20 Cognitive Distortions and How They Affect Your Life

woman reading and looking at horizon pensiveOur circumstances don’t define us. Regardless of what happens in life, we always have the power to choose our attitude. So what’s the difference between someone who remains hopeful despite experiencing great suffering and the person who stubs his or her toe and remains angry the rest of the day? The answer lies in the person’s thinking patterns.

Psychologists use the term “cognitive distortions” to describe irrational, inflated thoughts or beliefs that distort a person’s perception of reality, usually in a negative way. Cognitive distortions are common but can be hard to recognize if you don’t know what to look for. Many occur as automatic thoughts. They are so habitual that the thinker often doesn’t realize he or she has the power to change them. Many grow to believe that’s just the way things are.

Cognitive distortions can take a serious toll on one’s mental health, leading to increased stress, depression, and anxiety. If left unchecked, these automatic thought patterns can become entrenched and may negatively influence the rational, logical way you make decisions.

For those looking to improve their mental health by recognizing pesky cognitive distortions, we’ve compiled a list of 20 common ones that may already be distorting your perception of reality:

1. Black-and-White Thinking

A person with this dichotomous thinking pattern typically sees things in terms of either/or. Something is either good or bad, right or wrong, all or nothing. Black-and-white thinking fails to acknowledge that there are almost always several shades of gray that exist between black and white. By seeing only two possible sides or outcomes to something, a person ignores the middle—and possibly more reasonable—ground.

2. Personalization

When engaging in this type of thinking, an individual tends to take things personally. He or she may attribute things that other people do as the result of his or her own actions or behaviors. This type of thinking also causes a person to blame himself or herself for external circumstances outside the person’s control.

3. ‘Should’ Statements

Thoughts that include “should,” “ought,” or “must” are almost always related to a cognitive distortion. For example: “I should have arrived to the meeting earlier,” or, “I must lose weight to be more attractive.” This type of thinking may induce feelings of guilt or shame. “Should” statements also are common when referring to others in our lives. These thoughts may go something like, “He should have called me earlier,” or, “She ought to thank me for all the help I’ve given her.” Such thoughts can lead a person to feel frustration, anger, and bitterness when others fail to meet unrealistic expectations. No matter how hard we wish to sometimes, we cannot control the behavior of another, so thinking about what others should do serves no healthy purpose.

4. Catastrophizing

This occurs when a person sees any unpleasant occurrence as the worst possible outcome. A person who is catastrophizing might fail an exam and immediately think he or she has likely failed the entire course. A person may not have even taken the exam yet and already believe he or she will fail—assuming the worst, or preemptively catastrophizing.

5. Magnifying

With this type of cognitive distortion, things are exaggerated or blown out of proportion, though not quite to the extent of catastrophizing. It is the real-life version of the old saying, “Making a mountain out of a molehill.”

6. Minimizing

The same person who experiences the magnifying distortion may minimize positive events. These distortions sometimes occur in conjunction with each other. A person who distorts reality by minimizing may think something like, “Yes, I got a raise, but it wasn’t very big and I’m still not very good at my job.”

7. Mindreading

This type of thinker may assume the role of psychic and may think he or she knows what someone else thinks or feels. The person may think he or she knows what another person thinks despite no external confirmation that his or her assumption is true.

8. Fortune Telling

A fortune-telling-type thinker tends to predict the future, and usually foresees a negative outcome. Such a thinker arbitrarily predicts that things will turn out poorly. Before a concert or movie, you might hear him or her say, “I just know that all the tickets will be sold out when we get there.”

9. Overgeneralization

When overgeneralizing, a person may come to a conclusion based on one or two single events, despite the fact reality is too complex to make such generalizations. If a friend misses a lunch date, this doesn’t mean he or she will always fail to keep commitments. Overgeneralizing statements often include the words “always,” “never,” “every,” or “all.”

10. Discounting the Positive

This extreme form of all-or-nothing thinking occurs when a person discounts positive information about a performance, event, or experience and sees only negative aspects. A person engaging in this type of distortion might disregard any compliments or positive reinforcement he or she receives.

Thought patterns can be changed through a process referred to in cognitive therapy as cognitive restructuring. The idea behind it is that by adjusting our automatic thoughts, we are able to influence our emotions and behaviors.

11. Filtering

This cognitive distortion, similar to discounting the positive, occurs when a person filters out information, negative or positive. For example, a person may look at his or her feedback on an assignment in school or at work and exclude positive notes to focus on one critical comment.

12. Labeling

This distortion, a more severe type of overgeneralization, occurs when a person labels someone or something based on one experience or event. Instead of believing that he or she made a mistake, people engaging in this type of thinking might automatically label themselves as failures.

13. Blaming

This is the opposite of personalization. Instead of seeing everything as your fault, all blame is put on someone or something else.

14. Emotional Reasoning

Mistaking one’s feelings for reality is emotional reasoning. If this type of thinker feels scared, there must be real danger. If this type of thinker feels stupid, then to him or her this must be true. This type of thinking can be severe and may manifest as obsessive compulsion. For example, a person may feel dirty even though he or she has showered twice within the past hour.

15. Always Being ‘Right’

This thinking pattern causes a person to internalize his or her opinions as facts and fails to consider the feelings of the other person in a debate or discussion. This cognitive distortion can make it difficult to form and sustain healthy relationships.

16. Self-Serving Bias

A person experiencing self-serving bias may attribute all positive events to his or her personal character while seeing any negative events as outside of his or her control. This pattern of thinking may cause a person to refuse to admit mistakes or flaws and to live in a distorted reality where he or she can do no wrong.

17. ‘Heaven’s Reward’ Fallacy

In this pattern of thinking, a person may expect divine rewards for his or her sacrifices. People experiencing this distortion tend to put their interests and feelings aside in hopes that they will be rewarded for their selflessness later, but they may become bitter and angry if the reward is never presented.

18. Fallacy of Change

This distortion assumes that other people must change their behavior in order for us to be happy. This way of thinking is usually considered selfish because it insists, for example, that other people change their schedule to accommodate yours or that your partner shouldn’t wear his or her favorite t-shirt because you don’t like it.

19. Fallacy of Fairness

This fallacy assumes that things have to be measured based on fairness and equality, when in reality things often don’t always work that way. An example of the trap this type of thinking sets is when it justifies infidelity if a person’s partner has cheated.

20. Control Fallacy

Someone who sees things as internally controlled may put himself or herself at fault for events that are truly out of the person’s control, such as another person’s happiness or behavior. A person who sees things as externally controlled might blame his or her boss for poor work performance.

How to Change Thinking Patterns and Cognitive Distortions

For many, one or more of these cognitive distortions will look familiar. You may fall into one or more of these traps or know someone who does. The good news is that cognitive distortions don’t have to weigh you down like an anchor.

Thought patterns can be changed through a process referred to in cognitive therapy as cognitive restructuring. The idea behind it is that by adjusting our automatic thoughts, we are able to influence our emotions and behaviors. This is the basis of several popular forms of therapy, including cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and rational emotive behavioral therapy (REBT).

If you feel that one or more of the above cognitive distortions is contributing to feelings of anxiety, depression, or other mental health issues, we encourage you to consider finding a qualified therapist you trust to work with you and help transform your negative thoughts and beliefs into empowering affirmations that inspire and uplift you.

References:

  1. Beck, Aaron T. (1976). Cognitive therapies and emotional disorders. New York: New American Library.
  2. Beck, Aaron T. (1972). Depression; Causes and Treatment. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
  3. Tagg, John (1996). Cognitive Distortions. Retrieved from http://daphne.palomar.edu/jtagg/cds.htm#cogdis

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The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • 32 comments
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  • lamont

    April 7th, 2015 at 10:23 AM

    Wow this list really encourages you to take a long hard look at yourself and see the many ways that we don’t necessarily see the world form the same point of view that other people do.

    While that can be a good thing at times, it can also hold us back if we are not willing to look clearly and really see things for what they really are.

  • Tatum

    April 7th, 2015 at 1:44 PM

    Hate to admit it but I am that black or white thinker. Either something is or it isn’t, and although I think that I know deep down that it is not always like this, it can still be hard for me to sometimes get over some of that way of processing things.

  • Larry Boldin

    April 7th, 2015 at 9:18 PM

    a very well written article, hope it helps the many distorted.

  • Stephanie

    April 8th, 2015 at 8:59 AM

    I am a fortune teller thinker and I always wish I am wrong but I am usually right. So now what? Maybe I should just buy a pair of rose colored glasses. My aunt is a therapist and so was my college room mate. I would not ask either of them for dirctions to the store.😀

  • Leslie

    July 19th, 2015 at 10:07 PM

    If you are truly usually right, like 80-90% of the time, then this is not a distortion. This article is referring to people who use “fortune telling” to paint overly negative pictures and expectations.

  • Ares

    July 17th, 2016 at 4:38 PM

    Probably you’re a “Magnifier” too. ;-)

  • allison

    April 8th, 2015 at 10:13 AM

    I have a drama queen for a child. There is something that is always going on that is going to spell impending doom and disaster for her.

    Did I mention that she is 12?

    She is going to grow out of this right?

  • Connor

    April 9th, 2015 at 3:21 PM

    You can’t go through life thinking that you always have all the answers and automatically know what others are thinking. This is not reality for most of us. I think that the people who do this are simply projecting what THEY are feeling and thinking onto someone else and in general making a real mess of things.
    How am I supposed to know what another person is thinking or feeling without them saying or me asking and looking for answers?
    If I am looking for answers to other people’s questions within my own self, then I am surely looking in the wrong place.

  • bowen d.

    April 10th, 2015 at 10:45 AM

    Kind of crazy that so much of what is holding us back are actually things that are created by us!

  • Neha

    April 10th, 2015 at 3:59 PM

    Interesting that this is all based on literature that is decades old. I think it’s really sad and pitiful that the onus of “distorted” thinking falls on the individual. Resourcefulness and self-efficacy are great, sure, but we’re not bloody robots whose sensations and perceptions need to be “restructured”. If anything this sounds rather Watsonian in that it reduces us to the mechanism of stimulus (internal sensations and perceptions) and response (overt behaviour).

    I agree that this thinking exists and can be maladaptive in some situations but for the most part, when you get the core of it, reducing out “distorted thinking” patterns in this way limits our agency and intentionality. Essentially, you’re promoting something that is counterproductive to mental health.

  • Leslie

    July 19th, 2015 at 9:59 PM

    Seriously? Wow, you so easily blow off decades of pretty important work by some pretty respected people. (This is not Watsonian at all, by the way.) How nice it must be to feel so superior. Perhaps there are some self-serving distortions at play? Lol

  • lisa

    April 10th, 2015 at 10:05 PM

    Hunh. I’m not sure I know many people without some sort of “distortion”.

  • Frank

    April 10th, 2015 at 11:54 PM

    A very good check list to help us through the day. Most of us are susceptible to these distortions. It’s human nature and comes from our instinctive nature to remain ‘safe’. As long as we talk ourselves out of them and do not stay in them for long and not cause some prolonged disorder in our lives, these deviations can be considered as part of normal human daily behaviour.

  • Ann

    April 11th, 2015 at 4:30 AM

    I don’t see this as counterproductive. I see all of this information as a guide to inform people that we can look at situations differently in our lives. I like to read about cognitive functions and keep an open mind because I know that I have stunted my growth in many ways due to irrational beliefs.

  • miriam

    April 11th, 2015 at 7:40 AM

    Much or most of what you say, I have been trying to internalize for many years. I agree with them, but it has taken me forever,,,,,, to allow myself to do nothing and still feel free that peace of mind is worth it. Thank you for the chance to reinforce sound philosophy.

  • Marie

    April 13th, 2015 at 6:17 AM

    I know that there are days when I take things way too personally, I think that everything is directed toward me or implicates me even when rationally i can see where there are mistakes being made on my part when I do that. I guess to some extent I am just paranoid about what other people are saying or doing? I’m not sure, it makes me very emotionally drained, but it’s hard to get through hen there is till this part of me that don’t feel like I meet the standards that I have set for myself and that everyone else sees that too.

  • Jeff

    April 14th, 2015 at 8:54 AM

    Good grief we all probably struggle with at least one of these, if not more!

  • Carol

    April 25th, 2015 at 7:11 PM

    Very helpful and interesting post. We have all fallen victim to one of these distortions at some point. Having recently left a traumatic place, I’m only just learning to be conscious of my negative thoughts. It’s a struggle but it’s been working.
    Thanks for the post.

  • Robert Herrmann-Keeling, Ph.D.

    July 19th, 2015 at 4:33 PM

    Neha (above) said “Interesting that this is all based on literature that is decades old.” Specifically, it goes back more than a hundred years to the work of Dr. Alfred Adler. Adler worked nine years with Freud (1902-1911), helping to develop psychoanalysis and psychological treatments for the neuroses. He was president of the psychoanalytic society and editor of the society’s journal. When Freud became jealous that Adler was more popular with the members than he was, he arranged for him to leave. This allowed Adler and his followers to develop “Individual Psychology,” more influential on psychology than Freud ever was.
    Adler’s contributions to psychological theory and practice are numerous and basic, but often unrecognized. He pioneered group therapy, marriage counseling, family therapy, parent-child counseling, and is best known for his concepts of inferiority complex, goal orientation, over-compensation, birth order, the importance of family and society in personality development, etc. His concept of “mistaken thinking” became basic to CBT (Aaron Beck) and REBT (Albert Ellis), both of whom spoke of Adler’s positive influence on them decades later. You can find more on my web site: lifecourseinstitute.com

  • Mary

    July 19th, 2015 at 9:00 PM

    This is a great list to be mindful of. The first step to it being personally useful is self awareness. Maybe this post will be a trigger for someone.

  • Belle

    July 22nd, 2015 at 6:57 PM

    While cognitive “distortions” can be restructured through what is commonly known today as “cognitive behavioral therapy”, this subject is all too often painted with a broad brush. It is indeed a slippery slope. Temperament is inborn, for one thing, and certainly varies from person to person … people are born with innate tendencies or proclivities towards thinking and feeling in certain characteristic ways. Myriad factors come into play when it comes to “what makes us the way we are” – factors such as how early in one’s life (at what development stage) and how often certain negative events might have occurred, the nature of those negative events, one’s relationships with primary caregivers, and much, much more – all play into how a person thinks about and views him/herself and the world. The effects of early life trauma, “imprinting”, if you will, and a person’s “nature” are all too often not taken into consideration by those who practice CBT. Additionally, CBT therapists are often ill-equipped to treat patients who have complicated minds and histories. If not handled appropriately, CBT can create a sense of failure or guilt in a client by suggesting that the individual is his/her own worst enemy and that he/she is simply unwilling to “change” the way he/she “thinks”. Obsessive thinking, or an “obsessive compulsive personality disorder” for example (OCPD is NOT the same thing as OCD), and numerous other factors must taken into consideration as affecting the way one thinks. Often a psychodynamic approach to therapy
    is more appropriate, as it brings to light unconscious material that exists in the mind which has a very powerful effect on a person’s emotionality, and, once illuminated, can serve to be an extremely “freeing” event. Psychodynamic therapy is not as popular today as it was decades ago because, IMO, it is DIFFICULT TO LEARN AND REQUIRES A GREAT DEAL OF RIGOROUS TRAINING AND EXCELLENT MENTAL CAPABILITIES ON THE PART OF THE THERAPIST. Many who desire to become psychotherapists or “counselors” find CBT easier to learn and easier to practice. And these “practitioners” can be quite dangerous and do a lot of damage to their unsuspecting client/s. I have worked with both types of therapists, and no damage was ever caused to me by a therapist who used the PSYCHODYNAMIC approach, whereas more than one CBT therapist (who was obviously not well trained or not as capable) has caused damage. It’s a shame that the field has been proliferated with CBT therapists, to the exclusion of other equally effective or MORE effective approaches to treatment, such as the psychodynamic approach. Albert Ellis et.al. were in a class of their own, but modern day practitioners of CBT – not so much.

  • Carol

    September 21st, 2015 at 8:14 AM

    You seem to be fairly well versed in this topic. Unfortunately you are placing a significant amount of the blame in the wrong place. You may consider placing the blame on the insurance companies when they decided to tell therapists how much time we were given to work with which clients for which needs. Like 5 sessions for depression. Out of the mindset came more and more brief therapy models being forced down therapists throats.

  • Jackie

    December 14th, 2015 at 9:35 AM

    Thank you for your comments regarding CBT. I completely agree with your perspective. Psychological disorders are very layered and very complex. While I appreciate CBT as good (advice) for those who need a way to improve relationships in the workplace,socially or at home who are basically functioning in their lives, but I do not at all see this as any sort of solution or addicts and others who would use this to continue masking their very serious psychological issues.

  • dustin

    October 13th, 2015 at 10:51 PM

    I do every single one of these to some degree everyday, I dont know what to do. I dont currently have health insurance but i cant affird it right now, idk. Any guides to working these out on your own. Thanks

  • Keith M.

    December 24th, 2015 at 11:07 PM

    Hey there, as far as I can tell most of us behave, react, think, respond, process, even utilize as a possible factor or step in our consideration, assessment and reasoning or maybe rationalization process. I think we must be using or considering elements of most or many of these Cognitive reasoning as well as our distortions. That’s cool much of this is how we have learned to absorb and process many things for many reasons.

    I believe awareness and acceptance are the keys that open new doors to new truths. Understanding is the paths that choose to eliminate invalid assumptions, reactionary responses, irrational conceptions and perceptions, and most significantly; the best defender against ignorance–especially the most dangerous willfull ignorance–usually employed so as not confront or consider uncomfortable reasoning flaws or self serving misconceptions, or to confound the fear of earnest reevaluation, or fear of what we believe we cannot comprehend and assimilate into new honest self conception realization awareness and truthful understanding. From which we build and expand–contemplate and incorporate new inclusive expanding and amorphous systems of thinking perceiving interpreting asymulating and truthful understanding. It’s cool. Your mind can do most of it pretty much on it’s own. You just need to check your reasoning, motivation, effect, consequence, honesty and truthfulness.

    I could have said that blobby blurb better but something like that… the problems come and compound exponentially when you refuse to acknowledge misconceptions, representations and perceptions and false premises upon which false assumptions are compiled and soon you’re conclusions are not based in reality. Which becomes less reachable or fathomable with every step. But you become so far away from truth and reason you must deny your misconceptions for fear your whole world view and reasoning and justification for ill cons

  • Pass Drug Tests

    December 17th, 2015 at 6:25 PM

    Excellent information when compared to some of the similar posts I’ve discovered. Carry on the good work.

  • Keith M.

    December 25th, 2015 at 12:13 AM

    We do all make distortions. Hopefully for most of us, these deceptively convoluted, interconnected pervasive and well rooted into all manner of subversively generationally ingrained patterns of cyclically distortive I’ll considered as benign behavior patterns effortlessly contributing to, in some ways creating and even enticing often deeply ingrained distortions of; and eventual near complete breaks with reality, reason, critical thinking, deductive reasoning, rational thought, truth, and understanding.

    However with a little honesty. An earnest effort to shed the easy comfort of willfull ignorance for the occasionally inconvenient but usually passively awkward discomfort of truth–awareness, acceptance, consideration, contemplation, and eventual understanding we should all–in time with vibrant subconscious’ and occasional reiteration and mindful reevaluation and rerouting overcome these obstacles to honest perception, interpretation, conception, representation, expression, awareness and understanding of reality!

  • Chitra

    December 13th, 2016 at 3:18 AM

    I have been using an app on my mobile called Thought Challenger that is helping me identify and turn around cognitive distortions the moment I catch them. Worth downloading…

  • matt

    April 25th, 2017 at 10:33 AM

    I stopped reading after #10. i have all of them. some less than others, but I would say higher than the average.

  • Chrissy D.

    April 25th, 2017 at 3:21 PM

    Nazli…boom! Without your help I’d be a hot mess!!!

  • saliha

    April 28th, 2017 at 4:16 AM

    I just want to know whether all these distortions are given by Aaron beck?

  • Donald

    May 7th, 2017 at 2:50 PM

    Great article and awareness for all to read.
    Every one has at least a 1/2 dozen of these cognitive disorders and no one can be perfect. The idea is to pause, get control of your emotions, and think about the positive and negative end results before you act. Sometimes you can’t win for losing no matter how hard you try to come up with the right solution.

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