What are cognitive distortions?
Cognitive distortions are unhelpful ways of thinking or biased perspectives about ourselves and the world. They are often unconsciously reinforced over time and can cause distress and potentially lead to symptoms of emotional disturbance.
The same mechanisms that make so many adaptive connections in our brain can also result in some unhelpful patterns as well. Everyone experiences these thinking errors to some degree. They tend to reflect our perceptions, beliefs, interpretations, and attitudes.
Often our interpretation of a situation is what causes us distress rather than the actual circumstance itself so it can necessarily be helpful to examine where our interpretations come from and whether or not they are valid or helpful. However, this becomes particularly problematic when we are too extreme, negative, or rigid.
These interpretations might have once been correct but the same conclusions can readily be misattributed to different circumstances that are no longer relevant and can actually cause us harm.
Becoming more aware of our thoughts can help us determine what underlies our negative behaviours and how we can manage more effectively. Better understanding of the interaction between our thoughts, feelings, and actions can help us realize when our behaviours might be triggered by negative cognitions.
Exploring these thinking patterns is a central premise of cognitive behavioural therapy. Some of these cognitive errors might have been with us for a very long time and can consequently feel very real and believable.
It is helpful to remember that while these thoughts are real they are not necessarily true. Your experience of these thoughts and your resultant feelings are entirely valid, but old patterns might be causing you unnecessary suffering or distress.
Don’t Feel Ashamed to Admit that you Fall Prey to Disordered Thinking
I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve probably engaged in every single one of the distortions described below and I KNOW I still do many on a regular basis. As I mentioned earlier, everyone engages in these thinking errors to some degree. Just because you do them, doesn’t mean you suffer from a mental illness or that your behaviour is necessarily cause for worry. It simply means you’re human.
Fortunately, being aware of how our mind works can help us combat the negative consequences of these cognitive distortions and prevent potential psychological damage. It’s true that cognitive distortions often go hand-in-hand with depression and anxiety, but the good news is that we can develop skills to correct these patterns and even lessen mental illness symptoms.
“My life has been full of misfortune. Most of which never happened.” – Montaigne
What Unhelpful Thinking Styles Should You Look out for?
You might find that many of these errors in thinking over-lap with each other or can be applied to similar circumstances, which is okay. The purpose of this list is merely to illustrate how we might be misinterpreting information in harmful ways rather than specifically to categorize our behaviours.
The first step to shifting disruptive coping mechanisms is to recognize that they might in fact be maladaptive. If you find yourself engaging in a cognitive distortion and thinking “Hey! I’m pretty sure there’s a name for this” you are well on your way to taking your power back from these (relatively unconscious) cognitive traps.
Checkout this free worksheet that can help you recognize these cognitive errors in your everyday life.
1. Black-and-White Thinking (“Splitting”)
Engaging in this kind of polarized thinking usually causes people to put things into “either/or” categories or to think in extremes. People may fail to see “areas of grey” or appreciate the nuance and complexity of most circumstances.
i.e. “If it’s not perfect, it’s not worth doing”. “People must either love me or hate me”
Filtering means paying a disproportionate amount of attention to certain details over others. Similar to seeing things from a biased perspective, someone who engages in “mental filtering” might find that they focus heavily on one particular type of evidence and less on information that suggests the contrary. Filtering can significantly alter our perception of reality and distort our experiences.
i.e. Only noticing your flaws. Paying attention whenever someone is rude to you but not when others are kind. Focusing on your mistakes instead of your successes.
3. Jumping to Conclusions
a) Mind Reading
Mind reading refers to feeling as if we know what someone else is thinking. Someone who is mind reading might find themselves generating assumptions on behalf of another. These may often be bred out of our insecurities or worries and reflect our negative fears about ourselves.
i.e. Assuming someone is mad at you and deciding not to reach out. Thinking everyone is noticing you or scrutinizing your behaviour. Feeling like others are judging you.
b) Fortune Telling
Fortune telling is essentially believing that we know what will happen AKA “predicting the future”. We might assume an outcome to be negative based on previous experiences or our anxieties without truly knowing how it will turn out.
i.e. Asking this person out will go badly so I don’t want to try. This party won’t be any good, I’m not going to go.
4. Emotional Reasoning
This might sound like a bit of a contradiction and it should! Emotional reasoning means that we assume because we feel a certain way, what we think must be true. People who reason emotionally justify their thoughts by saying they “feel true”. Emotions are powerful things and it is normal for them to cloud our logical judgment such that we often fail to make distinctions between our thoughts, feelings, and our reality. Our emotions are real but that doesn’t mean that our thoughts are necessarily accurate.
i.e. I feel stupid so I must be stupid. I feel worthless so I must be. I feel lonely – no one cares about me.
Using one specific example or event to make broad judgements about something or inferring a pattern from a singularity. Over-generalizing can look like unrealistically expecting an outcome that might have only happened once or twice, or interpreting a single result to be reflective of a more global circumstance. People who over-generalize might attribute single situations to be representative of more broad, negative circumstances (similar to mental filters and jumping to conclusions).
i.e. Getting a bad grade means I’m a bad student. I did this wrong once so I’ll never be able to do it. Everything sucks. Nothing good ever happens to me.
Often referred to as “mislabelling” to reflect describing a circumstance with harsh or judgmental language. A specific form of over-generalizing where a person might attach a universal label to something that isn’t reflective of the true reality. Labels might be rigid and extreme and might not allow for someone to consider the influence of context or extraneous factors.
i.e. They’re a jerk. I’m an idiot.
7. Disqualifying the Positive
This one is relatively self-explanatory and can be considered a specific instance of filtering or even over-generalizing. Often characteristic of a depressogenic schema, disqualifying the positive can refer to one’s inability to give themselves credit for their successes or good qualities. In a broader sense, people might feel that they experience things through a “pessimistic” lens as they fail to appreciate positives as well as the negatives. Discounting the positives might look like attribute your successes to external factors (i.e. chance or luck) while your failures are due to stable features about yourself (i.e. lack of skill or effort).
i.e. I only did well because it was easy. That doesn’t count. It doesn’t matter. But it could have been better.
8. Magnification (Catastrophizing) & Minimization
Magnification and its counterpart (minimization) refer to distorting the severity of something to make it more or less important, respectively.
Catastrophizing, as it sounds, usually looks like fearing disaster or blowing things out of proportion. Someone might expect the worst case scenario or even over-exaggerate their shortcomings.
i.e. What if…?! What if it happens to me?! What if tragedy strikes? That was a disaster. This is going to be a huge failure. EVERYONE is judging me. This is the end of the world.
Minimization is similar to discounting the positives and can cause someone to shrink something to make it seem less important.
i.e. No one cares about X. This doesn’t matter. It’s irrelevant/insignificant.
9. “Should”s and Critical Words
Using critical words like “should”, “must” and “have to” can make us feel guilty when applied to ourselves and can result in frustration when used against others. People who expect these implicit rules to be followed can feel upset and angry when they are broken – by either themselves or others. It can often seem like these are motivational, but more often than not these phrases shame us and leave us feeling like we have failed before we even begin.
Look out for the small words with big emotional consequences.
i.e. “I should workout. I shouldn’t be so lazy. I need to do more work. They shouldn’t be so upset.”
Personalization refers to blaming yourself or taking responsibility for something that isn’t completely your fault. This might be reflected in internalizing consequences of unrelated external events that may or may not actually be true. People who are engaging in personalization might also believe that the way others behave or things that happen are a direct reflection of them. This can often also result in comparison to others, feeling threatened and competitive, and apologizing a lot.
i.e. They’re acting shy because they don’t like me. Everyone had a bad time because I was late. This is all my fault – it’s because I’m so X.
Blame is essentially the opposite of personalization. It is a potentially unhelpful externalizing behaviour where someone assigns responsibility to others for personal or completely unrelated situations. People might hold others responsible for their emotional pain, mistakes, or general misfortune.
i.e. “Stop making me feel bad. This is all your fault. It’s all X’s fault. If they hadn’t done this things would be okay.”
12. Locus of Control
Control fallacies refer to the localization and extent to which we feel like we have control over our lives. These beliefs can exist on a spectrum and may present difficulties if one is favoured disproportionately to another.
a) External Control
Someone who believes in an external locus control believes that they are helpless victims of fate and that there is nothing they can do about their situation. They feel that they have very little capacity to influence how things turn out for themselves or others. People with an external locus of control might victim-blame (including themselves) or be dismissive of their skills.
i.e. “I can’t help it – it’s just the way things are.”
b) Internal Control
In contrast, internal control reflects someone who tends to take personal responsibility for themselves and potentially even others around them. Similar to personalization, someone who assigns an internal locus of control might bear the weight of things that are not theirs to carry. However, an internal locus of control might also manifest in someone believing that they have the capability to affect change on their surroundings.
i.e. I need to make sure they’re happy. I am responsible for everything that happens to me. I am responsible for what happens to them.
13. Fallacy of Fairness
It would be nice to live in a world that is fair, but that’s unfortunately not the case. Someone who operates under the assumption that things should be fair will often be upset and resentful. The fallacy of fairness occurs when someone assumes that they know what is “just” or fair but it isn’t what actually happens. People who engage in this fallacy might end up feeling hopeless because they are unable to accept that things might not work out in their favour even when they should.
i.e. I did everything right but this still happened – its not fair. I can’t believe they got so lucky! Why do bad things always happen to good people? What did I do wrong?
14. Fallacy of Change
The fallacy of change is when people expect others to be malleable to their will. I.e. they think that pressuring someone enough can convince them to adapt to suit their needs. People who engage in this distortion might believe that they will be happier if someone can change to please them. We might assume our happiness or success depends on other people and consequently try to convince them to help us get there. People might believe that we can get what we want by changing someone else.
i.e. “My boyfriend would make me so happy, it only he dressed nicer. I’d be a much better friend if she would stop doing X all the time. I’d be a better employee if my boss weren’t so boring”.
15. Always Being Right
People who believe or feel the need to always be right often challenge others with contradictory beliefs. Being wrong might be extremely uncomfortable for these people and they may go to extreme lengths to prove that they’re not. The desire to being right may come at a cost and people may treated it as being more important than the feelings of others. People who engage in this distortion aren’t inclined to simple “agree to disagree” and just move on. Being accurate or correct can become an intellectual battle rather than just a difference of opinion.
i.e. [See: People getting caught in a relentless argument on Twitter or Facebook.]
16. Heaven’s Reward Fallacy
This is the belief that someone’s sacrifice will eventually pay off. This reward fallacy is a specific derivative of the fallacy of fairness, in that people believe that they are entitled to a “just reward” for their efforts despite the fact that things might randomly not materialize as hoped.
i.e. “I worked harder than them, I should have received a better grade! Why didn’t I get as much of a raise as my co-worker? They got the job over me?!”
- Psychology Today: Cognitive Distortions. When Your Brain Lies to You. Courtney Ackerman. 2017. https://positivepsychology.com/cognitive-distortions/
- Psych Central: 15 Common Cognitive Distortions. John M. Grohol. 2019. https://psychcentral.com/lib/15-common-cognitive-distortions/
- Creative Commons. Psychology.tools. Psych Tools. https://www.psychologytools.com/
- Skills Training Manual for Treating Borderline Personality Disorder. Marsha M. Linehan. 1993. Guilford Press.