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  • Writer's pictureDena Lampert

What are Cognitive Distortions and How Do They Affect You?

Anxiety, sadness, and anger are normal feelings that we all experience. These feelings become problematic when they become very intense or they last for long periods of time. Every feeling that we have is connected to a thought. Sometimes our thoughts are truthful and sometimes they are distorted. When cognitive distortions emerge, your mind is playing tricks on you which generally makes you feel pretty bad.

While we tend to trust our brains most of the time—and for good reason—what our minds are telling us is not always completely accurate. Cognitive distortions are types of thoughts that cause people to perceive reality inaccurately, generally in a negative way. As cognitive distortions are essentially your mind playing tricks on you, they can be very difficult to identify.

Due to how difficult it can be to identify cognitive distortions, we tend to believe that they are true, and this, in turn, will fuel our anxiety, or other negative emotions further.

It’s important to remember that it is completely normal to have cognitive distortions. Our brains like patterns and shortcuts and slight errors in thinking are bound to occur every now and again. However, the problems occur when these distortions start taking over more objective, and logical ways of thinking.

Cognitive distortions and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

The theory of cognitive distortions was originally coined and developed through the work of Aaron Beck and his development of the Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) model. Beck developed the basis for CBT when he identified that several of his patients were struggling with depression because they had distorted thought patterns. He hypothesized that by changing their distorted thinking he could relieve their symptoms of depression.

And this is the foundation of CBT that we use today; our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are all interconnected and influence each other, and changing one, will in turn influence and change the others. Therefore, by identifying and shifting these distorted patterns of thinking, we can positively influence our feelings and behaviors.

The fifteen cognitive distortions

There are fifteen main cognitive distortions. These include:

Dichotomous thinking, also known as all-or-nothing thinking. This is when we view a situation, person, or event in all-or-nothing terms, fitting them into only two extreme categories instead of on a continuum.

Example thoughts: “I made a mistake therefore I’m a failure” or “I ate more than I planned so I blew my diet completely.”

Fortune telling, also known as catastrophizing. This is when we predict the future in negative terms and believe that what will happen will be so awful that we will not be able to stand it.

Example thoughts: “I will fail and this will be unbearable” or “I’ll be so upset that I won’t be able to concentrate for the exam.”

Discounting or disqualifying the positive. This is when we discount and disqualify positive events or experiences, insisting that they do not count.

Example thoughts: “I passed the exam but I was just lucky” or “Going to college is not a big deal. Anyone can do it.”

Emotional reasoning. This is when we believe our emotions reflect reality and let them guide our attitudes and judgments.

Example thoughts: “I feel she loves me, so it must be true” or “I am terrified of airplanes, so flying must be dangerous.”

Labeling. This is when we put a fixed, global label, that’s usually negative, on ourselves or others.

Example thoughts: “I’m a loser” or “She’s a complete jerk.”

Magnification/minimization. This is when we evaluate ourselves, others, and situations, by magnifying the negatives and/or minimizing the positives.

Example thoughts: “I got a B. This proves how inferior I am” or “I got an A. It doesn’t mean I’m smart.”

Selective abstraction, also known as tunnel vision. This is when we pay attention to one, or a few details, and fail to see the whole picture.

Example thoughts: “My boss said she liked my presentation, but since she corrected a slide, I know she didn’t mean it” or “Even though the group said my work was good, one person pointed out an error so I know I will be fired.”

Mind reading. This is when we believe that we know the thoughts or intentions of others (or that they know our thoughts or intentions) without having sufficient evidence.

Example thoughts: “He definitely thinks that I failed” or “She thought I didn’t know the project.”

Overgeneralization. This is when we take isolated cases and generalize them widely, by means of words such as “always”, “never”, and “everyone”.

Example thoughts: “Every time I have a day off from work it rains” or “You only pay attention to me when you want something.”

Personalizing. This is when we assume that the behavior of others and external events concern, or are directed to, ourselves without other plausible explanations.

Example thoughts: “I felt disrespected because the cashier did not say thank you to me” (not considering that the cashier did not say thank you to anyone), or “My husband left me because I was a bad wife” (not considering that she was his fourth wife).

Should statements, e.g. “musts” and “oughts”. This is when we tell ourselves that events, people’s behaviors, and our own attitudes, “should” be the way we expected them to be and not as they really are.

Example thoughts: “I should have been a better mother” or “I shouldn’t have made so many mistakes.”

Jumping to conclusions. This is when we draw conclusions (negative or positive) from little or no confirmatory evidence.

Example thoughts: “As soon as I saw him, I knew he had bad intentions” or “He was looking at me, so I concluded immediately that he thought I was responsible for the accident.”

Blaming others or oneself. This is when we direct our attention to others as sources of our negative feelings and experiences. We fail to consider our own responsibilities, or conversely, we take responsibility for others’ behaviors and attitudes.

Example thoughts: “My parents are the ones to blame for my unhappiness” or “It’s all my fault that I got into a bad relationship.”

What ifs. This is when we keep asking ourselves “what if” questions.

Example thoughts: “What if my car crashes?” or “What if I have a heart attack?”

Unfair comparisons. This is when we compare ourselves to others who seem to do better than we do, and we place ourselves at a disadvantage.

Example thoughts: “My father always preferred my elder brother because he is much smarter than I am” or “I am a failure because she is more successful than I am.”

How these cognitive distortions can affect our lives

Everyone has cognitive distortions and the key is to be able to recognize them so they don’t have a major effect on our everyday lives and decision making. They can become damaging to our mental health and can lead to increased stress, depression, and anxiety. And if left unchecked, our cognitive distortions can negatively influence the rational, logical way we make decisions.

How to change these patterns of thinking

CBT is an evidence-based approach that helps you identify, manage, and change the way you think about situations. CBT helps to identify which distorted ways of thinking you experience the most, how these are affecting your feelings and behaviors and provides you with practical tools for how to change these.

If you recognize that you are experiencing one or more of these cognitive distortions on a regular basis, and they are contributing to your feelings of anxiety or depression, we encourage you to consider finding a qualified therapist to support you. A qualified CBT therapist can support you in identifying negative thinking patterns and provide you with tools on how to manage these, so you can start feeling better again.


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