Cognitive Distortions

Cognitive distortions are mistakes in the thinking process which affect perceptions, self-evaluations, and assumptions about other people, the environment, and the future. Sexually abused children tend to view the world through negative lenses, overestimating danger and difficulty in life experiences.

Sexually abused children demonstrate chronic levels of helplessness, hopelessness, inability to trust, self-blame, and lowered self-esteem. These cognitive distortions can follow child victims into adulthood and negatively impact mental health, life function, relationships, and goal direction. When life is difficult, these children tend to ascribe the responsibility to internal, enduring factors related to their characters and behaviors. This cognitive perception links back to the self-perception that "I am bad," not that this is a "bad thing" that has happened to me. This may not be self-stated but rather is inferred from behaviors. Anger may be directed externally, but evaluation of the cognitive distortions reveals significant misinterpretation of events and processes.

The extent and nature of cognitive distortions depend on abuse-related variables that lend to their development. How the abuse is perceived by the child and significant others in his life contributes to the level of stigmatization he experiences and affects development of cognitive distortions. Chronic life experience of helplessness and hopelessness will lead to a life-long perception of negativity, overreaction, and the world as a bad place.

Recent research at the University of Oregon (2007) evaluated associations among trauma, dissociation, and cognitive distortions as they relate to age of child at abuse and level of interpersonal betrayal. Across all types of trauma and all ages except 1-6, cognitive distortions are shown to be used at higher rates by abused individuals. 

David Burns (1989) outlines common cognitive distortions:
  1. All or nothing thinking - Use of words like "always," "every," and "never."  Thinking in absolute terms with phrases.
  2. Overgeneralization - Taking single negative events and generalizing them to a pervasive pattern. An example might be: "He yelled at me. He always yells at me. He hates me."
  3. Mental filter - Focusing on a single negative aspect of a situation and ignoring the positive aspects.
  4. Disqualifying the positive - Maintaining the negative evaluation of a situation when others provide positive aspects. Denying those positive aspects, either their presence or importance.
  5. Jumping to conclusions - Making negative interpretations without evidence. This includes mindreading and fortune-telling. Mindreading implies ability to know someone's motivation, thought, and emotion process. Fortune-telling implies negative prediction of the future as if it was already determined.
  6. Magnification or minimization - Catastrophizing or focusing on worst possible outcome or minimizing positive view of event, situation, person. Viewing the catastrophe as unbearable. 
  7. Emotional reasoning - Acting out of Emotion Mind (Linehan, 1993). Making decisions based on belief that your emotion is the truth.
  8. Should statements - Motivating yourself with words like "should" and "shouldn't." Guilt is the result of this type of thought process.
  9. Labeling and mislabeling - Attaching labels to yourself and others. Not describing behaviors but attaching behaviors to person and labeling person.
  10. Personalization and blame - Seeing yourself as the cause of external events that are out of your control.


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