What Are Cognitive Distortions? How We Self-Sabotage

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Positive Intelligence" by Shirzad Chamine. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What are cognitive distortions? How do they negatively impact our lives?

Cognitive distortions, also known as Saboteurs in Shirzad Chamine’s book Positive Intelligence, are inaccurate or irrational thoughts that negatively impact our lives. They are survival mechanisms developed in response to stress. But, in adulthood, they hinder our happiness and success.

Read on to learn how cognitive distortions develop and discover what the most common types are.

Understanding Cognitive Distortions & Self-Sabotage

What are cognitive distortions? According to best-selling author and lecturer Shirzad Chamine, in adulthood, the survival brain manifests as different mental antagonists, which the author refers to as Saboteurs. These antagonists are tendencies our brains have to cope with stress in various unhealthy ways because our brain tells us that they’re the only ways to survive that stress. 

(Shortform note: Chamine’s description of Saboteurs matches closely with the definition of cognitive distortions. What exactly are cognitive distortions? Cognitive distortions are inaccurate or irrational thoughts that usually come from gut instincts and that negatively affect the way we think. In contrast to the techniques advised by Chamine, some experts recommend cognitive behavioral therapy for dealing with cognitive distortions. In the notes below, we will address some of the cognitive distortions that may fuel the Saboteurs Chamine discusses.)

Chamine explains that all stress comes from harmful thought processes that interfere with our ability to behave and reason rationally. These thought processes developed as survival mechanisms, but in adulthood, they hinder our happiness and success in every aspect of our lives. 

Let’s further explore what cognitive distortions, or Saboteurs, are. In his book, Chamine explains that there are a total of 10 Saboteurs:

  • The Judge
  • The Stickler
  • The Pleaser
  • The Hyper-Achiever
  • The Victim
  • The Hyper-Rational
  • The Hyper-Vigilant
  • The Restless
  • The Controller
  • The Avoider

Chamine writes that the Judge is distinct from the other nine types of Saboteurs, acting somewhat as their manager. The Judge also employs one or more of the other nine Saboteurs to develop patterns of unhealthy stress management and thinking. Which Saboteurs these are depends on your personality and your needs. Some of these Saboteurs share similar traits and themes, as we’ll explain below.

(Shortform note: Many of these Saboteurs are fueled by different cognitive distortionsremember cognitive distortions are biases or mindsets that skew our thinking and cause us to feel bad, think negatively, and misinterpret things. Anyone can be prone to cognitive distortions. However, many of these Saboteurs also overlap with things like neurodivergent conditions and trauma responses. Chamine doesn’t address how such conditions and responses affect the Saboteurs’ influence or whether his advice applies equally to people who have them.)

Below, we’ll discuss the other nine of Chamine’s types of Saboteurs and how they are fueled by cognitive distortions.

Being Overly Critical

Some Saboteurs are characterized by a tendency to be overly critical and demand that we and others live up to their expectations.

  • The Hyper-Achiever is driven to impress others with personal achievements in order to feel good about themselves.
  • The Controller feels the need to control their circumstances and other people.
  • The Stickler is a perfectionist. They hold themselves to high standards of organization, work ethic, and doing things the “right” way.
Cognitive Distortions for Critical Saboteurs

These three Saboteurs are fueled by cognitive distortions that relate to personal accountability, high standards, and control

Specifically, the Hyper-Achiever is fueled by the tendency to minimize positive achievements (thus focusing only on “hyper” achievements), which leads them to dismiss their own accomplishments so that they’re never satisfied with what they’ve done. They’re also prone to magnification of negativity, so your Hyper-Achiever Saboteur tricks you into thinking that every setback is much bigger than it really is, and also that it’s the result of a personal failing in you or in someone else.

The Controller is fueled by a control fallacy, which is the belief that you are responsible and in charge of everything in your and other people’s lives. This leads to the sense that you’re personally responsible for everyone’s success, which causes you to resent others when they resist your attempts to control them. It’s also fueled by an entitlement fallacy, or the belief that certain rules—such as the rule that other people should do what you say—should apply to other people but not to you.

The Stickler is fueled by the personalization distortion, which, like the control fallacy, causes you to think that you’re responsible for things that are completely out of your control. A stickler is someone who commits adamantly to certain traits and behaviors, believing that if those are not followed, bad things will happen. The personalization distortion causes strong feelings of blame, making you beat yourself up for not preventing negative events even though they were unpredictable. It also causes you to take things personally and assume that other people are blaming you for things beyond your control. An extreme manifestation of the personalization distortion is rejection sensitive dysphoria, which is a reaction to criticism so intense that it causes you to experience physical pain.

All three of these Saboteurs are also fueled by unrealistic standards—or perfectionism—which causes you to believe that the only way to avoid mishaps in life is to maintain almost impossibly high standards and to be intolerant of mistakes.

Avoiding Problems

Some Saboteurs are particularly likely to try to distract you from your problems and negative emotions, making you seem distant and detached from others.

  • The Restless Saboteur is pleasure-seeking and can’t be satisfied with what they currently have.
  • The Avoider places a disproportionate focus on positivity in order to avoid negativity.
  • The Hyper-Rational Saboteur relies on a purely objective and rational approach to every aspect of life.
Cognitive Distortions and Conditions for Distractive Saboteurs

These Saboteurs are fueled by cognitive distortions of your abilities and discomfort with emotion.

The Restless Saboteur is fueled by the mistaken belief that you can multitask, which studies have shown is not actually possible. You can’t give your attention to more than one thing at a time, and trying to do so decreases your efficiency and makes you busier—which may actually be appealing to the Restless Saboteur because if they’re perpetually “restless,” they can avoid thinking about their problems and emotions. However, some aspects of the Restless Saboteur are also characteristic of ADHD, such as pleasure-seeking and the need for novelty.

The Avoider is fueled by an underestimation of your coping abilities, which is often related to an overestimation of perceived threats. The fear of being unable to effectively cope with negative situations causes you to avoid those situations as much as possible, suppress negative emotions, and focus only on the positive. It can also lead to the avoidance of unpleasant tasks, or procrastination, which studies show is not the result of poor time management or lack of willpower, but rather an inability to manage the emotions related to unpleasant tasks. Persistent procrastination that disrupts your life can manifest as executive dysfunction, which can also be a trait of ADHD and other conditions like autism and obsessive-compulsive disorder. 

The Hyper-Rational Saboteur is fueled by low emotional intelligence. The belief that emotional thinking and rational thinking are mutually exclusive or contradictory is a fallacy, as ignoring emotions causes you to ignore important contextual information. In fact, studies show that people who score better on tests of rational thinking are also more aware of and better at responding to emotions, suggesting that the Hyper-Rational Saboteur’s influence actually makes you less rational, and that “hypo-rational” might actually be a more accurate descriptor for this Saboteur than “hyper-rational.”

All three of these Saboteurs are prone to emotional repression and avoidance, which studies show can have a negative impact on both physical and mental health.

Acting Out of Fear

Some Saboteurs operate from a sense of fear of negativity and stress, which tends to sap their energy and causes them to fixate on their struggles and worries.

  • The Pleaser tries to gain the approval of others by helping or flattering them, and they put the needs of others ahead of their own needs.
  • The Hyper-Vigilant Saboteur feels constantly anxious about all the things that could go wrong and often overreacts when things do.
  • The Victim uses emotion and a sense of martyrdom to get attention from others.
Cognitive Distortions and Trauma Responses for Fearful Saboteurs

All 10 of the Saboteurs have characteristics similar to trauma responses, but these three in particular are often explicitly identified as trauma response behaviors. While Chamine acknowledges that the Saboteurs develop as defense mechanisms for threats in childhood, he doesn’t address the fact that such defense mechanisms may also be beneficial in adults who are experiencing trauma. 

The Pleaser is characterized by people-pleasing behavior, which can be the result of low self-esteem, a fear of being seen as selfish, and a fear of negative consequences for saying no or failing to help others. However, people-pleasing is also a very common way to respond to trauma and is known as fawning. Fawning is one of the “Fs” of trauma responses, which also include fight, flight, and freeze, and it’s often a way to prevent genuine harm from an abuser or someone who’s presenting an active threat to you. 

The Hyper-Vigilant Saboteur is fueled by catastrophizing, or the tendency to blow negative beliefs or predictions about the future out of proportion and always assume that the worst is going to happen. Catastrophizing can feel like a way to blunt the effects of a negative event by preparing yourself for the worst outcome, but the worst outcome is usually unlikely, and the stress of catastrophizing can be more harmful than the negative event itself. However, hypervigilance is also a trauma response, and, like fawning, it is sometimes used to minimize harm from abusers. Hypervigilance is particularly common in people with post-traumatic stress disorder. 

The Victim is fueled by the mental filtering cognitive distortion, which causes you to dismiss positive thoughts or events and fixate on the negative. People with a victim mentality tend to blame others for their problems, refuse to take accountability, and can even take pleasure in the attention they get for their misfortunes. However, in cases where someone has been genuinely victimized, it’s harmful to suggest that they should take accountability for what happened to them. Such a suggestion is called victim blaming, and it usually comes from the belief that people deserve whatever happens to them, a mentality that can be comforting because it can make us believe nothing bad will happen to us as long as we do everything right. 
What Are Cognitive Distortions? How We Self-Sabotage

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  • The ten ways your brain sabotages your happiness and success
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Emily Kitazawa

Emily found her love of reading and writing at a young age, learning to enjoy these activities thanks to being taught them by her mom—Goodnight Moon will forever be a favorite. As a young adult, Emily graduated with her English degree, specializing in Creative Writing and TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language), from the University of Central Florida. She later earned her master’s degree in Higher Education from Pennsylvania State University. Emily loves reading fiction, especially modern Japanese, historical, crime, and philosophical fiction. Her personal writing is inspired by observations of people and nature.

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