Tag: <span>Cognitive Distortions</span>

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Cognitive Distortion Series – General Negativity

The next group of cognitive distortions we’ll review are the faulty thoughts that have a negative foundation. Similar to my last post, we’ll list the distortion, then identify a few ways on how to attack those negative thoughts.


Labeling is simply the act of describing ourself or someone else negatively. For example, we might label someone as “stupid,” “disrespectful,” “horrible,” etc. Although someone’s behavior may be classified as one of these adjectives, that does not mean that person is “horrible” to the core. Here, we are not seeing the person as separate from his/her behavior. Imagine if everyone assigned us a negative label every time we didn’t act our best. There would be no room for error or mistakes to be made.

This cognitive distortion makes it difficult to move past these poor behaviors. It also skews our view of ourself or the other person. With this in mind, it’s not hard to see how this could negative impact our relationship with ourself and/or others.

When we describe ourself or others negatively, we often seek out incidents that support that negative bias. Cutting through this distortion and using these descriptions for behaviors has benefits. It allows us the opportunity to have just as many positives and seek out information that supports those positive labels as well.

The best way to cue yourself into this cognitive distortion is when you use a negative adjective to describe someone. This is used in place of describing that person’s actual behavior. For example, “I’m so stupid.” This is very different than “That was not a great decision.” In the first, we are identifying as all negative. However, in the second, we are simply using that as a description for a behavior, not as a whole.

The next time you do something you consider negative, try describing only your behavior and not yourself as a person. If you try and occasionally become successful with this, it can help improve your self-esteem and decrease depressive symptoms. The same goes for others; you’ll likely notice less resentment and frustration with others if you are able to separate them from their behaviors.

Discounting the Positives

Discounting the positives is another cognitive distortion that is negative at its core. Here, we essentially note the positive, but then dismiss it for any number of reasons. For example, “I got the job, but the company is so desperate, they’d hire anyone right now.” This statement does acknowledge the positive (getting the job), but then immediately disregards it as unimportant.

I like to refer to this distortion as the “yeah, but” distortion. When we have a conversation with someone and they give a complement and then say “but,” it feels like they’ve just taken away that complement. The “but” makes it sound like anything they said before that doesn’t matter. For example, even something as small as “I like those pants, but they are too short” doesn’t feel very positive. Instead, it ends with the negative statement. Wouldn’t it be nice to hear, “I like those pants” and that’s it. The same goes for my first example of the job. Instead of “I got the job, but…” simply stating “I got the job” is all that’s necessary.

What can clue you in to this cognitive distortion is definitely the word “but.” Once you hear that, pay attention to see what you said before that. Then, as yourself if that “but” was actually necessary.

After reading this, I’d like to challenge you to be on the lookout for this distortion and try to hold back the “but” and anything you’d say after that. See how it feels to just acknowledge the positives without regularly dismissing them with something negative. I think both you and any others in the conversation will notice that it’s a much more pleasant interaction.

Negative Filter

There is a key difference between this cognitive distortion and discounting the positives. The negative filter distortion does not recognize any positives at all. For example, “The company is so desperate, they’ll hire anyone.” Here, we didn’t even acknowledged the job offer.

Overall, this distortion is when you look at most things while wearing a negative pair of glasses. There’s no positive spin. Often, it’s difficult to identify positives, even when asked to look for them. However, we can find positives in almost any situation.

Even though we can usually find positives, challenging this distortion does not involve sugar-coating anything. Rather, it simply means identifying the facts and evidence on both sides, not just the negative. For example, when someone passes away, it’s often difficult and very sad, but a positive might be that they are no longer suffering. Getting fired from a job may be positive in any of the following ways:

  • We were unhappy anyway
  • Now we get to spend more time with our family
  • We get to take the break we very much needed
  • It’s an opportunity to try something new

None of these sugar-coat the situation. Instead they look at the opportunities the job loss presents.


When we overgeneralize, we distort a single incident into a pattern of behaviors. Most often, this is going to have a negative foundation and bring about unpleasant emotions or reactions. For example, when getting rejected from a job interview, we might think “This is usually the outcome,” or “I get rejected from a lot of things.”

We can easily see how this would lead to negative emotions by not seeing the reality of the situation. Perhaps this is only my first or second rejection. The goal here is to scale back how much we are taking that single incident (rejection) and viewing it as our usual outcome. We challenge this by looking at the evidence and the data. How many times has it happened compared to how many times we had a different outcome. For example, I’ve gotten rejected twice, but I’ve been offered many more jobs than that. The idea is that we want to break apart the pattern that this is “common” for us and see that it is, in fact, infrequent. We need to use the facts to identify the pattern and not just our thoughts.

All-or-Nothing Thinking

This cognitive distortion has many different names. All-or-nothing thinking, dichotomous thinking, black-and-white thinking, etc. However, they all indicate the same thing. We see things in terms of extremes. The core of this distortion is struggling to see the gray area on the continuum that is where a majority of life exists. Key words to identify this distortion include:

  • Always
  • Never
  • Everyone
  • No one

These words cue us in to the idea that we are on one end of the continuum or the other. This distortion can be found in thoughts that don’t include these words also, such as “It was a waste of my time.” This indicates that the entire event was wasteful and not one single moment was fun or beneficial. Again, this type of thinking often leaves us in a negative emotional state.

Once we’ve identified it, we want to look at how our language may be a bit extreme and things are not quite as black-and-white as we are indicating. For example, if I have an interview and don’t get the job. I may think “that was a waste of my time.” However, even thought I didn’t get the job, was the entire experience a waste? Likely not. I obtained more interview practice, maybe experienced a new type of interview question, or got some valuable feedback.

This distortion is a bit more extreme than overgeneralizing and can often have a bit of a negative filter feel as well.

Challenging Cognitive Distortions

As mentioned in my previous blogs about cognitive distortions, these thoughts can be challenged. However, we must first identify them as faulty thoughts. Therefore, once you’ve done the work of picking them out, you can use the type of distortion to figure out how to challenge them. I’ve briefly mentioned in the above sections how to do this. You may also need to use more than one challenge strategy, because many distorted thoughts can fall into more than one of the distortion categories. This actually provides an opportunity to challenge them from different angles. However, if you continue to notice your faulty thinking and struggle to move past it, seek out professional help. Someone who specializes in cognitive-behavioral therapy, or cognitive therapy, will likely be able to provide more in-depth training on the skills necessary to challenge these thoughts and reduce the negative emotions.

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Cognitive Distortions Series – Predictions

My last post discussed the overview of this cognitive distortions series. For this group of distortions, we focus on faulty thoughts that revolve around making predictions or assumptions. First, we’ll review the few distortions and then discuss ways to identify and challenge them at the end.

Mind Reading

The first distortion in this series is mind reading. This is just as it sounds. We assume we know what another person is thinking. Often, these thoughts are negative and impact us in that way. A few examples are:

  • She thinks I’m a bad friend
  • They don’t want me here
  • They’re mad at me
  • He thinks I’m stupid

As you can hear in these thoughts, the individual assumes they know exactly what the other person thinks about them. Another common trend, as mentioned above, is that these thoughts are typically negative in nature. Because of this negativity, we usually don’t walk away from this thought with any positive emotion. Instead, it’s common that we feel bad about ourselves. This may even lead us to avoiding that person/situation, or trying harder to “make them” like us or think we are smart.

Other than the negative association we get from these thoughts, the other problem with this is that we don’t actually know what other people are thinking. The only way we can know this for sure is if they verbalize it to us. For example, a blank stare may not mean they think we’re boring; instead it could be that they didn’t sleep well the night before and are struggling to stay awake. Similarly, even behaviors that seem dismissive (i.e., turning away) might not mean they don’t want to hear what you have to say. They could actually have thought you were done speaking or had their attention caught by something quickly that caused them to look away.

This distortion often leads us to a one-track mind. We assume that these are their thoughts and they couldn’t possibly be thinking anything else. However, as we break this distortion apart, it makes room for other possibilities that have nothing to do with us (i.e., they didn’t sleep well).

Fortune Telling

The second distortion in this series is fortune telling. Again, this is fairly self-explanatory. Here, we simply predict the future. Typically, this is also in a negative light and something “bad” is to come. A few examples of fortune telling are:

  • I’m not going to get that job
  • This date won’t go well
  • I’m going to fail my test
  • I’m going to make things worse

It’s honestly going to be pretty hard for us to focus well on an exam if we’re constantly telling ourselves we’ll fail. Similarly, if we assume a date will go poorly, it’s not very likely that we will be our genuine self on that date. Instead, we’ll be acting in a way that reinforces this thought and associated emotion (i.e., smiling less, talking less, not making eye contact, etc.).

The problem behind this distortion is that we really don’t have any idea what is going to happen. Unfortunately, that date might go poorly, but it will be more likely to be terrible if we’ve already decided that’s the outcome. On the other hand, it may be the best date one has ever had!

Here’s the hard part about this one. We like to assume that history repeats itself…because sometimes it does. However, just because you’ve had 20 terrible dates, doesn’t mean that the 21st will be terrible. The same with a test, or an interview, or anything else where we assume the ending. There are many different factors involved that are not the same as they were during those previous experiences.


The third distortion in this list is catastrophizing, or assuming something that’s already happened, or will happen, will be completely unbearable. A couple examples of this distortion are:

  • I won’t be able to deal with that
  • It will be terrible if I don’t get that job

Again, we see a few different predictions in this distortion. We make the assumption that we know the outcome of something. If the event already happened, we make the prediction that we won’t be able to tolerate it. Honestly, we regularly cope with so many things that we never thought we had the capacity to handle. For example, when we see a friend struggle with the loss of a parent, we often have a catastrophic thought that we won’t be able to handle it when one of our parents passes. However, if and when that time comes, we usually are able to figure out a way through it. This does not mean we will handle everything with ease. Instead, it means that we are typically able to implement some coping skills to manage the very difficult situation.

Identifying Cognitive Distortions

When we are trying to determine if thoughts are falling into one of the above distortions, let’s be on the lookout for some of the following key phrases:

  • He/She/They think…
  • He/She/They want…
  • I can’t…
  • I won’t…

This list is definitely not comprehensive, but it does give a general idea of how these distorted predictive thoughts might begin. The biggest way to figure out if you’ve engaged in these distortions is to ask yourself the facts of the situation. Are your thoughts based in facts or assumptions? Did someone give you a sideways look and you assume they thought your outfit was inappropriate? Or, did they give you a sideways look and tell you your outfit was inappropriate? One is fact and one is speculation.

How do I Challenge Predicting Cognitive Distortions?

When we identify that we’ve predicted something, we want to figure out our emotional reaction. If this prediction is causing us stress and anxiety, we may want to actually do something about it. If it doesn’t draw any negative emotional reaction, it may just need to be acknowledged and not addressed. Let’s focus on the problematic distortions. The ones that cause us anxiety or distress in some way.

Once we’ve determined that our thought is a problematic prediction, we need to get back to the facts. Identify what has actually happened regarding the situation and how your thought has strayed away from that information. Then, the goal is to remind ourselves that we don’t know anything beyond the facts. We have to live in uncertainty until something more comes of the situation, or until the situation ends.

Here’s an example where I’ll incorporate the predicting distortions: I just took a test and assumed I failed (fortune-telling). Because I failed, my mom will be furious with me and not let me hang out with my friends (mind-reading). On top of that, this test was so important, that I won’t get into college and I’ll be mortified (catastrophizing).

First, did I get my grade back yet? No, so I’m not sure if I failed. I know I don’t feel confident that I aced the test, but that doesn’t mean I failed. I won’t know my actual score until it is graded and returned by my teacher. Until then, I have to wait. Assuming I failed is not going to make that waiting time any more pleasant.

Second, did I study? Yes, so even if I did poorly on the test, I know my mom saw me studying and trying to understand the material. She usually says she wants me to try my hardest. I feel like I tried hard, maybe not the hardest, but I did try. If my trying wasn’t reflected well in my grade, I can figure out a new study strategy after that. Until then, I’m not sure if my strategies worked, so I have to wait.

Third, even if she is upset, does she usually keep me from my friends? If not, why am I making this assumption. If she usually does, then, missing a night out with my friends will be a bummer, but not the end of the world. They hang out a lot and I’ll just go the next time.

Last, is one test really what makes or breaks a college acceptance? If that’s the case, will I honestly not be able to get into any college, or just not the one I want? Assuming it’s not the only thing, then why would I place so much importance on it. Usually, they look at grades over a few years, GPA, ACT/SAT scores, essays and many more factors. Why am I assuming this one test will determine my future?

If Cognitive Distortions Continue

Challenging our thoughts can be very difficult and take some time to learn. Often, these thoughts may leave us feeling down, disappointed, hopeless, anxious or stressed. If you feel like you engage in cognitive distortions on a regular basis and you’re experiencing negative emotional states because of it, you may want to seek professional treatment. Look for a therapist who specializes in cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) to help you learn how to identify and challenge your specific distorted thoughts.

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Cognitive Distortions Got You Down?

Cognitive distortions are thoughts that are not factually based. They commonly occur in my daily life. Is this because I’m a psychologist that focuses on cognitions and thought processes? Maybe, but these distortions are also in my own thoughts and the thoughts of people in my personal life. All that to say that cognitive distortions are very common and most people get caught up in these erroneous ways of thinking.

Understanding Cognitive Distortions

Cognitive distortions are simply thoughts we have that are not based in fact. They can be irrational or exaggerated, but they can also be very convincing. These thoughts, in turn, impact how we view ourselves, others and the world around us. Some of the ways these faulty thoughts arise are through:

  • Assumptions
  • Comparisons
  • Regret
  • Viewing things in extremes

When we use these as guides for our thoughts, behaviors, and emotions, we may be setting ourselves up for a negative outcome. These may include:

  • Failure
  • Disappointment
  • Frustration
  • Reduced self-esteem
  • Avoidance of activities we wanted to engage in

Below are a few other common names for cognitive distortions:

  • Thinking traps
  • Thinking errors
  • Distorted thoughts

Most of us don’t want to live in this distorted world. Therefore, it’s important to get a handle on our faulty thought process and figure out how to identify, challenge and change them.

What Causes Cognitive Distortions

Being human is all it takes to experience thinking traps. Automatic thoughts happen, well, automatically and can appear valid. When we mistake these thoughts for truths, we tend to experience unpleasant emotions and possibly engage in unhelpful behaviors. So, in this instance, thoughts lead to negative emotions. However, this process can also go the other direction. If we are in a negative emotional state (i.e., anxiety or depression), we are more likely to experience distorted thoughts. This emotional state also makes it more difficult for us to see the irrationality of the thoughts and challenge them accordingly.

Some people engage in more distorted ways of thinking than others. And some of us are much better than others at identifying these distortions and actively working our way out of them.

Cognitive Distortion Series – What’s to Come?

I want to use this post to kick-off a series on cognitive distortions. There are numerous distortions that deserve to have a bit more attention devoted to them. Therefore, in the coming posts, I’ll define a few distortions, how to identify them and specific ideas on how to best challenge them. The goal being to get unstuck from these negative ways of thinking and get back into a life of progress and growth.

If You’re Looking for Help Now

Focusing on cognitive distortions is at the heart of the very popular cognitive-behavioral therapy approach. If you find that you struggle with cognitive distortions, you’re experiencing anxiety and/or depression, or others are commenting about your negativity, and you’re not sure what to do about it, it may be beneficial to seek out professional help.