15 Common Cognitive Distortions that You Should be Aware of

Cognitive distortions are irrational thinking styles where individuals perceive reality negatively. Thoughts can be distorted in a way where it is exaggerated, unreasonable, and unconventional. Individual often interpret an event in a negative way and convinced themselves to be true when actually they are not. These negative thought patterns caused negative emotion that may contribute depression and anxiety.

In 1960 renowned American psychiatrist Aaron T. Beck developed cognitive therapy and introduced the idea of cognitive distortion. Later his student David D. Burns continued his work and popularized cognitive therapy. Dr. Burn proposed that, identifying and eliminating some common cognitive distortion would contribute to improve a person’s mood and life as well.

Our life, the environment where we grow up, shapes our thinking and what we think affects how we feel. While we grow up, we often subconsciously develop some habit of negative thinking. Habitual negative thinking cause negative emotional state. These negative thoughts activate automatically whenever an individual face a certain adverse situation.

Cognitive distortions cause low self-esteem, helplessness, anxiety, depression. Individual suffer from cognitive distortions show one or more of the following common thought patterns. Identifying the distortion helps us to eliminate these irrational automatic thoughts which can be replaced with more positive rational thoughts.

List of Cognitive Distortions

  1. All-or-Nothing Thinking (or “Black and White” Thinking)
  2. Overgeneralization
  3. Filtering
  4. Disqualifying the positive
  5. Jumping to conclusions
    (a) Mind reading
    (b) Fortune telling
  6. Magnification and minimization
  7. Catastrophizing
  8. Emotional reasoning
  9. Should statement
  10. Labeling and mislabeling
  11. Personalization
  12. Blaming
  13. Fallacy of change
  14. Fallacy of reward
  15. Fallacy of being right

1. All-or-Nothing Thinking (or “Black and White” Thinking)

“All or nothing” thinking often referred to as “black and white” thinking, is when we see things either as black or as white with no shades of gray. In this type of thinking, events are only good or only bad, there is nothing in between. Anything less than perfect is a total failure. Situations are either wonderful or terrible. We are either smart or stupid, beautiful or ugly, absolutely perfect or worthless.

For example:
(a) I didn’t qualify for the job. I’m always a hopeless failure.
(b) My project is not appreciated by all. It’s a total waste of time.

2. Overgeneralization

Overgeneralization is a cognitive distortion, when we draw general conclusion without sufficient evidence or experience. Often people make a very broad conclusion based on a single incident or a single piece of evidence. If something bad happens only once, it is expected to happen over and over again. As if the things will always go wrong because it once did. Like once a failure will always be a failure.

For example:
(a) Alex once asked Sarah for a date but turned down by her. Following that event he says to himself “I am not going to ask a girl for a date – no one will ever find me attractive.”
(b) Jim says “I should never try for this type of job – I once applied for, but they didn’t even call for an interview.”

3. Filtering

In this type of cognitive distortion, we focus entirely on negative elements of a situation, and exclude all positive elements. This is because our brain has a tendency to filter out information which does not conform to already held beliefs. We take the most negative and upsetting features of a situation and magnify them while filtering out all positive aspects of it.

For example:
John invited some friend for a dinner and cooked everything by himself. Everyone praise his cooking except that one of them thinks that the roast is little overcooked. John now thinks that he is not good at cooking.

4. Disqualifying the positive

In this type of cognitive distortion we discount positive events as if they are unimportant. Insisting they don’t count, we reject positive experience, ignore good comments.

For example:
Kevin plays guitar. Once he played guitar in a party and everyone said he was great. But Kevin thought they were just trying to be nice with him.

5. Jumping to conclusions

Jumping to conclusions is a form of cognitive distortion that involves making decisions without having enough information. People often reach conclusions from little or no evidence. The conclusions are usually negative interpretation or prediction that arrive from fictitious (a) Mind reading or (b) Fortune-telling.

(a) Mind reading

We feel as though we know what other people are thinking (usually negative) from their behavior. We often think that others surely have a negative feeling about us or our work, without sufficient evidence and never even bother to ask them. This imaginary mind reading could be our own opinion, far from the reality.

For example:
Jimmy is often late from his office as he joined in a new section where workload is higher some days. His wife thinks that he does not love her anymore, not bother to be late at home.

(b) Fortune-telling

We often predict negative outcomes of future events unrealistically. We anticipate that things will certainly go wrong although the chances are minimal.

For example:
Jenifer studied hard for her examination but thinks she is definitely going to fail.

6. Magnification and minimization

In this type of cognitive distortion we give greater weight to a perceived failure, weakness or threat, and lesser weight to a perceived success, strength or opportunity. By magnification people inflate negative aspects to make them more significant and powerful. While by minimization people downplay positive aspects to make them less significant and weak. But in case of other people we often exaggerate positive characteristics and understate negative characteristics.

For example:
(a) Laura now in 8th grade always thinks that her sister Nicki is way smarter than her. When her parents encourage her to have good grades on her subjects like her sister, she says “She is so talented. I'll never match up with her."
(b) Ivan is sincere in his work and occasionally gets high remarks from his manager. But he thinks – “I will never get promoted, I am not smart enough to handle more responsibility.”

7. Catastrophizing

Catastrophizing is an extreme form of magnification when we give greater weight to the worst possible outcome though it may highly unlikely. People often fear a catastrophe from a small negative event unreasonably.

For example:
(a) “If I ask my boss for a rise he will be mad at me. He will certainly fire me. I will never find a job again. I will certainly die from starvation.”
(b) “I have small pain in my left knee. I won’t be able to walk anymore within five years, as it will grow.”

8. Emotional reasoning

In this type of cognitive distortion, we assume that our negative emotions necessarily reflect the fact, regardless of the evidence. We believe that what we feel must be true. Emotional reasoning solely based on our emotion or feeling and often far from logical reasoning.

For example:
“I must be a stupid, I can feel it”

9. Should statement

Psychotherapist Michael C. Graham describes this cognitive distortion as "expecting the world to be different than it is". Sometime we impose strict rules for us and expect ourselves to follow them every time, irrespective of the situation - just because they seem morally correct for us. We also imply that other should do certain things in certain way (based on our moral standard) but fail to consider the situation. By this, when we break the rules, we feel guilty and when others violate the rules, we get mad. People often feel that they are motivating themselves by should and shouldn’t, but actually it will bring unnecessary guilt, anger or frustration. Because the world is not always fair and just.

For example:
(a) John after a tiring day at office forgot to bring a toy on his way home for his child that he promised yesterday. He says to himself “I shouldn’t break my child’s heart. I am a bad father.”
(b) Linda is waiting for her date in a coffee shop for ten minutes. She says to herself “People are careless these days; don’t bother to keep other’s waiting.”

10. Labeling and mislabeling

Labeling is an extreme form “overgeneralization”. Sometime we attach a negative label to ourselves or to other for accidental or extrinsic error. Instead of describing the event people often generalize it as a whole - attributing an event to a person’s character.

For example:
George often says “I am such a loser” or “I am so stupid” whenever he fails a specific task. Once her wife lost her car keys and he says “You are so pathetic”.

Mislabeling involves describing an event with language that has a strong connotation of a person's evaluation of the event.

For example:
A woman who highly values the bond between mother and child describe a day care center as "a place where irresponsible parents abandoning children to complete strangers".

11. Personalization

Personalization is a cognitive distortion where a person feels responsible for events over which he or she has little or no control. We often feel responsibility or blame resulting from other’s activity. Sometime we think that, what others say or do are in reaction of our own activity. We think this cognitive distortion make us more responsible but it unnecessarily brings painful feelings of guilt, shame and inadequacy.

For example:
(a) Susan is a mother whose child is struggling in school blames herself entirely for being a bad mother, because she believes that her deficient parenting is responsible. In fact, the real cause may be something else entirely.
(b) Joana’s husband injured in a car crash. Joana blames herself for the accident because she asked him to buy some grocery instead of going herself.
(c) Sarah invited two of her friend for dinner. They both showed up but one of them had to go to meet some emergency. Sarah thought that her cooking is horrible so her friend didn’t stay for dinner.

12. Blaming

Blaming is just the opposite of personalization. We often blame others for negative events but do not consider our own part, or the situation. As if others are causing the problem intentionally or those are caused due to their negligence or incompetence and we do not have anything to do about it.

For example:
Spouses often blame their partner entirely for marital problems, instead of looking at his/her own part in the problem.

13. Fallacy of change

In this type of cognitive distortion, we believe that other people will change to suit us if we put enough pressure on them. We believe that we need to change others to meet our expectation because we are heavily dependent on them. People often rely too much for cooperative actions from another person – as if their hopes and happiness totally dependent on them.

For example:
John thinks that if his wife is smarter; he could happily live with her. He always tries to correct her whenever something is not up to his liking.

14. Fallacy of reward

In this type of cognitive distortion we expect that all our good deeds, sacrifice or self-denial will be paid off. We expect that other people will notice, appreciate us or at least god will reward us for all our good work. But when we do not have that reward we feel frustrated or angry, failing to realize that not every good work is rewarded.

For example:
(a) Chelsea spent six hours to cook a new recipe for her family. But at dinner table no one even talked about that. Chelsea thought at least she deserve some comments about her new recipe.
(b) Harry was on his way home after donating some money to a charity, he lost his footing and tumbled down, also broke his phone. He screamed “Oh God, is this the reward for my good work.”

15. Fallacy of being right

In this type of cognitive distortion we try to prove that our actions or opinions are correct without caring about others feeling. We do not accept that others may have a point or we may be wrong too.

For example:
(a) David and his three co-workers are working on a project. David tries to do it in his own way and argue other to follow his instruction even though he is not an expert.
(b) Parents sometime argue with their children comparing them with their own childhood, failing to realize that time is not the same.

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