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Most people have experienced negative thoughts and upsetting emotional responses to them. For some people, these ideas can turn into problematic thought patterns and trigger severe problems with anxiety and depression. Learning more about when a negative thought becomes a troublesome pattern can help you to challenge and reframe those thoughts.
What Is a Cognitive Distortion?
Cognitive distortions are negatively biased thinking patterns, usually consisting of a skewed version of reality or presenting facts. Cognitive distortions are one way our mind can misinterpret information. They typically are not based on truth and do not represent an accurate understanding of a presenting circumstance, event or triggering situation.
Most people experience these distortions at times, but some people develop a persistent pattern of distorted thinking. In this situation, cognitive distortions often lead to increased anxiety and depression.
Common Types of Distorted Thinking
Some common types of cognitive distortions share similar qualities. People may experience many of these distortions.
With overgeneralization, someone assumes that because one adverse event happened, another will occur. They generalize experiencing other bad things based on one occurrence and draw the inaccurate conclusion that they will “always” or “never” happen.
Example: Someone has experienced a harsh break-up in a relationship. They might overgeneralize and think, “I will never find a partner again!” or that a dating partner will “always dump me.” Another example can occur when someone loses a job and thinks, “I will never be able to hold a job.” or “I will never find a job again!”
All-or-nothing thinking is also referred to as black-and-white thinking or polarized thinking. With this distortion, people do not think in terms of one end of the spectrum. They may have extreme thought patterns and only consider some possibilities.
Example: Someone may have received a lower test score than usual and thinks, “I always get bad grades!” Other all-or-nothing thoughts can be, “I always feel sad. I will never get out of this funk.” or “I can’t believe that I had another fight with my husband. All we ever do is fight.”
In mental filtering, someone filters out the positive information in a situation and focuses on the negative. They make interpretations with a negative filter and do not see things as they are really happening.
Example: A student receives a report card with all A and B grades but one D. The student ignores the As and Bs and thinks, “I am a failure! I can’t even do well in school.” That student ends up feeling upset, worthless and anxious about school.
With magnification, someone magnifies negative situations or parts of a circumstance. They ignore the positive components and exaggerate any impact or consequences of the negative details. They may even focus on negative things that no one else noticed.
Example: Someone gives a presentation at a work meeting. They have computer difficulties during the presentation and must take a few extra minutes to address the technical issues. After they resolve the problem, they give an outstanding presentation and even receive great feedback from their boss and colleague. However, this person can only focus on the technical issue after the presentation and thinks, “I ruined my whole presentation. I am so embarrassed. They will never ask me to lead a project again.”
When someone engages in minimization, they lessen the importance and impact of the good components of a situation that may have occurred. They also tend to pair it with a hyperfocus on the negative.
Example: Someone works very hard planning an event, and it goes great. Guests had a wonderful time. The only glitch was the wrong side dish served with dinner. When people give this person compliments on the event, this person downgrades herself and the hard work she put into planning the event. Instead, she focuses on the fact that she ordered the wrong side dish. She tells herself she is a terrible event planner and needs to pay more attention to detail.
When someone uses emotional reasoning, they develop beliefs based on their emotions rather than the reality or facts of the situation. People believe their feelings about something indicate the truth of the situation.
Example: Someone goes to a social event and feels nervous, alone or scared. They judge the event on these feelings and think, “No one wants me here.”
With personalization, someone believes they caused something negative or bad. Someone blames themself for something they did not cause and was out of their control. They interpret a situation personally.
Example: A student fails a test. The teacher blames himself and thinks, “It’s my fault. I did not do a good enough job explaining the information for the test.” In reality, that student did not study and had a history of doing poorly on work for this class.
Fallacy of Change
With the fallacy of change distortion, a person thinks other people need to change to meet their own needs for happiness. They push others to make changes in their lives and expect it to bring them joy.
Example: A partner does not feel fully satisfied in a relationship. Instead of looking at what might be contributing to this unhappiness, they believe that if only the partner changed one thing, they would feel happier. The unhappy partner puts pressure on their partner to make this change.
Fallacy of Fairness
In the fallacy of fairness, a person views life on a scale of justice. They judge situations based on how fair it seems to them. When they believe a situation is unfair, they tend to feel anxious, angry and upset.
Example: A spouse is going through a challenging divorce situation. They look at the outcomes of decisions, conditions and other events related to their ex-spouse on a fairness scale. They deem much of what happens as unfair. As a result, this spouse feels very anxious and angry regarding the divorce’s outcome and how they feel toward the ex-spouse.
Discounting the Positive
When someone discounts the positive, they recognize positivity in an event or situation but disregard the relevance of the positivity. They might think positive results happened by mistake or are unimportant.
Example: Someone works in a job that involves sales. They have been working hard to bring in new clients. They open their work email and notice a new sale. They recognize they made a sale but think it was just luck, not because of all their hard work.
Jumping to Conclusions (Mind Reading and Fortune Telling)
When someone jumps to a conclusion, they make a negative and false interpretation of a situation based on either “mind reading” or “fortune telling.”
With mind reading, the person interprets a situation based on their belief that they know what someone is thinking and “jump to a conclusion” based on that belief.
Example: A teenager comes home from school and does not engage with the parent. The teenager goes to their bedroom. The parent goes in to say hello and asks the child to come and have dinner. The child says, “I’m not hungry,” and stays in there the rest of the night. The parent concludes, “My child must think I am not a good mom and does not want me to spend time with me.”
When someone jumps to a conclusion by fortune telling, they anticipate something negative will happen without evidence or reasoning to support it.
Example: Someone is planning to go on a vacation. The person predicts fighting with their traveling companion and having a horrible time on the trip, even though they have never traveled with this person and have no evidence to support this conclusion.
With “should” statements, people apply strict expectations and guidelines about what they think needs to happen. They think along the lines of should, must and ought to happen. They can apply these “should” statements to themselves and others. These distortions create high expectations for the self and others, leading to disappointment, upset and hurt when these assumptions are unmet.
Example: A woman thinks people “should” always arrive on time and even a little early to events, meetings, appointments, etc. She feels hurt and disappointed when her date comes five minutes late and thinks, “He must not be interested in me if he arrived late to our date.”
With labeling, someone characterizes themselves or someone else negatively following a situation. The label usually has a negative connotation or judgment and assigns an emotional and even unreasonable value to the person or situation.
Example: Someone is walking down the hallway in the office building. They trip, drop everything and spill their coffee on the boss. The person thinks, “I am a huge idiot and fool! I can’t believe I did that!”
Changing Distorted Thinking Patterns
Cognitive distortions can develop into problematic and maladaptive patterns and lead to significant emotional distress. Once you recognize some of these patterns, you can work on challenging and restructuring them.
Identifying and Reframing Distorted Thinking
To challenge and restructure your thinking patterns, you first must learn to identify them. Steps to help you determine when you engage in these patterns are:
- Review this list of cognitive distortions.
- Highlight the distortions that sound familiar to your thought patterns.
- When you recognize you are engaging in a cognitive distortion, take a moment to pause and identify which one it is.
- Continue to repeat this process, and you should improve and get better at it.
As you learn to identify your patterns, you can reframe them. Reframing your thoughts will help you challenge the negative pattern and restructure thoughts into a more functional and adaptive pattern. After identifying the cognitive distortion, consider writing the original thought and then list several other ways to structure it. Consider:
- Different ways to explain the situation
- Evidence that supports another explanation
- Evidence that conflicts with the distortion
Questions you can ask yourself to arrive at these reframes include:
- What evidence do I have to support my thought?
- What evidence do I have that contradicts my belief?
- What would I say to a friend who has this thought?
- What is an alternative explanation for this situation?
- What could be a more helpful way to look at this situation?
Seeking therapy can help you learn to identify your cognitive distortions, reframe them and change your thinking patterns. Therapeutic approaches such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) can aid you on this journey.
The Nobu app can teach you more about cognitive distortions and how to change them. You can access free mental health support, including articles, learning coping skills, journaling prompts and goal setting. You can also connect to a mental health professional and begin online therapy sessions. The app is available for download on the App Store and the Google Play store.
Take Control Of Your Mental Health
- Ackerman, C. “Cognitive Distortions: 22 Examples and Worksheets.” PositivePsychology.com, September 29, 2017. Accessed November 18, 2022.
- Grinspoon, P. “How to recognize and tame your cognitive distortions.” Harvard Health Publishing, May 4, 2022. Accessed November 17, 2022.
- Rnic K, Dozois DJ, Martin RA. “Cognitive Distortions, Humor Styles, and Depression.” Europe’s Journal of Psychology, Aug 19, 2016. Accessed November 17, 2022.