Cognitive distortions are exaggerated and negatively biased patterns of thinking that distort reality. They lead us to perceive or evaluate situations and experiences inaccurately. A lot of our automatic negative thoughts are also cognitive distortions.
The video below explains the following cognitive distortions, along with suggestions for how to break each pattern: All or Nothing Thinking, Overgeneralization, Mental Filter, Discounting the Positive, Jumping to Conclusions (Mind Reading and Fortune Telling), Magnification and Minimization, Catastrophizing, Emotional Reasoning, “Should” Statements, Labeling, and Personalization and Blame.
Cognitive Distortions in CBT
This transcription was auto-generated by YouTube. I’ve only added minimal editing, so I apologize for any errors, run-on sentences, etc.
Cognitive distortions are exaggerated and negatively biased thought patterns that lead us to perceive reality inaccurately. They’re a way our minds have of convincing ourselves to believe things that aren’t really true. They show up all the time in our automatic negative thoughts, and they’re significant because our thoughts have such a big influence over how we feel and how we act. And when we treat these cognitive distortions as if they were facts, we end up feeling and acting based on faulty assumptions, usually in ways that contribute to things like depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, anger, and countless other issues.
As we learn to identify cognitive disorders in our thought patterns, we become better at recognizing when and how our minds are leading us astray, which helps us see the ways in which our thoughts aren’t accurate; and makes it easier to reframe our thoughts and think about things in ways that are less likely to have a negative impact on our mood or mental health, and can help us start feeling better. So now let’s look at some of the most common types of cognitive distortions.
When we engage in all or nothing thinking we see things as black or white with no shades of gray in between. Something or someone is either all good or all bad. If we don’t do everything right we’re a complete failure. One bad thing happens and our whole day is ruined. Someone makes a mistake or disappoints us and they’re irredeemable.
All or nothing thinking is a hallmark of perfectionism. It leads to unrealistic standards for ourselves and others, which can negatively affect our motivation and set ourselves up for failure and disappointment. If you find yourself engaging in all or nothing thinking, try to start recognizing and acknowledging to yourself that things are rarely simply black or white, and start looking for the shades of grey in between.
Overgeneralization is when we see a single negative event as a never-ending pattern of failure or defeat. You’re making dinner and you burn something and you think, i always ruin everything, i never do anything right. You’re in a rush to get somewhere and hit a red light and think, nothing ever goes my way.
Overgeneralizations are often stated in terms of always, never or nothing. If you find yourself overgeneralizing, look for exceptions, and try replacing words like always never or nothing with words like sometimes or some things. And this can help you see that one negative event doesn’t define everything, and helps make your thinking less negatively biased and more accurately reflect reality.
Mental filter refers to filtering out positives and dwelling on negatives. A mental filter is like one drop of ink that discolors a whole glass of clear water: that single drop of something negative colors everything. We pick one negative detail and dwell on it exclusively.
You get lots of positive feedback from your boss with one suggestion about how you could improve, and your takeaway is that you’re no good at your job, and you dwell on that one comment all day. You make a YouTube video that gets twenty positive comments and one person says how much they hate it, and you’re so discouraged you never want to make another video again. If you find yourself operating with a mental filter, learn to start asking yourself if there are any positives or even neutral things about the situation you’re overlooking, and then adjust your filter to let those aspects through as well.
Discounting the positive is similar to a mental filter, but instead of filtering out anything positive, we dismiss it and tell ourselves it doesn’t really count. We get a compliment or some praise and tell ourselves, well that doesn’t really count they’re just trying to be nice to me. Or we succeed at something, but it doesn’t really count because we tell ourselves anyone could do that, i just got lucky.
If you find yourself discounting the positive, take a moment to ask yourself, why doesn’t that count, what reasons do i have to just dismiss that? And most of the time we won’t be able to come up with a good answer. Which makes it harder to discount everything positive. And we can start giving ourselves at least a little credit when things go well. And there’s an exercise called three good things that i talk about in my video on depression that can help you stop discounting the positive, and you’ll find a time stamp link to that exercise in the description and pinned comment.
Jumping to conclusions involves interpreting things negatively without any facts to support our conclusions. When we mind read we make assumptions about what someone’s thinking based on their behavior without confirming with them what they’re actually thinking. If our partner is being quieter than usual we assume it’s because they’re upset with us. If we text a friend and they don’t reply fast enough we assume it’s because we’re not important to them or they don’t like us anymore.
We make these assumptions about what’s going through other people’s minds based on no conclusive evidence, it’s just our interpretation of their behavior, usually mixed in with projecting our own emotions into the situation. We’re feeling insecure about a relationship or friendship, and so we assume that their behavior confirms what we’re feeling and that they’re upset with us.
With fortune telling we predict the future, and that things are going to go badly, without any real evidence to back up the prediction. Again these predictions say more about how we’re feeling ourselves than they do about the actual reality of the situation. Fortune telling is a hallmark of the worrying that comes with anxiety or the hopelessness of depression.
If we find ourselves jumping to conclusions the best thing we can do is to simply ask ourselves, what are the facts of this situation what actual evidence do we have to support this conclusion? Is there any way to interpret the evidence to support alternate conclusions? Or is there any evidence we’re overlooking that suggests a different conclusion? And the goal isn’t to try to predict the right conclusion, but to recognize that there are lots of possible outcomes and we just don’t have enough information yet to know which one is going to come true. And so any conclusion we draw is going to involve jumping to conclusions.
With magnification and minimization we give greater weight to our perceived weaknesses and failures and to the strengths and success of others; and we give less weight to our own perceived strengths and success. It’s like looking through binoculars from each end. We look at our weaknesses and failures through the magnifying side of the binoculars, making them seem bigger and more significant than they actually are.
And then we reverse the binoculars when looking at our own positive attributes and successes, making them seem smaller and less significant than they actually are. And if you find yourself engaging in magnification or minimization, try imagining a friend or loved one in your shoes and see how you’d regard their qualities or results, and then see if you can’t be as generous to yourself in your assessment as you would be to someone else that you care about.
Catastrophizing is related to jumping to conclusions and magnification, and it’s typically what we do when we worry. We’re predicting the future and jumping to the worst possible conclusion no matter how unlikely it is. And we’re magnifying the consequences of this outcome and imagining it’ll be unbearable.
Catastrophizing often unfolds as a series of what-ifs: what if i made a mistake what if my boss finds out? What if i get fired what if i can’t find another job? What if i can’t pay my rent? And if you find yourself catastrophizing try asking yourself the following questions: you’ve already been asking yourself what’s the worst case scenario. So make sure to also ask yourself what’s the best case scenario? And then what’s the most likely scenario? And this helps you get a more balanced perspective and can help prevent you from automatically jumping to the worst possible conclusion.
And then ask yourself, if the worst case scenario did happen, how would i be able to cope with it? How have i coped with similar situations in the past? And this can help limit magnification of the consequences that so often goes along with catastrophization.
When we use emotional reasoning, we think the way we feel reflects reality. So we view ourselves and our situations based on how we feel, rather than on any external evidence. I feel this way therefore it must be true.
If we feel like an idiot that means we are idiots. If we feel anxious we know something bad is about to happen. If we feel depressed and hopeless we convince ourselves this means there is no hope. Or we feel angry so that means we must be being treated unfairly.
But the world doesn’t revolve around how we feel, and if we find ourselves engaging in emotional reasoning, we need to remind ourselves that just because we feel a certain way about something, doesn’t make it true and not to confuse feelings with facts.
The type of should statements we’re referring to here are the arbitrary rules we set for ourselves and others when we tell ourselves that things should be a certain way. I should make everyone happy. I shouldn’t make any mistakes. People should always be on time. When we use should statements we create unrealistic expectations for ourselves and others. When the should statements are directed towards ourselves we set ourselves up for guilt disappointment and frustration, and when we apply should statements to others we can feel let down disappointed or angry.
Often we try using should statements for motivation: i should go to the gym more often; i should stop eating junk food. But presenting these as shoulds can drain our motivation when we fail at something we think we should do, because we feel so bad about it. And should statements can make us rebel, because nobody likes to be told what they should and shouldn’t do, even if we’re the ones telling ourselves what we should do.
If you find yourself engaging in should statements, try rephrasing them with less judgmental terms like I’d like to, or I’ll do my best, or it would be nice if. That way we’re still acknowledging to ourselves what we’d like to do, or how we’d like other people to act, but we don’t have to feel guilty if we don’t, or as angry when people don’t behave the way we think they should.
Labeling is a form of all or nothing thinking and overgeneralization where we judge and label ourselves or someone else, usually in a very negative way, based on a single event or behavior, or attribute that doesn’t really define who we or they are. We knock our coffee off the table and it spills and we label ourselves an idiot. We try to make plans with friends and no one’s available and we label ourselves a loser. When someone has to reschedule a meeting and we label them a selfish jerk. Or they make a mistake at work and we label them useless.
When we use labels we don’t take context into account we don’t consider anything beyond what’s in front of us at this moment. We’re just reflexively assigning a negative label and using it to define the totality of ourselves or someone else. When we apply these labels to ourselves it hurts our confidence and self-esteem and can leave us feeling depressed. And when we apply them to other people it increases hostility and leaves little room for communication. The antidote to labeling is to recognize that one act isn’t defining: just because i made a mistake doesn’t make me an idiot; if someone disappoints us it doesn’t automatically make them a selfish jerk.
Personalization involves holding ourselves personally responsible for a situation that’s not entirely under our control. We take total responsibility for an external event that occurs and ignore any other important factors. As a consequence we end up completely blaming ourselves when something goes wrong, even when we may be only partially responsible, or not responsible at all for the results. Our kid gets sick and we blame ourselves for letting them sleep over at their friend’s house. We’re late for dinner because our partner isn’t ready on time, and we blame ourselves for not making sure they left work earlier.
Or instead of personalization, we can blame other people for things that aren’t totally their fault while overlooking our own contributions to the situation. If you’d reminded me about dinner tonight i would have been ready on time. If you weren’t always working all the time i never would have cheated on you. If you find yourself engaging in personalization and blame, take a moment to ask yourself if there are any other factors you’re overlooking that contributed to the outcome. And recognize that just because you have some responsibility for how something turned out, you’re almost never going to be in a position where you’re 100 to blame.
And if you have trouble accepting that it’s not entirely your fault, you can try using a responsibility pie, where you write down all of the factors that may have contributed to a situation, and then make a pie chart assigning a share of responsibility to each of these factors to help illustrate how you’re not fully responsible for the way things turned out.
And for some more tips on how to combat cognitive distortions check out my video on cognitive restructuring and reframing your thoughts and please like and subscribe and check out my other videos for more tips on how to manage negative thinking.
Since cognitive distortions are negatively biased, they negatively affect our moods and how we feel. Cognitive distortions are a hallmark of issues such as depression, low self-esteem, anxiety and anger.
Learning to recognize cognitive distortions is important in CBT. Cognitive distortions are inaccurate in well-defined ways. As a result, they don’t take as much effort to modify as some thoughts do. We can treat all thoughts that fall into the same category of cognitive distortion in a similar fashion. And this makes it easier to reframe these thoughts in ways that help us feel better.
If you’d like to explore how you use cognitive distortions in your own thinking, the Centre for Clinical Interventions has a nice PDF worksheet (they refer to cognitive distortions as “Unhelpful Thinking Styles”). If you have any questions or comments, please leave them on the YouTube video page.