Cognitive distortions have to do with patterns or processes of thinking. In contrast, dysfunctional beliefs have to do with the actual content of thinking itself.
Everyone who has lived a little while has developed opinions and beliefs about the nature of the world and the people who inhabit it. These beliefs are not isolated facts living hermit lives inside people's minds, but rather, part of an organized system of beliefs, referred to as schemas, that people develop as they grow. Schemas are not static, but instead change over time as people develop increasingly sophisticated understandings of their world. Beliefs are influenced by interpersonal interactions and through exposure to the media (which transmits cultural expectations along with information and entertainment). People can form beliefs by simply swallowing other people's beliefs whole. Some people also manage to come to their own conclusions about things and to author their own beliefs.
Beliefs, and the schemas that organize them, are the foundation of personal knowledge. They exist to help us understand how people are supposed to behave, and to help to explain why things happen the way they do. They are what we draw upon when we need to make sense of of something we've become aware of. When our beliefs are well-founded, they help us to make accurate sense of things that happen. When they are distorted and inaccurate, they cause us to misinterpret what we see and experience.
Unhelpful, inaccurate or otherwise dysfunctional beliefs can cause us to interpret things in a maladaptive way, and greatly increase the chance that we will experience stress and mood problems. Many people will have bought into literally thousands of such beliefs. A few examples might include:
- People can't change.
- People are always unkind.
- I'm lazy.
- I must be perfect at all times.
- I'll never be happy.
- If anything can go wrong, it will.
- Life's a bitch and then you die.
Many such unhelpful inaccurate beliefs contain the demanding and pressurizing words "ought," "should" or "must," as Dr. Ellis (inventor of the term "Musterbation") was fond of pointing out during his lifetime. For example, other people believe that:
- I ought to have done better.
- Life (i.e., the world and other people) should be fair.
- I must get all of these tasks done today.
- He should be more polite.
- I should be living in a better house by now.
- I should be earning more money.
- I must not make a mistake.
- I must cope with everything.
- I must be in control of all situations.
- Things must go well.
- Others must always treat us well.
People who have bought into and believe in such beliefs are bound to experience their lives as more stressful than more laid back, accepting individuals. "Ought," "should," or "must" beliefs will inevitably will cause people to find fault with what they have, or who they are. Perpetually unsatisfied, they become driven to succeed in a game where they can never truly win because nothing is ever good enough.