Cognitive Distortions

Cognitive distortions are exaggerated and irrational thoughts–faulty patterns of immature thinking. Cognitive distortions result in drawing incorrect and limited conclusions, thus restricting the capacity to ‘see’ reality. Committing cognitive distortion can lead to unnecessary fear, anxiety, hostility and depression.

Children engage in all of the cognitive distortions; this is ‘normal’ for their age. Thinking matures by degrees. In adulthood some of us have gained the capacity for abstract thought; however, few of us reach adulthood with mature patterns of thinking. Just as we become emotionally fixated at various developmental stages, we also get fixated with certain ‘childish’ patterns of thinking.

The concept of cognitive distortion comes from the cognitive therapy literature of Albert Ellis, David Burns and Aaron Beck. This is not an original theory of mind but an extrapolation of several deeper and more complex theories of mind and therapy. Sometimes simple theories and simple techniques can work for simple problems. Essentially the theory states that we are what we think; that what we think affects our mood; and if we just change our thinking, then everything will be fine.


I disagree with this position as I see mood AND thinking affected by what goes on at the subconscious level. Depression and other affective problems are far more complicated and complex than the cognitive behaviorists appreciate or understand. Yes, what we think will affect our mood, just as our mood can affect what we think. Cognitive behavior therapy fails to recognize and incorporate the subconscious into theory, and thus ends up with a premise and a therapeutic approach that are both superficial and mechanistic.

Nonetheless, this list of cognitive distortions is an excellent self-monitoring tool to learn and incorporate into your life. I suggest that you carefully study them so when you begin to commit one of the distortions (and you will, because we all do) you will be able to identify and label your distorted thinking. Once identified and labeled, you should be able to restate your thinking without the distortion.

I hand a list of the cognitive distortions to each and every person I work with, giving them this message: Read them! Learn them! Monitor them! Manage your distortions!

There are numerous cognitive distortion lists online, so these are not original:

All-or-Nothing Thinking: Thinking in absolute terms, “always”, “never”, “every”. Seeing things in black and white categories, either/or terms, also called polarized thinking. Rather than either/or, move to both/and, which appreciates the grayness, the complexity of life.

Mental Filtering: An inability to hear the ambivalence in all things–that if we hear both positive and negative feedback, we tend to disregard the positive and focus on the negative.

Magnification and Minimization: A distortion that involves seeing as smaller the positive results of our efforts and seeing as larger the negative results. This is a common distortion with perfectionistic people. “Making a mountain out of a mole hill” is an example.

Disqualifying the Positive: This is an extreme form of all-or-nothing thinking in which we filter out ALL the positive evidence about our performance and focus totally on the negative aspects of our performance.

Jumping to Conclusion: This distortion involves going beyond the actual evidence we have and coming to a conclusion that is worse than if based on just the evidence itself.

Labeling: A kind of ‘jumping to conclusion’ and applying an over-generalized negative term. Labeling is an extreme form of all-or-nothing thinking. The most damaging form is self-labeling. Some labels are benign such as “I’m a carpenter” or “I’m a secretary”, even though such a label leaves out all the rest that you are. But negative self-labels are toxic and potentially damaging. “I’m a LOUSY carpenter” or I’m a HORRIBLE secretary” can diminish our self-confidence and self-respect.

Mind Reading: A belief that we know what another person is thinking and feeling to the point of telling them they are wrong if they state otherwise. We ‘know’ what other people are thinking about us. We usually attribute negative thoughts to others, and seldom do we think others are thinking positively. Mind reading is very similar to projection and can be a major contributor to conflicts in relationships.

Future Thinking: A form of jumping to conclusion about the future. We assume we KNOW the outcome of some future event, with our prediction having a negative outcome.

Catastrophizing: This pattern anticipates the very worst consequences of any event, “going to have an accident”, “the plane is going to crash”, “for sure I’ll get the swine flu and die”. The worriers in life primarily think catastrophically.

Personalization and Blame: Personalization occurs when we hold ourselves responsible for events that are out of our control. Personalization leads a person to feel the senses of guilt and shame and inadequacy. Blame is quite the opposite. Blamers hold others responsible when sometimes they are the contributing person. Blamers cannot tolerate the idea that circumstances can create events; they try to find a person to hold responsible.

Should Haves: We are convinced that things should turn out the way we hope or expect or would have, if only we had followed our ‘should haves’. A form of after-the-fact criticism. Uttering ‘must, ‘ought’ and ‘have to’ is similar. These types of statements directed against the self lead to guilt and frustration. Dr. Albert Ellis called this “musterbation”.

Emotional Reasoning: Because we ‘feel’ it, we are therefore sure it is real or will become real. We are sure our negative feelings reflect what is reality. We can feel and think all kinds of things that have nothing to do with reality, but we believe and live and defend them as though they are real.

The cognitive distortions listed above wreak havoc with thinking, understanding and particularly with relationships. But you can gain mastery over them. First, learn to identify them. Study the list and observe your thinking with the list in mind. This will require effort and consciousness and patience, but the clarity and sanity that your efforts will bring are certainly worth your best effort.

So, like I always say…“Read them! Learn them! Monitor them! Manage your distortions!”