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Remember, if you change the way you think, you can change the way you feel.

What are Cognitive Distortions?

Do you often rely on “gut” feelings over objective evidence to judge yourself and the world? Do you often define yourself and others with negative labels? Do you often base your decisions not on what someone says or does, but on what you believe they’re thinking?

Well, well, well, read on and understand what’s going on in your mind.

Cognitive (anything involving conscious intellectual activity (such as thinking, reasoning, or remembering) Distortions (misrepresentation, twisting) are thoughts that cause individuals to perceive reality inaccurately. Cognitive distortions are biased viewpoints of ourselves and the world around us. They are irrational thoughts and beliefs that we unknowingly reinforce over time.

Remember: To the person thinking them, these thoughts seem logical and truthful, but in reality they are not.

A person's thoughts and beliefs—whether they're accurate or not—play a major role in determining how they feel. For example, thoughts of a disaster occurring can create feelings of anxiety, even if that disaster is extremely unlikely. It is often quite difficult to recognise them because they become part of your day-to-day thoughts. It is for this reason that cognitive distortions are very harmful since it’s hard to change what you don’t recognize as something that needs to change!

Where do Cognitive Distortions come from?

Cognitive model suggests different levels of cognition, Core beliefs; Intermediate beliefs (rules, attitudes, assumptions); Automatic thoughts.

Core beliefs are a fundamental level of belief described as “global, rigid, and overgeneralized” (Beck, 1995). Automatic thoughts are specific to the situation in which they are generated. Assumptions, attitudes, and rules are an intermediate level of belief which develops as the individual tries to make sense of the world around them. The particular kinds of automatic thoughts to which we are prone are a result of the core and intermediate beliefs that we hold. Or to put it another way: if our automatic thoughts are biased, then these biases are driven by our beliefs and assumptions. You can think of automatic thoughts as the plants that grow: which plants grow will depend on the kind of soil that we give them.

To give some clinical examples:

David had grown up in a household where his parents were very critical and placed great emphasis on academic achievement. His brother did well academically but David always struggled to meet his parent’s high standards. He has developed the core belief “I’m useless” and the (protective) assumption “As long as I achieve I am ok”. When he fails a test he has the automatic thought “I’m a complete failure” characterized by the ‘dichotomous thinking’ error.

Distorted thinking or cognitive distortions is typically consistent with an individual’s core beliefs. The core beliefs that cause these negative thoughts are ones that are about themselves, others, and the world. When negative core beliefs activate while negative automatic thoughts are evoked a negative, neutral or even positive event may influence the negative affect. These continuous negative thoughts influence other mental health disorders such as depression.

In many cases, depression actually is the result of habitual negative thoughts (cognitive distortions). It also reinforces negative emotions and beliefs, which can exacerbate feelings of low self-esteem, worsen mental health disorder symptoms and trigger self-destructive behaviours. For example, for a person suffering from social anxiety, distorted thinking patterns may reinforce their feelings of social discomfort and cause complete withdrawal from social situations.

People develop cognitive distortions as a way of coping with adverse life events. The more prolonged and severe those adverse events are, the more likely it is that one or more cognitive distortions will form.

While most people don’t suffer in their daily lives from these kinds of cognitive distortions, it seems that no one can completely escape these distortions. The difference between those who occasionally stumble into a cognitive distortion and those who struggle with them on a more long-term basis is the ability to identify and modify or correct these faulty patterns of thinking.

How can I recognise my Cognitive Distortions?

Cognitive distortions come in many forms, but they all have some things in common.

All cognitive distortions are:

  • Tendencies or patterns of thinking or believing;

  • That are false or inaccurate;

  • And have the potential to cause psychological damage.

The 10 common distorted thinking patterns that have been identified include:

Polarized Thinking (All-or-Nothing Thinking)

Sometimes called all-or-nothing, or black and white thinking, e.g., “If I’m not a total success, I’m a failure. This type of thinking involves viewing things in absolute terms. Everything is black or white, everything or nothing. People and situations are either great or terrible. You believe you’re either destined for success or failure. You don’t allow room for balanced perspectives or outcomes.

All-or-nothing thinking can easily lead to relapse.


When people overgeneralize, they reach a conclusion of about one event and then incorrectly apply that conclusion across the board, e.g., ‘I never do anything right’. People who overgeneralize apply their experience from one event to another. If your marriage ended in divorce, you think you’re not worthy of love. As a result, you might conclude you should never date again

Overgeneralization is associated with post-traumatic stress disorder and other anxiety disorders.

Mental filtering

Another distorted thought pattern is the tendency to ignore positives and focus exclusively on negatives, in other words, when you filter out all the good stuff to focus on the bad, e.g., “Because I got one low rating on my evaluation, I didn’t accomplish anything today’.

Filtering can increase feelings of hopelessness and helplessness.

Disqualifying or discounting the Positive

When you view yourself, your life, and your future through a negative lens. You ignore anything positive, e.g., “I did that project well, but that doesn’t mean I’m competent; I just got lucky.”

This is an especially malignant distortion since it can facilitate the continuation of negative thought patterns even in the face of strong evidence to the contrary.

Filtering can increase feelings of hopelessness and helplessness, and can foster a decidedly pessimistic view of everything around you by focusing only on the negative.

Emotional reasoning

When you assume your negative feelings reflect the truth, e.g., “I felt embarrassed, therefore I must have been acting in an embarrassing manner; “I know I do a lot of things okay at work, but I still feel like I’m a failure.”

While it’s important to listen to, validate, and express emotion, it’s equally important to judge reality based on rational evidence. This may be one of the most surprising distortions to many readers, and it is also one of the most important to identify and address. The logic behind this distortion is not surprising to most people; rather, it is the realization that virtually all of us have bought into this distortion at one time or another.

Just because we feel something doesn’t mean it is true; for example, we may become jealous and think our partner has feelings for someone else, but that doesn’t make it true. Of course, we know it isn’t reasonable to take our feelings as fact, but it is a common distortion, nonetheless.

Emotional reasoning is pattern of thinking that’s used by people with and without anxiety or depression.

“Should” statements

You constantly blame yourself or others for what “should” have been said or done (but wasn’t). You have a list of rules for how people should and shouldn’t behave.

When we hang on too tightly to our “should” statements about ourselves, the result is often guilt that we cannot live up to them. When we cling to our “should” statements about others, we are generally disappointed by their failure to meet our expectations, leading to anger and resentment.

"Should" statement can increase stress and anxiety, and you will never be happy if you always focus on what “should” have been.

Labelling and mislabelling

Labelling is a cognitive distortion in which people reduce themselves or other people to a single — usually negative — characteristic or descriptor, like “drunk” or “failure.” When people label, they define themselves and others based on a single event or behaviour. Mislabelling refers to the application of highly emotional, loaded, and inaccurate or unreasonable language when labelling.

Labelling can cause people to berate themselves. It can also cause the thinker to misunderstand or underestimate others. This misperception can cause real problems between people. No one wants to be labelled.

Mind reading

When people assume they know what others are thinking, they’re resorting to mind reading, e.g., “He’s thinking that I don’t know the first thing about this project.”

It can be hard to distinguish between mind reading and empathy — the ability to perceive and understand what others may be feeling. To tell the difference between the two, it might be helpful to consider all the evidence, not just the evidence that confirms your suspicions or beliefs.

Mind reading is more common among children than among adolescents or adults and is associated with anxiety.


Personalisation is taking things personally when they’re not connected to or caused by you at all, e.g., “The dinner party was bad because I was there”; “The repairman was rude to me because I did something wrong.” Another example is when you incorrectly assume that you’ve been intentionally excluded or targeted.

Personalization is one of the most common errors in thinking and has been associated with heightened anxiety and depression.

Catastrophizing (Fortune telling)

When you extrapolate an even bigger and broader negative thought from a small negative experience, e.g., “I’ll be so upset, I won’t be able to function at all.”

This distorted type of thinking leads people to dread or assume the worst when faced with the unknown. When people catastrophize, ordinary worries can quickly escalate. For instance, an expected check doesn’t arrive in the mail. A person who catastrophizes may begin to fear it will never arrive, and that as a consequence it won’t be possible to pay rent and the whole family will be evicted. It’s easy to dismiss catastrophizing as a hysterical over-reaction, but people who have developed this cognitive distortion may have experienced repeated adverse events — like chronic pain or childhood trauma — so often that they fear the worst in many situations.

You will be okay!

The good news is that cognitive distortions can be corrected over time. When you realise a thought is causing anxiety or dampening your mood, a good first step is to figure out what kind of distorted thinking is taking place. Remember, if you change the way you think, you can change the way you feel. Your goal here is not to think happy thoughts but instead to think accurately.

Contact me for more information on how to correct your unhelpful thoughts.


Beck, J. S. (1995). Cognitive therapy: Basics and beyond. New York: Guilford.

Berle, D., & Moulds, M. L. (2013). Emotional reasoning processes and dysphoric mood: cross-sectional and prospective relationships. PloS one, 8(6), e67359.

Burns, D. D. (1999). Feeling good: the new mood therapy. Rev. and updated. New York: Avon Books.

Dunsmoor, J. E., Paz, R. (2015). Fear Generalization and Anxiety: Behavioural and Neural Mechanisms. Biological Psychiatry. 78, 336-43. doi: 10.1016/j.biopsych.2015.04.010.

Fazakas-DeHoog, L. L., Rnic, K., & Dozois, D. (2017). A Cognitive Distortions and Deficits Model of Suicide Ideation. Europe's journal of psychology, 13(2), 178–193.

Melemis, S. M. (2015). Relapse prevention and the five rules of recovery. Yale Journal of Biological Medicine. 88, 325-332.

Rnic, K., Dozois, D. J. & Martin, R. A. (2016). Cognitive distortions, humor styles, and depression. European Journal of Psychology. 12, 348-362. doi:10.5964/ejop.v12i3.1118

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