Cognitive distortions are thoughts that aren’t actually true but feel true. Is there anything you can do about these thoughts? Cognitive Behavioral Therapy can help you change how you feel by changing how you think. The first step is to learn what cognitive distortions are and notice when you’re using them.
“It is in the darkness of their own eyes that men get lost”– Black Elk
You know what’s funny about our mind? It lies to us all the time. Our mind loves to convince us that circumstances are the cause of our emotions.
For example, you might think “I’m sad because I didn’t get the job.” But here’s the thing: it’s not the outside circumstances that make us sad or anxious, it’s how we interpret them, how we think about them.
If I don’t get the job, I might actually be feeling sad because I’m thinking “I’m such a failure” instead of “I didn’t have all the qualifications.” Or I might be thinking “This career will never work out” instead of “I need to change my approach in the next interview.” Maybe I’m thinking “‘Nothing good ever happens to me” instead of “I’ll try again soon.”
When we get stuck in thought patterns that are distorted, untrue, or unhelpful, this can contribute to depression, anxiety, or other mental illness. And distorted thinking makes us less successful in both our professional and personal lives.
In this two-part skill, first you’re going to learn about 10 common cognitive distortions — ways that you think that make you feel anxious or depressed. Then in part two you’re going to learn what you can do about these cognitive distortions by changing how you think so you can change how you feel.
Cognitive Distortions Defined
Cognitive distortions are ways that our mind convinces us of something that isn’t actually true but feels true. Your thoughts twist reality, and you start to feel like you’re bad, broken, or deficient. Or you begin to see the world as dangerous, threatening, or cruel.
But here’s the thing with cognitive distortions: you don’t realize you’re doing it. You think the way you see things is reality. It feels true.
When you think or talk through the lens of a cognitive distortion, you sound rational and accurate to yourself. And it’s habitual. You’ve been thinking this way for so long that it just feels normal and natural to think this way. So Is there anything you can do about this?
You can change how you feel by changing how you think.
The first step is to learn what cognitive distortions are and notice when you’re using them.
When you can identify CD’s, you can also gain power over them.
Understanding cognitive distortions is the foundation of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, one of the most common and very effective treatments for depression, anxiety, and other mental illnesses.
The 10 Cognitive Distortions
During this post I’m going to use the fictional character of James to explain how cognitive distortion’s work. James is based on a couple of real clients all mishmashed together.
James is a manager at a restaurant, but he would really rather be a pilot. He’s in his early 20’s, single, wishes he was married, grew up in an abusive home, his father and stepfather are in prison, and now he’s on his own and trying to figure out how to live a good life.
So here are the 10 cognitive distortions.
1. All-or-Nothing Thinking
All-or-nothing thinking is when you think “If I can’t do it perfectly or if I can’t fix it all at once, I might as well not even bother. You think you’re either perfect or you’re a failure. Especially with performance.
You may say “I’m failing math” when you’re getting a C. You think that if you can’t do it perfectly, then why try? It looks like “If I ate one cookie, I’ve already failed, so I might as well eat the entire box.”
So with James, he knows he should save money, but he’s in so much debt that it seems pointless to try to get out. “I’m in too deep,” he says, “so I might as well buy this fancy watch or the next big video game.”
Thinking this way usually makes you feel hopeless, depressed, or justified in giving up.
If you are the type of person who overgeneralizes, you take one bad thing and assume that everything will be awful after that. For example:
“I’m never going to get a good job.”
“People will always take advantage of me.”
“I’m going to mess up every relationship.”
“I have the worst luck in the entire world.”
James got rejected by a girl he went out with once and said “Why does this always happen to me? There aren’t any girls who could love me. I’m always going to be alone.”
Overgeneralizing uses words like always and never, and it exaggerates one bad situation and makes it feel worse.
3. Black-and-White Thinking
Are you thinking in extremes? Do you only see the negative in a situation or in yourself? You may say “I’m a complete failure” or “My parents are such idiots” or “You never listen to me” or “I’m the only one around here who ever gets things done.”
You can catch yourself doing this. When you use extreme wording like always, never, completely, and terrible, you are speaking in black and white.
James works at a fast food restaurant. James thinks “My boss is the biggest jerk ever. She is so mean to me. She doesn’t even know how to make the food. I hate her and I hate my job. It’s the worst job ever in the whole country!” This makes him feel angry, mistreated, discouraged, and victimized.
4. Mind Reading
Mind reading is assuming that people don’t like you or assuming that you know how they feel about you. “Nobody likes me.” “Everyone is judging me.” “My boss must think I’m incompetent.”
James would sometimes say this to me: “You must think I’m a terrible person.”
Mind reading makes you feel insecure, anxious, fearful, and sometimes angry, vindictive, or upset, but without reason.
Catastrophizing is about assuming that your fears and worries must be true. You believe the worst-case scenario in your head is the most likely outcome. It’s thinking “What if” and imagining catastrophes.
It sounds like:
“This is never going to work.”
“I’m going to fail and make a complete fool of myself.”
“She’s late. It’s raining. She has hydroplaned and her car is upside down in a ditch.”
You assume that your prediction is fact.
James would say: “I’m never going to be successful. I’m going to be stuck working fast food for the rest of my life.” These are his words, not mine. There is nothing wrong with honest labor.
Also, remember, he was in his early 20’s. In the matter of a couple of years he could get new job training, a new career, and change his entire future, but catastrophizing made him feel like everything was hopeless.
Catastrophizing makes you feel fearful, anxious, and hopeless and prevents real helpful action.
6. Emotional Reasoning
Emotional reasoning is thinking that your feelings accurately reflect reality. For example, if you’re feeling stressed about school, you may think “The teacher must be giving us too much homework.”
You feel hurt: “The other person must be a jerk!”
When you’re on your period: “I feel terrible, so I must be a terrible person.”
You feel anxious in social situations: “I must be an awkward person.”
“I feel stupid so I must be stupid.”
James felt discouraged and worried about his future ability to succeed. He felt hopeless, so he decided to believe that it was hopeless, that he would never be able to do much.
Emotional reasoning takes any emotion and makes it bigger.
Labeling is taking a behavior and turning it into an identity. It’s putting a name to something. Instead of thinking “He made a mistake,” you might label your neighbor as “a complete idiot.”
You might think that because you’ve made mistakes, “I’m a loser. I’m broken. I’m a failure.”
Or you label others:
“He’s a complete jerk. She’s a monster,” etc.
If a child makes a bad choice, they’re a “bad kid,” etc.
When James wasn’t able to find a new job right away he started to say “I’m such a loser; I’ll never be successful.” Remember he was 23, he had his entire life to learn the skills he needed to be successful, but he already labeled himself as broken, as a failure.
Labeling is all about creating hopelessness. If it’s our identity, there’s nothing we can do about it. We’re stuck. But the truth is, we aren’t what we feel or do. We all have immense capability to learn, grow, change, and improve.
This is why cognitive distortions are so harmful. They create a reality where change isn’t possible. They make you feel trapped and hopeless, when the reality is that with the right help, skills, support, or effort, you can change your life.
8. Mental Filtering
Mental filtering is only seeing one side of a situation, usually the negative. You tend to filter out the positive. For example, you ignore the good things your boss does and feel constantly annoyed at him. Or you minimize all the good things that you do and only dwell on your mistakes.
You see this a lot with how women take a compliment. Often they immediately downplay it by saying “Oh you’re so kind.” But if someone gives them criticism they take it to heart, dwell on it, and worry about it for days.
James often would dwell on his failures, especially with women. He would remember his mistakes over and over, especially with one girl whom he really liked. He would just keep thinking about what he did wrong.
This led to him feeling like he was a bad person, when in reality he was actually kind and he tried hard to make people around him happy. It was just that one relationship didn’t work out.
Mental filtering can make you feel like a bad person and can make you more depressed or see the world more negatively. On the other hand, with some people mental filtering leads to defensiveness, highlighting their own virtues, and putting other people down. Either way, mental filtering distorts reality and harms us.
Personalization is thinking that everything others do is about you. You think if anything bad ever happens, it is your fault. You blame yourself for circumstances that are beyond your control. It’s taking things personally.
You incorrectly assume that you’ve been intentionally excluded or targeted. For example: “If my son misbehaves, it must be because I’m a bad mother.”
When you take things personally, you think “If my boss yells at me, it must be because I’m messing up” or “If the cashier is rude to me, they must not be respecting me,” when in reality, your boss might be yelling because they have poor management skills, or maybe the cashier’s dog died that day.
We don’t really know why people are acting the way they do, but it’s false to assume that everything they do is about us.
This is a true story about one of my clients: when he worked at the register taking orders, when people came in and said “I need three cheeseburgers, three fries, etc.,” any time they started off with “I need” he felt like they were being rude. He thought in his head “You don’t need cheeseburgers; you want cheeseburgers.” And this made him mad every time they did it.
Or if a customer came in and treated him badly, he would take it personally. “What did I ever do to you,” he thought. Sometimes it made him mad, sometimes discouraged, but he had a hard time seeing that customers usually are just dealing with their own stuff, their own stress, and it wasn’t about him.
Taking things personally makes you feel guilty, overwhelmed, out of control, burdened, and helpless and can lead to depression and anxiety.
10. Unreal Ideal
This is the plague of social media. We look at others and compare ourselves unfairly. Comparisons to others will always let us down. The unreal ideal sounds like “Susan seems to handle this job just fine. How come I’m struggling?” or “Bob seems to have it all together — perfect job, perfect wife. I’m such a loser.”
James compared himself to all his old high school friends, especially the ones that he saw on social media. They all were married, he told me, they all had graduated college, served missions for their church, and had great jobs. In his distorted thinking, their lives were perfect. His life was the only mess.
Comparing ourselves to others usually leaves us feeling like we’re never good enough, like we’re an imposter. We may feel ashamed, discouraged, broken, or like we have to constantly compete to be good enough.
Cognitive Distortions Summary
There you go, those are 10 common cognitive distortions. Did you recognize any of them in your own life?
In the next section we’re going to discuss how to stop “stinking thinking,” but the first step is learning to notice when you do it. When you learn to notice how you think, then you can change it.
It can be really hard to notice your own cognitive distortions, so I encourage you to get another’s perspective. Ask a close friend, family member, or therapist to tell you which of these cognitive distortions you commonly use.
When you feel really upset, check yourself for distortions. Catch yourself when you say words like always or never or when you’re making assumptions. Identify it and say to yourself “That’s black-and-white thinking” or “That’s mind reading.”
In the next post we’re going to work on the next steps: explore, challenge the thought, and choose.
When it comes to challenging distorted thinking, basically it comes down to this: don’t believe everything you think. Challenge your thoughts. Look for exceptions or evidence to the contrary. This is going to require you to be a little vulnerable, but it will also open you up to joy.
When you learn to change the way you think, you can change how you feel, fight depression and anxiety, and live a happier life.