Understand how your thinking impacts you with this guide from the experts.
A human mind is a powerful tool, but it can also be a dangerous weapon if we don’t understand how our thoughts work.
Our minds are constantly thinking and trying to make sense of the world around us. Unfortunately, this leads to many distortions in our thinking that affect how we feel and react to situations. I have created numerous articles that will help you identify these cognitive distortions so you can start correcting them today!
The good news is that understanding how they work will help you identify them when they occur so you can correct them before they get out of hand.
I’ve put together a blog post listing the most common cognitive distortions to help get you started so you know what to look for and address them.
What are Cognitive Distortions?
Cognitive distortions are habits in thinking that cause people to view reality in inaccurate ways. They can be found in everyone, but if they’re reinforced often enough, they can increase anxiety, deepen depression, cause relationship difficulties and lead to a host of other complications.
These distortions occur to cope with adverse life events, and the more prolonged and severe those adverse events are, the more likely it is that one or more cognitive distortions will form.
There is a theory that is exploring cognitive distortions from a different perspective. And it suggests that these distortions may offer an adaptability feature that is sensitive to threat and even suggests humans developed them as a kind of evolutionary survival method. And in the short term may actually have some benefits. But when used over the long term can cause your mental health to deteriorate.
Understanding Cognitive Distortions.
Cognitive distortions were first understood when Aaron Beck, the founder of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy. And connected distorted thinking patterns with his patients struggling with depression and hypothesized that changing their thinking would change their symptoms.
Beck hypothesized that these distorted thinking patterns occurred outside of conscious control and happened automatically. And coined them as “automatic thoughts.” Beck believed that these automatic thoughts, especially when negative and when paired with difficult emotions, could form a destructive cycle that would lead to significant mental health issues.
But it was David Burns who helped popularize the term cognitive distortions in his approach to treating depression by focusing on identifying, correcting, and replacing distorted thinking patterns.
Burns has also furthered the field with his research on cognitive distortions, examples of them, and how to address them in his book “Feeling Great.” [affiliate link]
What Are The Dangers Of Cognitive Distortions?
Cognitive distortions can lead to anxiety, depression, and relationship difficulties.
And are habits in thinking that cause people to view reality in inaccurate ways and can cause you to feel miserable.
When one considers the recovery process, they are important to address.
Those who can deal with their cognitive distortions on their own can avoid some of the more severe consequences, which can be severe anxiety, deepened depression, and damaged relationships.
What Can Cause Cognitive Distortions?
People may experience cognitive distortions throughout different points in life, but individuals who have had traumatic lives are more likely to develop them.
They may arise from experiences of abuse or neglect, which can also lead to serious emotional problems, including Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). And this makes sense from a clinical perspective.
When a person experiences abuse, their brain will do its best to try and protect them.
And what may result is a cognitive distortion designed to keep them safe in the short term.
But again, when a cognitive distortion is utilized over a period of time, it can quickly turn destructive.
The good news is that if cognitive distortions are identified early on, they can be put under control before they do any significant damage to a person.
The other good news is that even if they are not identified early on, they can still be put under control even if they have caused damage. And that damage can be repaired.
Of course, it will take time, effort, patience, and the willingness to make mistakes and learn from those mistakes. But even those that have struggled with cognitive distortions long-term can change how they think and find relief in their own mental health.
What are cognitive distortions a symptom of?
Cognitive distortions can be symptoms seen in people that struggle with anxiety disorders, depressive disorders, and personality disorders. And to the person engaging in the cognitive distortion, the distortion seems logical when in reality, it’s fueled by illogical thinking.
However, I have also seen people who do not have a clinical diagnosis of anything also engage in cognitive distortions. This just goes to show how common cognitive distortions are. Even the healthiest of us will use them from time to time.
This is because the brain likes clearly defined patterns. And if at one point in your life you engaged in a cognitive distortion that resulted in some type of validating or positive feedback. Then, your brain would have held onto that information for use at a later date.
So what are cognitive distortions a symptom of? They’re a symptom of illogical thinking that may have served a purpose at one point in time.
But if you’re here reading this article now, then I imagine that the cognitive distortions you are engaging in are no longer serving their purpose. But they may, in fact, be hindering you in areas of your life that you want to take control over.
What Are The Different Types Of Cognitive Distortions?
There are many different types of cognitive distortions that can affect people.
People who struggle with anxiety usually experience cognitive distortions related to their anxieties and fears, such as catastrophizing or magnification. However, they may also struggle with other cognitive distortions too such as mental filtering, emotional reasoning, black and white thinking, overgeneralization, and mind-reading.
Depression sufferers may also relate to cognitive distortions such as personalizing or polarizing, also known as black-and-white or all-or-nothing-thinking. And may also struggle with additional cognitive distortions such as personalizing, discounting positives, shoulds/musts/oughts, emotional reasoning, and labeling.
Let’s take a look at the different types of cognitive distortions and how you might be experiencing them in your life.
Seeing things in shades of black-and-white or polarized thinking. Meaning you only see things in “either/or” categories. To quote Ricky Bobby in Talladega Nights “if you’re not first then you’re last.”
Example of All-Or-Nothing Thinking
You’re either successful or a total failure. Or you’re either with me or against me. And view things as very clean cut or “black-and-white.” And may experience discomfort when things are in shades of grey because there is nothing that is definitive.
The difficulty most people experience with this cognitive distortion is that it does not allow for the complexities of life, which operate in shades of gray. And what results is a very rigid view of life that oftentimes leaves people feeling disappointed.
You are making a broad conclusion based on a single piece of “proof” or “evidence” of never-ending defeat or failure.
Example of Overgeneralization
You hit a red light while running late to an appointment and conclude that you are incapable of getting anywhere on time.
The difficulty most people experience with this cognitive distortion is increased anxiety, depression, and feelings of hopelessness. Because suddenly everything in life looks negative and the good things in life are ignored.
Fixating, dwelling, or ruminating on a single adverse event to the exclusion of all else. Including contradictory evidence that could challenge that single adverse event and change the way that you are seeing and experiencing it.
Example of Mental Filter
A student passing a course with high marks focuses exclusively on the single piece of negative feedback and concludes they are a complete failure.
Most people experience this cognitive distortion’s difficulty with anxiety, depression, procrastination, and perfectionism. This is because you focus exclusively on what is not good enough and do not acknowledge what is good enough.
Deciding those good things “don’t count” and attributing those good things to “luck” or “it was an easy task, and anyone could have done it.” And bad things are internalized as flaws.
Example of Disqualifying the Positive
Deciding that a compliment you received on a job well done was due to that person “just being nice” even though you did, in fact, do a good job.
This can be a particularly difficult cognitive distortion to challenge because even in the face of strong evidence, a person may continue to choose to disqualify the positives.
This one is not yet formally recognized as a cognitive distortion, but it is gaining traction. Toxic positivity is deciding those bad things “don’t count” and refusing to acknowledge anything less than favorable.
Example of Toxic Positivity
You are refusing to acknowledge any difficult or uncomfortable emotions in yourself or others.
Most people experience difficulty with this newly emerging cognitive distortion with handling difficult or uncomfortable emotions in themselves or others. And can lead to difficulty feeling compassion for themselves or others: increased anxiety, depression, self-criticism, and feelings of lower self-worth.
6. Mind Reading
It is inaccurately assuming that you know what another person is thinking. And while you may have a good idea of what they are thinking, depending on how long you have known the person. This cognitive distortion tends to take on negative undertones when you jump to conclusions.
Example of Mind Reading
Seeing someone looking in your direction with an unfriendly expression on their face and concluding that they must be thinking of you, when that may not be the case at all.
The difficulty that most people experience when they engage in mind reading is not bothering to ask other people what they are thinking. Because why would you if you are engaging in this cognitive distortion and assuming that you know what others are thinking.
It is like the sister cognitive distortion to mind reading. It involves making predictions on the outcomes of things with little or no proof and holding onto that prediction as though it were the gospel truth.
Example of Fortune Telling/Catastrophizing
It is predicting that you will die alone and unhappy because you have not yet met anyone. While this is a possibility, it is only one of many possibilities. But you may hold onto this prediction as if it will be your life sentence.
Most people experience difficulty with this cognitive distortion is a sense of hopelessness that can also increase anxiety and depression. And no wonder. When people engage in fortune-telling or catastrophizing, they are conjuring up their worst fears.
Is like making a mountain out of a molehill or the opposite, taking something really good and turning it into something insignificant.
Example of Magnification or Minimization
Making a small mistake and turning it into your next crisis. Or taking something really wonderful and, instead of celebrating it, presenting it to yourself and others as “no, big deal.”
The difficulty that most people experience with magnification is that it does turn something small into a crisis. This leads to increased anxiety and the belief that “I can’t do anything right,” which impacts self-worth. And with minimization, while some do this as a way to appear humble, what does end up happening is a belief is formed that no matter how great something is, you’re still just mediocre. And this, too, can impact depression and self-worth.
This can be summed up as “I feel therefore it must be true.” And is a cognitive distortion that is fueled by emotional reasoning – hence its name.
It is the belief that your emotions accurately interpret the situation and is probably the most common cognitive distortion that most of us experience.
Example of Emotional Reasoning
Whenever the lottery gets really high, you see people flocking to gas stations. I imagine that many of those walking out of the gas station “feel” as though they may have the winning lottery ticket in their hand. But as most of us have learned, that is not always true.
Another example of this would be: Feeling depressed and concluding that you must be depressed because you feel depressed when this may not actually be the case at all.
The difficulty that most people experience with emotional reasoning is making decisions that are fueled by emotions without incorporating logic. And if the decision proves to be bad, anxiety, depression, disappointment, and sometimes feelings of worthlessness can follow. And when you add all of these to the mix, it opens up the door for other cognitive distortions to walk in.
This cognitive distortion is fueled by unrealistic demands or standards for yourself or others and typically results in feelings of guilt, shame, frustration, and disappointment.
Example of Shoulds, Musts, and Oughts
Telling yourself that you “should” be working out more. But, unfortunately, what ultimately happens is you unknowingly place more pressure on your shoulders to do something. And this results in you not doing it and then feeling guilty or angry with yourself for not doing something you “should” be doing.
Most people experience a sense of hopelessness and disappointment with this cognitive distortion. Because these three are fueled by unrealistic demands and standards that set you and others up for failure. And instead of looking at this failure as a learning opportunity, sometimes we just tell ourselves, “I should have worked harder,” and the cycle begins again.
This is a more extreme version of overgeneralization and results when labels have been assigned. These negative labels tend to carry a value statement that sums up a person’s character.
Example of Labeling and Mislabeling
You value politeness and do something that in your mind should elicit a “thank you.” Except the other person does not say “thank you,” so you label them as an “inconsiderate ________.”
Most people experience increased anger, frustration, and annoyance when they use this cognitive distortion to label others. And experience an increase in anxiety and depression and a decrease in self-esteem and self-worth when they use this cognitive distortion towards themself.
This cognitive distortion implies you take things personally by assigning blame to yourself. Yet, even when logic says you are not the one to be blamed.
Example of Personalization
Blaming yourself for your friend not having a good time at a party (even though you have no control over whether they have a good time or not). Or blaming yourself for a loved one’s relapse (even though their relapse is outside of your control). Or assuming that you’re always the cause of irritation in those around you (again, logic says otherwise).
Most people, when they use this particular cognitive distortion, pair it with others on this page. And will experience an increase in anxiety and depression as well as a decrease in self-esteem and self-worth.
A fallacy is a mistaken belief, a failure of logic, or faulty reasoning. And can look like two opposite extremes of the spectrum.
You either feel like you are in complete control over your life and the lives of those around you. This is known as an internal control fallacy.
Or the other extreme, you feel helpless and hopeless, like you have zero control in your life. And this is known as an external control fallacy.
Example of Control Fallacies
When something goes wrong, you inherently believe that it is your fault (similar to personalization) and that you should have caught the error. Or believe that you can control other people’s emotions and behaviors with your own emotions and behaviors.
On the opposite side of this spectrum, you place controlling your emotions and behaviors onto other people or external events. You feel like you are a victim of fate and have no influence over what happens to you.
What most people experience with this cognitive distortion can look different depending on whether or not it’s internal or external. For example, those who are primarily internal may experience guilt for feeling like they have let others down. And may impact their self-esteem and self-worth.
However, those that primarily engage in external fallacies may experience more anger and frustration. Hence, a decrease in self-esteem and feelings of resiliency when faced with problems.
It is the belief that if you sacrifice enough, work hard enough, and struggle hard enough that there will be a reward in the end.
The danger with this fallacy is it tends to create martyrs who engage in acts that cause them suffering because they believe in this fallacy.
It’s easy to see how this fallacy is one of the many cognitive distortions that have been explored. This is because it can cause a person engaging in this fallacy to wrongfully believe that if the payoff they were expecting didn’t come, it might be due to having not suffered or sacrificed enough. And this can quickly become a destructive cycle of thoughts.
Example of Heaven’s Reward Fallacy
You sacrifice your time to stay at work, believing that if you stay late, come in early, and put in extra hours on the weekend, the promotion you have been eyeballing will be yours. Only to discover that despite your sacrifices to your personal life, the promotion went to someone else.
When they experience this particular cognitive distortion, most people may convince themselves that they didn’t sacrifice enough to be deemed worthy of the reward. Or they experience anger, frustration, and possibly depression because, despite their sacrifices, it still wasn’t enough. And may engage in another cognitive distortion called the Fallacy of Fairness.
While we all would like to live in a fair and just world, this is not the case. This cognitive distortion is rooted in the belief that all things should be fair. And is typically seen in small kiddos, which is developmentally appropriate because they judge what is fair and not fair based on their own experiences.
Example of Fallacy of Fairness
A good example of this cognitive distortion can look similar to the one from the Heaven’s Reward Fallacy. Of having sacrificed to get the promotion only not to receive it and feel that “it’s not fair.”
When a person judges a situation based on level of fairness they will almost inevitably experience difficult emotions. Such as anger, frustration, resentment, hopelessness, and possibly depression when they encounter situations that feel unfair.
16. Fallacy of Change
It is the belief that other people need to change in order for you to be happier in life. This can be seen when someone encourages or pressures another person to be different in order for the first person to be happier with them. This distortion is based on the belief that other people control your happiness or unhappiness. And the only way you can be happy or successful is if other people change.
Example of Fallacy of Change
It might look like a spouse stating that they would be happier in their marriage if their partner stopped doing the annoying things they do. Or that they can only be successful if other people change.
Most people tend to experience anger, frustration, irritability, anxiety, depression, and a sense of hopelessness with this cognitive distortion. Much like you would see in the externalizing control fallacies. Because ultimately, you do not feel that you have control over your own happiness or success. But believe that those things rest outside of your control and with other people.
17. Always Being Right
This one is pretty self-explanatory. And I can imagine that you can name a few people in your life who are willing to fight to the metaphorical death to prove that they are right.
This is not an uncommon cognitive distortion for perfectionists and others that struggle with self-worth to engage in. This is because nothing is more terrifying for a person with low self-worth than to be wrong about something.
Examples of Always Being Right
Pretty much anything in politics will have people who engage in this cognitive distortion coming out of the woodwork. And having them doing battle well beyond the point that most people would have chosen to “agree” to “disagree.”
The difficulties that most people experience when engaging in this cognitive distortion is attached to their self-worth. And believe that in order to keep their self-worth intact that they can never be wrong. Unfortunately, what can end up happening when they cannot be proven right is anger, resentment, rage, anxiety, and depression can quickly follow suit.
How to Recognize and Challenge Cognitive Distortions.
What you need to know about recognizing and challenging cognitive distortions:
If your life is not going as planned, it’s hard to see things as they are. This is because our minds tend to find a way to make sense of what we’re going through. And when we hear something or face something challenging, it’s our natural reaction to want to make sense of what happened. This is where cognitive distortions come from. They’re habits in thinking that cause people to view reality in inaccurate ways.
Challenging automatic negative thoughts is a core feature of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and can be done with and without the aid of a mental health professional.
Here are some steps to get you started:
- Print out this article and familiarize yourself with these very common cognitive distortions. ** If you’re like most people, you probably use a lot of these, and that’s completely normal.
- The next time you use a cognitive distortion. Stop yourself and identify which one you are using. It can really help to identify which one it is and call it by its name.
- Take a moment and play the tape to the end. You probably know exactly where this cognitive distortion is going to take you. And make a decision as to whether or not this is where you want to go. If this isn’t where you want to go, then proceed to step 4.
- Identify how this cognitive distortion is distorting your view of the situation. If you’re using mental filtering, then redirect your attention to the positives. If you’re catastrophizing, then stop and reevaluate the situation and focus on facts. Personalization, where is the logic, and so on and so forth.
- And repeat. Do this as often as you can until it becomes like second nature.
When we’re struggling in our daily lives, it can be difficult to identify where the problem lies. It might be that we just need a break from work. Or we’re feeling overwhelmed and not sure how to cope with all of life’s challenges.
When cognitive distortions are causing anxiety, depression, relationship difficulties, and other problems for us and have been reinforced often enough – then there is definitely something going on.
The good news is that cognitive distortions can be put under control even if they have caused damage… And any damage done by them may also be repaired over time as long as you make changes in your thinking habits and stick with them!
Keep in mind you can also find help from a professional therapist in your area who specializes in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT).
CBT is an effective form of psychotherapy that has been shown through research studies to provide significant improvements for people suffering from mood disorders such as depression and anxiety.
There’s no need to suffer alone when it comes to trying new ways of coping with difficult emotions.
So, if you are struggling with cognitive distortions, know that there is hope. It takes time, effort, patience, and the willingness to make mistakes and learn, but cognitive distortions can be put under control; it just takes some work.
CourageousandMindful.com is committed to using credible sources of information to support the articles that are published on this site. These sources may include government reports, academic research papers, and articles written by peers in good standing.
- Gilbert P. The evolved basis and adaptive functions of cognitive distortions. Br J Med Psychol. 1998 Dec;71 ( Pt 4):447-63. doi: 10.1111/j.2044-8341.1998.tb01002.x. PMID: 9875955.