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Cognitive Distortions Explained | Is Everything We Think True?

Updated: Jul 10

A cognitive distortion is an unhealthy belief about something, someone, or a situation. These distortions can sometimes be useful by simplifying complex situations, but when they become more pronounced, they can be a significant burden to others and certainly to yourself.

Everyone experiences cognitive distortions to a greater or lesser extent. They help make life less complex by providing shortcuts in thinking. However, understanding these distortions and recognizing them in ourselves is crucial for mental well-being. Below, I will explain how cognitive distortions work and discuss the 12 most common ones.

Cognitive Distortion 1: Over-Generalizing

One of the most common distortions is over-generalizing. It simplifies our daily lives by allowing us to quickly categorize and respond to new information. For example, when you walk through a forest, you don’t analyze each tree individually; you generalize them all as trees. This saves time and mental effort. However, over-generalizing can also lead to problematic behaviors and beliefs.

For instance, if you were once attacked by a small man with a cap in a dark alley, you might start to mistrust every small man with a cap, believing they are all potential attackers. This over-generalization can make everyday situations, like walking down the street, extremely stressful and tiring.

Cognitive Distortion 2: Filtering

Filtering involves focusing solely on the negative aspects of a situation while ignoring the positive ones. Imagine two people walking through a beautiful forest. One person enjoys the scents, colors, and tranquility, while the other fixates on a single plastic bag left behind by a litterer. This person becomes angry and irritated, allowing the negative sight to overshadow the entire experience. As a result, they miss out on the forest's beauty and peacefulness, letting one small annoyance ruin their day.

Cognitive Distortion 3: All-or-Nothing Thinking

All-or-nothing thinking, also known as black-and-white thinking, involves seeing things in extreme, absolute terms. This can apply to how you view yourself, others, or situations. For example, you might believe that you are either completely successful or an absolute failure, with no middle ground. If you make one mistake, you might consider yourself worthless. This distortion creates an unrealistic and harsh view of the world, making life very demanding and stressful. People with this mindset often avoid trying new things unless they are sure they can do them perfectly, limiting their opportunities and growth.

Cognitive Distortion 4: Predictions

Some individuals believe they can predict the future in every situation, often assuming the worst will happen. For instance, if you suggest a weekend trip, they might immediately predict it will rain without checking the weather forecast, dismissing the idea outright. They may also predict the behavior of others, like expecting Aunt Agatha to cause a scene at a family gathering, and act as if this prediction is a certainty. This can lead to unnecessary stress and missed opportunities for positive experiences. Predicting others' thoughts or reactions without verification can create imaginary conflicts and misunderstandings.

Cognitive Distortion 5: Accusing

Accusing involves blaming others for your feelings or situations. For example, someone irritated by a plastic bag in the forest might say, "Because of that litter, my day is ruined." This person externalizes their discomfort, holding others responsible for their emotional state. They might also accuse others of making them feel bad based on perceived slights or actions. This can extend to predicting future negative occurrences, such as expecting to see litter every 100 meters, which saps the enjoyment from activities like a walk in the woods. Accusatory thinking fosters resentment and frustration, distancing people from positive experiences.

Cognitive Distortion 6: Emotional Reasoning

Emotional reasoning occurs when individuals believe that their emotions reflect reality. For example, if you feel unhappy after failing at something, you might conclude that you are a failure. Similarly, feeling sad after someone’s comment might lead you to think you are a depressed person. This distortion involves interpreting situations based on emotional reactions rather than objective facts. When emotions are not separated from the context in which they arise, they can distort reality and lead to incorrect conclusions about yourself and your circumstances. This can perpetuate negative self-beliefs and hinder personal growth.

Cognitive Distortion 7: The “I Must” Syndrome

People with the "I Must" syndrome impose strict rules on themselves and others about what must be done or avoided. For instance, they might feel compelled to pick up every piece of litter they see, believing it is their duty. This mindset creates unnecessary pressure and stress, as they constantly think about what they should or shouldn’t do, as if following a rigid rulebook. They may impose these beliefs on others, expecting them to adhere to the same standards, leading to conflict and frustration when others do not see the necessity. This distortion can make everyday life feel like a series of obligations.

Cognitive Distortion 8: Mind Reading

Mind reading involves assuming you know what others are thinking without any concrete evidence. While it can be helpful to consider others’ perspectives, some people believe they always know others' thoughts based on previous experiences or behaviors. For example, they might assume a friend is upset with them without any verbal indication. This can lead to misunderstandings and unnecessary stress, as they react to assumed thoughts rather than reality. Mind reading can create a disconnect in relationships, as actions and responses are based on these unverified assumptions.

Cognitive Distortion 9: Personalization

Personalization is the tendency to take things personally, believing that unrelated events or comments are directed at you. For example, if someone makes a general statement like "some people are lazy," you might immediately think it is about you. In extreme cases, you might even feel responsible for events completely out of your control, such as natural disasters. This distortion can lead to feelings of guilt, shame, and undue responsibility, impacting your mental well-being and interactions with others. It’s crucial to recognize that not everything is about you and to differentiate between personal relevance and external events.

Cognitive Distortion 10: Magnification and Minimization

Magnification involves blowing things out of proportion, while minimization downplays significant events. For example, someone might describe a light rain as a torrential downpour or refer to a slightly messy house as a disaster. Conversely, minimization might involve downplaying serious issues, such as referring to a natural disaster as a minor inconvenience. These distortions skew your perception of reality, leading to exaggerated emotional responses. Magnifying negative events can increase anxiety and stress, while minimizing positive events can prevent you from appreciating and enjoying life’s good moments.

Cognitive Distortion 11: Labeling

Labeling involves assigning broad, negative labels to yourself or others based on one incident. For instance, if someone makes a mistake, they might label themselves as "stupid" or "useless." This type of thinking overlooks the complexity of human behavior and reduces people to one-dimensional caricatures. Labeling prevents a nuanced understanding of situations and individuals, often leading to negative self-perception and unfair judgments of others. Instead of addressing specific behaviors or actions, labeling generalizes them into all-encompassing negative terms, which can be damaging to relationships and self-esteem.

Cognitive Distortion 12: Polarized Thinking

Polarized thinking, or black-and-white thinking, involves viewing situations and people in extremes, with no middle ground. Someone who thinks in black-and-white terms sees things as either entirely good or entirely bad, with no room for nuance. This can apply to opinions, beliefs, and judgments about yourself and others. For example, you might think someone is either a great person or a terrible one, without recognizing that people have both strengths and weaknesses. This kind of thinking can lead to unrealistic expectations and disappointment, as it fails to acknowledge the complexity and variability of human behavior and situations.

Cognitive Distortion 13: Catastrophizing

Catastrophizing involves expecting the worst possible outcome in any situation, often blowing things out of proportion. For instance, you might think that if you make a mistake at work, you will get fired, or if you have a minor health symptom, it must be something serious. This distortion creates excessive anxiety and stress, as it leads to constant worry about catastrophic events that are unlikely to occur. Catastrophizing prevents you from seeing situations realistically and can lead to a heightened state of fear and helplessness, affecting your overall well-being.

Cognitive Distortion 14: Jumping to Conclusions

Jumping to conclusions involves making negative interpretations without definite facts to support them. This can take two forms: mind reading and fortune telling. Mind reading occurs when you assume others are thinking negatively about you without any evidence. For example, you might believe a colleague thinks you are incompetent, even though they haven’t said anything to suggest that. Fortune telling involves predicting that things will turn out badly without considering other possible outcomes. For instance, you might decide not to apply for a job because you "know" you won’t get it. Both forms of this distortion lead to unnecessary anxiety and prevent you from seeing situations objectively.

Cognitive Therapy Explained

Cognitive therapy can help you overcome cognitive distortions by addressing the underlying thoughts that trigger your feelings. The foundation of cognitive therapy is understanding that it’s not the situation itself, but your thoughts about the situation that evoke emotional responses. This therapy teaches you to recognize and replace unhealthy thoughts with healthier ones, helping you to see situations more realistically.

Cognitive therapy also helps you become more aware of your behaviors, identifying which actions are beneficial and which are not. It encourages living according to your true self rather than conforming to external expectations. You learn that avoiding situations can be unhealthy and may lead to increased fear and anxiety. By letting go of unrealistic expectations, you can lead a happier and more fulfilling life.

For more information on how coaching can support your journey to overcoming cognitive distortions and achieving mental well-being, you can read this page.


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