What are cognitive distortions and why should I care?

What are cognitive distortions?

As humans we are prone to thinking in ways that may impact our lives negatively. Cognitive distortions are thinking errors our mind convinces us of something that isn’t true. These thoughts are inaccurate and reinforce negative thinking.


We tell ourselves things that sound rational and accurate, but only allow us to continue to feel poorly about ourselves. Every single human being has had a cognitive distortion at some point in their life. Cognitive distortions can be learned from society, a person’s upbringing, trauma experiences, and other mental health concerns. 


Learning to Correct this Thinking

By learning to correct this thinking, a person can answer the negative thoughts and refute the claims. Being able to identify the cognitive distortions takes a self-aware person who is willing to be honest with themselves and challenge the thoughts. This will lead to more rational and balanced thinking.


Fifteen common cognitive distortions are as follows: 


  1. Filtering – A person will take the negative details and magnify them while filtering out all positive aspects of a situation. A person can pick out a single, unpleasant detail and dwell on it so much so it becomes their reality. 


  1. Polarized Thinking (or “Black and White” Thinking) – All or nothing. There is no middle ground or gray area. We have to be perfect or we’re a complete failure. This type of thinking places people or situations in categories of either/or. 


  1. Overgeneralization – A person will come to a general conclusion based on a single incident or piece of evidence. If something bad happens once, they expect it to happen over and over again. This person generally sees a pattern of defeat. For example, if someone were to get a bad grade on a test, they conclude they are a horrible student and will fail. 


  1. Jumping to Conclusions (or Mind Reading) – A person who jumps to conclusions will assume they know what the other person is feeling or thinking as if they could read their mind. This distortion can also manifest into fortune telling where a person believes their future is predetermined. An example of this is when a person assumes someone is holding a grudge against them without actually finding out if it is true. An example of fortune telling is assuming that things will turn out badly in a relationship, convincing themselves that it’s already established, so why bother dating. 


  1. Catastrophizing – A person expects disaster to strike, no matter what. They imagine the absolutely worse happening and magnify that into the “what if” questions. Additionally, someone can minimize where they inappropriately shrink the magnitude of significant events until they appear tiny for their own desire. 


  1. Personalization – A person will believe everything others do or say is some sort of direct and personal reaction toward them. They take everything personally, even when something isn’t meant in that way. A person who experiences this type of thinking will also compare themselves to others (who is better looking, smarter, wealthier, etc.). This type of thinking can also cause a person to assume they are at fault for a situation out of their control. 


  1. Control Fallacies – This distortion involves two different but related beliefs about being in control of every situation in a person’s life. If we feel externally controlled, we are a helpless victim of fate. An example of this is “My work is poor because my boss demanded I work overtime.” Additionally, this distortion can have us assuming responsibility for the pain and happiness of everyone around us. “Why aren’t you happy? Is it something I did?”


  1. Fallacy of Fairness – A person feels resentful because they think that they know what is fair, but other people won’t agree with them. As our parents tell us when we’re growing up and something doesn’t go our way, “Life isn’t always fair.” Because life isn’t fair — things will not always work out in a person’s favor, even when they should.


  1. Blaming – A person who experiences this distortion will hold other people responsible for their emotional pain. They may also take the opposite track and instead blame themselves for every problem — even those clearly outside their own control. For example, “You’re making me feel bad about myself.” No one can make us feel any way. We have control over our own emotions and reactions.
  2. Shoulds – Someone who experiences this distortion will appear as a list of ironclad rules about how every person should behave. People who break the rules make a person following these should statements angry. They also feel guilty when they violate their own rules. A person may often believe they are trying to motivate themselves with shoulds and shouldn’ts, as if they have to be punished before they can do anything. An example of this “I should exercise, I shouldn’t be so lazy.” 


  1. Emotional Reasoning – Whatever a person is feeling is believed to be true automatically and unconditionally. If a person feels stupid and boring, then they must be stupid and boring. 


  1. Fallacy of Change – A person expects that other people will change to suit them if they just pressure or cajole them enough. A person needs to change people because their hopes for success and happiness seem to depend entirely on them. This distortion is often found in thinking around relationships. For example, someone tries to change someone to suit their own personal desires.


  1. Global Labeling (also called mislabeling) – A person generalizes one or two qualities into a negative global judgment about themselves or another person. This is an extreme form of overgeneralizing. Instead of describing an error in context of a specific situation, a person will attach an unhealthy universal label to themselves or others. A person who experiences this distortion will use highly colored and emotionally loaded language. For example, instead of saying someone drops her children off at daycare every day, a person who is global labeling might say that “She allows her children to be raised by strangers.” 


  1. Always Being Right – A person who experiences this distortion continues to put other people on trial to prove that their own opinions and actions are the absolute correct ones. This type of thinking will force someone to go any length to demonstrate their rightness. Being right is often more important than the feelings of others. 


  1. Heaven’s Reward Fallacy – This is a false belief that a person’s sacrifice and self-denial will eventually pay off, as if some global force is keeping score. A person who sacrifices and works hard but doesn’t experience the expected payoff will usually feel bitter when the reward doesn’t come.


Ultimately, thinking objectively and viewing from other perspectives will help challenge these distortions. It is important to recognize these in ourselves so we can take the steps to change our thinking!