A cognitive distortion can be defined as faulty or inaccurate thinking, perception, or belief. Negativity is often the defining characteristic. For some of us, distorted thinking is a momentary blip. We get upset when we fail a test. We briefly reason that we’re bad at whatever the test was on instead of realizing we need to study more. But we typically move on and try again. For others, cognitive distortions are a pattern of thinking that interferes with their lives and relationships. In these cases, distorted thinking can lead to chronic depression, anxiety and behavioral problems such as substance abuse.
Here are 10 examples of cognitive distortions. You might see your own patterns of thinking reflected here or they may describe someone you know.
- Catastrophic thinking: You dread or assume the worst when faced with the unknown. Ordinary worries can quickly escalate.
- Example: An expected check doesn’t arrive in the mail. A person who catastrophizes may begin to fear it will never arrive, and that as a consequence it won’t be possible to pay rent and the whole family will be evicted.
- Polarized thinking: Also called “all-or-nothing” or “black and white thinking,” this happens when people habitually think in extremes. This type of distortion is often unrealistic and unhelpful because most of the time reality exists somewhere between two extremes.
- Example: You’re convinced that you’re either destined for the success of doomed to failure, that people in your life are either angelic or evil.
- Overgeneralization: You reach a conclusion with about one event and then incorrectly apply that conclusion across the board. This distortion has been associated with post-traumatic stress disorder and other anxiety disorders.
- Example: You have a negative experience in one relationship and develop a belief that you just aren’t good at relationships at all.
- Personalization: You take things personally when they’re not connected to or caused by you at all. You blame yourself for circumstances that aren’t your fault or are beyond your control.
- Example: Your friend is talking about their personal beliefs regarding parenting, and you take their words as an attack against your parenting style.
- Mental filtering: The tendency to ignore positives and focus exclusively on negatives. Interpreting circumstances using a negative mental filter is not only inaccurate, but it can also worsen anxiety and depression symptoms.
- Example: It’s performance review time at your company and your manager compliments your hard work several times. In the end, they make one improvement suggestion. You leave the meeting feeling miserable and dwell on that one suggestion all day long.
- Discounting the positive: This is like mental filtering. The main difference is that you dismiss it as something of no value when you do think of positive aspects.
- Example: If someone compliments the way you look forward, you think they’re just being nice. If your boss tells you how comprehensive your report was, you discount it as something anyone else could do. If you do well in that job interview, you think it’s because they didn’t realize you’re not that good.
- “Should” statements: It’s rarely helpful to chastise yourself with what you “should” be able to do in a given situation. “Should” and “ought” statements are often used by the thinker to take on a negative view of their life. Such thoughts can diminish your self-esteem and raise anxiety levels.
- Example: You think people should always be on time, or that someone independent should never ask for help. When it comes to yourself, you might believe you should always make your bed, or you should always make people laugh.
- Emotional reasoning: The belief that your emotions are the truth—that the way you feel about a situation is a reliable indicator of reality. While it’s important to listen to, validate and express emotion, it’s equally important to judge reality based on rational evidence.
- Example: Feeling inadequate in a situation turns into, “I don’t belong anywhere.” Or, you may firmly believe something bad will happen today because you woke up feeling anxious.
- Labeling/ mislabeling: You often define yourself and others with negative labels. In assigning labels, you focus on one past behavior or event.
- Example: Your co-worker is “lazy” because they came to work late. You’re “stupid” because you failed the math test.
- Jumping to conclusions: You base your decisions not on what someone says or does, but on what you believe they’re thinking. You believe you can read minds or anticipate reactions. You don’t ask what the other person thinks or feels.
- Example: Fortune-telling is a form of cognitive distortion related to jumping to conclusions. You insist you can predict the future, regardless of what you do. You’ll be famous without putting in the hard work. You’ll always be a failure, so hard work is a waste of time.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is widely used to help break the cycle of distorted thinking. A trained mental health professional can work with you to retrain your brain to identify and challenge cognitive distortions using thought records, cognitive restructuring exercises and behavioral exercises.
About Grace Kim:
Grace Kim is a Resident in Counseling providing services at the Woodbridge location. She is a Qualified Mental Health Professional for Children (QMHP-C) and a National Certified Counselor (NCC). Grace has extensive experience in providing outpatient counseling services to children, adolescents, and young adults. She also has sufficient experience working with adult clients with longstanding substance abuse issues. She is an individual who has had her own share of mental health challenges and, with the help of those around her, has been able to overcome obstacles and barriers in her life. To learn more about Grace, visit HERE.