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Cognitive Distortions

Updated: Nov 15, 2019

Feelings may seem complicated. It may be helpful to know that feelings are accompanied by thoughts. You may not notice the positive or negative things you think about yourself or others, because thoughts happen automatically and will trigger emotions. They are happening all the time without you noticing. Like when you don't notice the noise from the refrigerator until it turns off.

How you think about yourself, a situation or other people will determine how you feel, which will have an impact on how you behave.

The list of cognitive distortions below can be helpful to you in understanding your feelings and why you do what you do. This list is edited from the David Burns "Feeling Good" Podcast episodes #010, #011, and #012. I recommend listening to the podcast to get a better understanding of these thought patterns. I found this podcast in Apple Podcasts. You may be able to find it on other podcast format sites.

Be sure when reviewing this list to that you also pay attention to the Ways to lessen the impact of this thinking sections. Know that it is okay to have these thoughts. We all do. Just be aware of them in order to make positive changes.

1. All or Nothing Thinking - Black and White thinking.

a. A person is all good or all bad.

b. Every aspect of what you said or did is negative.

c. The experience you will have in the future will be wonderful or terrible.

d. Everything needs to be perfect - unrealistic results are expected

Ways to lessen the impact of this thinking

a. Look around you and ask yourself is everything 100% all or nothing?

b. The definition of Negative (and Positive) is Abstract, it is different for everybody

2. Overgeneralization - Take a negative event and project it into the future

a. Using the following in speech and thinking: “Always”, “Never”, “Unloveable”, “Won’t ever be”

b. Positive overgeneralization - "I will always be happy now I know about my negative thoughts. Thinking positive things will always happen or things will always work out in your favor.

Ways to lessen the impact of this thinking

a. Be prepared for relapse of negative thoughts

b. Thought patterns can cycle

c. Life events, positive and negative, cycle

3. Mental Filter - Focus on one negative and leave out all the positive things.

a. You put time and effort into believing the negative.

Ways to lessen the impact of this thinking

a. Be mindful that there is positive and not everything is negative all the time.

4. Discounting the Positive - When something positive happens, you say it doesn’t count. You believe the negative weighs more, has more truth. You will only believe the negative even with the presence of positive. "They say nice things to be nice, but they don’t really mean it." (See Mindreading)

a. If someone does say something positive or encouraging to you or about you, you may believe they can’t see or don’t know the “real” you.

b. What are you telling yourself?

c. Imposter syndrome - "I don't really belong here."

d. Discount the validity of the negative feedback/criticism

Ways to lessen the impact of this thinking

a. Be mindful that there is positive and not everything is negative all the time.

5. Jumping to Conclusions (Mind-Reading and Fortune Telling) - jump to conclusions that are not justified by the facts of the situation

a. Mind-Reading - you think you know what other people are thinking about you or a situation. This shows up in social anxiety and situations: "That person is not interested in me or what I have to say." "I’m the only one feeling this way." (This creates feelings of awkwardness, shyness, loneliness, and anger)

b. Fortune Telling - negative predictions about the future. This triggers and causes anxiety. In depression, this triggers hopelessness, belief things will never get better, things will always be this way, this is hopeless so don’t do anything to change it

Ways to lessen the impact of this thinking.

a. Take a moment in time, think about how you felt and what you did, and then explore the thoughts you had at that time, even if you don’t think there were any. Make up what you think your thoughts might have been. Use pictures, draw or write down to open that up.

6. Magnification and Minimization (Binocular Trick) - Thoughts blow things out of proportion, or minimize things. Procrastinate by putting something off by magnifying the task or minimize the time it would take to complete. "I only have a few minutes, not enough time. Dieting - magnify the taste benefits, minimization eating that won’t be a big deal just have one bit can’t hurt.

Ways to lessen the impact of this thinking

a. Be realistic about the time it takes to do something

b. Get another perspective from someone else as to the magnitude or seriousness of a situation

7. Emotional Reasoning - reason from how you feel. "I feel like a loser so I must be one, I feel hopeless so I am hopeless, I feel like I can do a lot so I can do it all."

Ways to lessen the impact of this thinking

a. Feelings and energy levels change

b. Your feelings are not who you are

8. Should Statements - Theses thoughts create guilt, shame and inadequacy, frustration and anger. Phrases used, “I should, ought to, have to, must, need”. We feel entitled by it, “It shouldn’t happen to me. You shouldn’t do that.”

Know the three types of shoulds

a. Legal should - things are against the law, "If you brake the law, you should have a consequence."

b. Universal should - gravity, light, physics, "If I let go of this pen it should fall to the floor."

c. Morel should - thou shalt not kill

Ways to lessen the impact of this thinking

a. Change the way you verbalize without scolding; softer, compassionate words

9. Labeling - Labels state who or what you are. No chance for redemption or change. If you think of yourself as a bad person, where is the chance for redemption?

a. Label yourself - I’m a loser, I’m a failure, I’m bad, dirty (You will treat yourself as such and not think you are worthy of anything positive)

b. You Lable Others - She is a loser, He is a failure, They are bad or dirty (You will treat them as such)

Ways to lessen the impact of this thinking

a. We are always changing. The earth is always changing. Music is always changing. What is popular is always changing. Life is fluid.

10. Blaming - You are at fault or they are at fault, looking for faults in others, This is the major cause of issues in marriages and all other relationships.

Ways to lessen the impact of this thinking

a. You are still accountable for your actions. Don’t label and make someone all or nothing, or overgeneralize things.


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