling, too.”

But I didn’t hear her. I was catastrophizing in my mind.

“What am I gonna do? I cannot homeschool him. OMG what if he ends up an elementary school drop-out? He will be living with me when he is 40. My husband is going to kick him out and then he will be a homeless derelict.”

You see, not only do I have ADHD, but I also have what a therapist would call cognitive distortions.

In his book, Born To Be Wild, Jess Shatkin, MD. MPH defines cognitive distortions as, “exaggerated and unreasonable thoughts that cause us to misperceive reality and then subsequently feel bad.”  See my review of his book here.

Blaming ADHD for all of my problems would be easy. But I don’t like making excuses for my own behavior just because of my diagnosis.

I’ve experienced parental rejection, peer rejection, parental loss and a number of other things that make me just like millions of other people.

We all have adverse experiences in our lives.

But when you have ADHD the chemical groundwork is laid for us to have a bit more trouble than our neurotypical counterparts.

ADHD doesn’t cause cognitive distortions, it causes us to interpret events in a way that leads to them.

Why we have cognitive distortions.

(And how to make it better)


The Cognitive Triangle

This handy little graphic illustrates the relationship between thoughts, feelings, and behaviors with events in the middle.

cognitive triangle

The event occurs when something happens to set the process in motion. the event triggers the interplay between our thoughts, feelings, and behavior.

When you have ADHD, your emotions are already pretty intense. So an adverse event can lead us straight into bad feelings and thoughts.

In the story above, I was catastrophizing and filtering at the same time.

I have experienced rejection, so I went straight down the rabbit hole with my thoughts about my son.

Know the common cognitive distortions

Filtering–  focusing on the negative details of a situation and filtering out the positive.

Black and white thinking– seeing everything as good or bad, perfect or failure. No grey area

Overgeneralization– drawing a conclusion about your own abilities based on a single incident; when something bad happens once you except that it will happen again.

Mind reading– believing that you know what others are thinking or feeling about YOU.

Catastrophizing– expecting a disaster from every situation.

Personalization– assume that everything someone does/says is about you; comparing yourself to others to determine who is better, smarter etc.

Blaming– holding other people responsible for your pain, or blaming yourself for every problem.

Shoulds– maintaining a list of rules about how you should act, becoming angry when others break the rules, or feeling guilty if you break the rules.

 How to make it better

First, talk to your primary care doctor about your automatic negative thoughts.

Cognitive behavioral therapy should be included in your ADHD your treatment. If you are not currently in therapy, ask your PCP for a referral to a therapist in your area.

CBT is one of the most effective and well-researched treatments available to deal with cognitive distortions.

Practice thinking about your own thoughts (metacognition).  Begin to question where they are coming from. This will help you to move past this type of automatic negative thinking.

Thoughts, feelings, and behavior are closely linked. See my post on emotional management for more information.

ADHD doesn’t cause cognitive distortions, it causes us to interpret events in a way that leads to them.

If you have ADHD you have probably experienced an even greater number of rejections and negative interactions over the course of your life.

Unfortunately, we replay painful events over and over in our minds. The best way to work through these thinking errors is to identify and learn how to confront them head-on. (As you would in therapy.)

Oh and take your medications as prescribed.

How have cognitive distortions appeared in your life?

***Most of the information above was taken from Born To Be Wild.**** The link below is an affiliate link. See my full disclosure.

Click here for Feel Better Fast! Now available as a self-paced course!