If you ever find yourself feeling frustrated that things aren’t working out better or suffer from any degree of anxiety, depression, or low self esteem, then there’s a strong chance it has something to do with Cognitive Distortions. If you’ve never heard of these pesky bad habits, then you’ve been missing out on a huge opportunity to make your life better and easier!
To be concise, thinking distortions are ways we sometimes think that – when you actually think about them – make no sense and often destroy your mood, motivation, and chance at living a happy, successful life.
Read through the list below and see which patterns you recognize in your life. Sometimes merely recognizing irrational thoughts when they happen provides enough clarity for you to stop thinking that way.
In case that’s not enough, we’ll also provide examples of more accurate, balanced perspectives. Get in the habit of correcting your own thinking distortions each time you catch yourself making one. It may seem difficult at first, but turns easy as soon as you create some new neural pathways in your brain.
If you want even more help to correct your thought habits, then order The Feeling Good Handbook, by Dr. David Burns, who pioneered this topic. He provides a helpful worksheet where you:
1. Write down your thought/perception.
2. Write how much you believe that thought (for example, 85%).
3. Identify which of the following thinking distortions apply.
4. Write how much you believe the thought *now* (for example, 15%).
This is a surprisingly effective exercise. You can usually buy the book for a few dollars on Amazon.
- All-or-nothing thinking: seeing things in black or white as opposed to shades of gray; thinking in terms of false dilemmas and false dichotomies. Often involves using terms like “always”, “every” or “never” when this is not true.
Example: when an admired person makes a minor mistake, the admiration is turned into contempt.
Reconsider: does that sound realistic? Maybe you saw one example where that seemed to happen, but did all the admiration vanish? What about all the others who make mistakes and are not despised? Look around and gather more evidence.
Correction: we all make mistakes (haha, there’s a harmless all-or-nothing thought that empowers instead of disempowering!) and just because I made one today doesn’t mean I didn’t do a lot of other things well and come out ahead for the day! I’m a fabulous person!
- Overgeneralization: Making hasty generalizations from insufficient experiences and evidence. Making a very broad conclusion based on a single incident or a single piece of evidence. If something bad happens only once, it is expected to happen over and over again.
Example: a person is lonely and often spends most of her time at home. Her friends sometimes ask her to come out for dinner and meet new people. She feels it is useless to try to meet people. No one really could like her.
Reconsider: does that sound possible? Or is it perhaps just a “convenient” belief to avoid taking a risk, or the effort and discomfort of making new friends?
Correction: a person is lonely and doesn’t have much hope of meeting his/her prince/ss charming and automatically living happily ever after on any given night, but s/he can at least enjoy some company, deepen friendships, and perhaps meet someone who leads to meeting others and from there the possibilities become endless.
- Filtering: focusing entirely on negative elements of a situation, to the exclusion of the positive. Also, the brain’s tendency to filter out information which does not conform to already-held beliefs.
Example: after receiving comments about a work presentation, a person focuses on the single critical comment and ignores what went well.
Reconsider: that critical comment may draw your attention like a toothache, but you’re not helping anyone by dwelling on it so much; why not put a little effort into enjoying the positives?
Correction: after receiving comments about a work presentation, a person enjoys replaying the positive comments and reviews the negative one only to plan how to improve the next presentation which will turn out even better.
Example: when a person receives a passing grade on a test, they still think it is not good enough and should have done better.
Reconsider: what does that even mean, “not good enough”? It’s total nonsense. Of course it’s good enough!
Correction: a person receives a passing grade and accepts it as good enough. Isn’t that the definition of “passing”? If they want to do even better, they can study harder next time.
- Disqualifying the positive: discounting positive events.
Example: upon receiving a congratulation, a person dismisses it out-of-hand, believing it to be undeserved, and automatically interpreting the compliment (at least inwardly) as an attempt at flattery or perhaps as arising out of naïveté.
Reconsider: are you calling that person a liar? An idiot? How rude! Apologize to yourself for your mistake and reconsider the compliment.
Correction: upon receiving a congratulation, a person examines it for value in several ways – appreciating the giver’s gift and acknowledging what the person did to deserve it. The person chooses to celebrate the moment instead of disrespectfully tossing the compliment in the trash.
- Jumping to conclusions: reaching preliminary conclusions (usually negative) from little (if any) evidence. Two specific subtypes are identified:
- Mind reading: Inferring a person’s possible or probable (usually negative) thoughts from their behavior and nonverbal communication; expecting the worst reasonably suspected case or some other preliminary conclusion, without asking the person.
Example: A student assumes the readers of their paper have already made up their mind concerning its topic, and therefore writing the paper is a pointless exercise.
Reconsider: if the readers aren’t open to new ideas, then why are they reading the paper in the first place??? Give them a chance. They’ll thank you for your well-crafted paper.
Correction: A student remembers that ideas affect opinions and writes his/her paper to best present a set of valid ideas. If s/he expects readers to already have their minds made up, s/he addresses why readers’ perspectives may be incorrect or incomplete and helps them see the topic from another perspective.
Example: a teen wants to make a new friend or go on a date, but assumes that person won’t be interested in him/her.
Reconsider: what if that person is thinking the exact same thing as you? What if you saying hello would save their life? What if they’re waiting to give a million dollar lottery ticket to the next person who talks to them? Those possibilities are just as likely. The point is, you simply can’t know what they’re thinking, so stop pretending to.
Correction: a teen wants to make a new friend or go on a date, assumes that anything is possible, and says hello and strikes up a conversation with the person or invites him/her out to see where it leads.
Example: a person assumes a friend will be mad at or impatient with them for some reason.
Reconsider: um, do you always think such things for no particular reason? AWESOME! That means your paranoia is probably just due to some childhood event, has no basis in reality, and you are free to disregard such thoughts from now on :).
Correction: expect everybody to be happy to see you. After all, things almost always turn out better than expected, and expecting good will make you more cheerful and pleasant to be around.
- Fortune-telling: predicting negative outcomes of events when you can’t really know how things might turn out.
Example: being convinced of failure before a test, when the student is in fact prepared.
Reconsider: pop quiz! Expecting failure when well prepared is A) illogical B) irrational C) unlikely D) all of the above!
Correction: a student takes a deep breath, relaxes, and confidently reminds him/herself that they’re prepared and will probably do well.
- Magnification and minimization: Giving proportionally greater weight to a perceived failure, weakness or threat, or lesser weight to a perceived success, strength or opportunity, so the weight differs from that assigned to the event or thing by others. This is common enough in the normal population to popularize idioms such as “make a mountain out of a molehill”. In depressed clients, often the positive characteristics of other people are exaggerated and negative characteristics are understated. There is one subtype of magnification:
- Catastrophizing: expecting and giving greater weight to the worst possible outcome, however unlikely, or experiencing a situation as unbearable or impossible when it is just uncomfortable.
Example: a teenager is too afraid to start driver’s training because he believes he would get himself into an accident.
Reconsider: gas, break, steering wheel. Simple! Recognize that feeling (fear) and note that it’s connected only to your brain and not to an actual event.
Correction: a teenager starts driver’s training but promises him/herself to never drive buzzed or text at the wheel, which greatly decreases the chance of having an accident. S/he also focuses on all the fun she’ll enjoy and places she’ll be able to go without making mom drive him/her everywhere.
- Emotional reasoning: presuming that negative feelings expose the true nature of things, and experiencing reality as a reflection of emotionally linked thoughts. Thinking something is true, solely based on a feeling.
Example: “I feel (i.e. think that I am) stupid or boring, therefore I must be.”
Reconsider: it’s perfectly normal to want to be valued, and it’s so important that you worry about it. That doesn’t make it true. List some smart or interesting things you’ve said or done.
Correction: “I feel (i.e. think that I am) stupid or boring, therefore I must be a normal person with normal insecurities, because in fact I’m somewhat bright and can be quite interesting and fun when I’m happy.”
Example: concluding that it’s hopeless to clean one’s house due to being overwhelmed by the prospect of cleaning.
Reconsider: pop quiz: which of the following results in a clean house? A) putting things away, one thing at a time B) laying on the floor, paralyzed by emotion.
Correction: remembering how much better it feels to live in a clean house and facing the discomfort, attacking one area at a time, then noticing the positive results in order to reinforce the more realistic perspective.
Example: Feeling that fear of flying in planes means planes are a very dangerous way to travel.
Reconsider: pop quiz: which of the following makes planes crash? A) a hundred years of technology and experience B) feeling afraid of flying C) none of the above.
Correction: Fear of flying means you have a healthy brain that properly understands that falling is dangerous, but the person takes a deep breath and stops imagining fiery crashes over and over and laughs it off. They bring a book or something along to keep their mind occupied during take off and landing.
- Should statements: doing, or expecting others to do, what they morally should or ought to do irrespective of the particular case the person is faced with. This involves conforming strenuously to ethical categorical imperatives which, by definition, “always apply,” or to hypothetical imperatives which apply in that general type of case. Albert Ellis termed this “musturbation”.
Example: after a performance, a concert pianist believes he or she should not have made so many mistakes.
Reconsider: pop quiz: thinking you shouldn’t have made so many mistakes A) alters the past and makes mistakes vanish so they never happened and *then* you can be happy! C) makes the audience feel better that you have paid for your imperfections and justice has been served B) makes you unhappy instead of happy with all you did right.
Correction: after a performance, recognizing that the audience enjoyed the performance, and anyone talented enough to recognize the few mistakes got to enjoy feeling superior, so everybody wins!
Example: While driving home, feeling bitter and resentful of drivers who move too fast, too slow, don’t use their blinkers correctly, change lanes too often, text, pick their nose, or any other “infraction” of how every sensible driver should behave.
Reconsider: you’re right, drivers *should* use their blinkers and not text. Ya know what else they should do? Lighten up about what everyone else should do. Your raised blood pressure only makes matters worse, so relax and let it go this time.
Correction: While driving home, viewing other drivers as flawed yet marvelous human beings (well, most of them! And pitying the really angry or less intelligent ones) and kindly forgiving any imperfections, perhaps even recalling times when you’ve done the same thing!
- Labeling and mislabeling: a more severe type of overgeneralization; attributing a person’s actions to their character instead of some accidental attribute. Rather than assuming the behavior to be accidental or extrinsic, the person assigns a label to someone or something that implies the character of that person or thing. Mislabeling involves describing an event with language that has a strong connotation of a person’s evaluation of the event.
Example of “labeling”: Instead of believing that you made a mistake, you believe that you are a loser, because only a loser would make that kind of mistake. Or, someone who made a bad first impression is a “jerk”, in the absence of some more specific cause.
Reconsider: what % of that person’s life was the mistake? Probably something around .00000000000003, right? That doesn’t make anyone a loser or a jerk, but it sure makes you bad at math!
Correction: Instead of believing that you’re a loser or another person is a jerk, recognize that we are each complex characters with many motivations, good days and bad days, and even our bad characteristics probably stem from insecurities or thinking distortions not entirely of our own making, and if we treat others with love, then we’ll all continuously improve and coexist in peace and plenty.
Example of “mislabeling”: A woman who places her children in a day care center is “abandoning her children to strangers,” because the person who says so highly values the bond between mother and child.
Reconsider: do you know what the word “abandon” means? Is it possibly too strong a word for this instance? Perhaps you used it because you feel strongly about the situation, but that doesn’t make your exageration accurate.
Correction: A woman who places her child in day care is…well how should I know??? Mothers typically love their kids, so there’s probably a good reason.
- Personalization: attributing personal responsibility, including the resulting praise or blame, for events over which a person has no control.
Example: a mother whose child is struggling in school blames herself entirely for being a bad mother, because she believes that her deficient parenting is responsible.
Reconsider: make a list of all the good things done as a mother. Also ask this question: what makes a mother a good one? How does school performance compare to being loved, fed, etc? See the bigger picture rather than automatically believing emotional thoughts.
Correction: a mother whose child is struggling in school makes inquiries with the child, teachers, and other professionals to find out whether it’s a result of boredom, bullying, laziness, or other causes, so she can be supportive in the best way possible and help all parties cooperate.
- Blaming: the opposite of personalization; holding other people responsible for the harm they cause, and especially for their intentional or negligent infliction of emotional distress on us.
Example: a spouse blames their husband or wife entirely for marital problems, instead of looking at his/her own part in the problems.
Reconsider: since it takes two to tango, what steps have you been making? Does your spouse have any complaints, accusations or requests? Consider them for validity, and even if they don’t seem right, well, *they* seem to think so – consider how you could make things better, even if they’re wrong.
Correction: a spouse considers his/her own part of problems, requests feedback from their partner, and endures the discomfort of criticism (constructive or otherwise) in order to consider how they can help resolve problems.
- Fallacy of change: Relying on social control to obtain cooperative actions from another person.
Example: a boss interprets employee complaints or suggestions as dissension and threatens to fire or penalize anyone who doesn’t toe the line.
Reconsider: this may come as a shock, but the boss is not the only person with a brain. Perhaps others have valid ideas, too. Consider the results of employee dissatisfaction on company productivity, employee retention, etc. Is it possible to get better results with persuasion?
Correction: a boss considers employee input and strives for a win/win solution.
- Always being right: Prioritizing self-interest over the feelings of another person.
Example: a person fears that failure to know everything, everywhere is a sign of weakness or inferiority, and so always pretends to know everything and does not seek others’ input, blaming other sources for failure when things don’t work out perfectly.
Reconsider: how do you like it when you encounter another know-it-all? What if everyone dislikes interacting with you as much as you dislike that? How does being that way get in the way of getting what you want?
Correction: a person is aware that pretending to know everything is obnoxious, annoying, and ridiculous, and prefers to cooperate reasonably with others for win/win outcomes.
Can you see how much MORE FUN life becomes when you see it, yourself, and others more clearly?! Endless opportunities and possibilities suddenly appear as if out of nowhere!
Bookmark this page and read it weekly until you get this stuff down, and be sure to recommend it to your friends who will thank you for the heads up!
Definitions and examples adapted from Wikipedia