What are cognitive distortions?
Cognitive distortions are also known as thinking errors, thinking distortions, irrational thoughts, distorted thoughts, and negative automatic thoughts.
Cognitive distortions are ways that you twist up your thinking to see yourself, your situation, and other people in a negative light. They’re basically your mind playing tricks on you; convincing you that you’re not as good as everyone else, people don’t like you, you’re at fault, things are hopeless, or other negative beliefs. The problem is that these cognitive distortions are very convincing.
Cognitive distortions are:
- automatic and happen without you realizing it
- not accurate reflections of reality
- something everyone does, but are much more prevalent in people suffering from anxiety, depression, and other mental health problems
- all serve to validate your pessimistic outlook (things are hopeless, you’re worthless or less than)
Below is a list of different types of cognitive distortions. You can find many similar lists, based on the work of Aaron Beck, M.D., Albert Ellis, Ph.D., and David Burns, M.D. You’ll notice a fair amount of overlap in the descriptions of the types of distortions. Categorizing them as different types of distortions only serves to help you identify a cognitive distortion more easily. So, don’t get hung up on figuring out which type of distortion it is; it’s only important that you recognize it is a thinking error.
Types of cognitive distortions or thinking distortions:
- Overgeneralizing – You see a constant, negative pattern based on one event. “I messed up on the job interview; I’ll never get a job.”
- Blaming/Denying – You blame others for your problems or mistakes OR you blame yourself when it wasn’t entirely your fault. “I drink because of my ex-husband.”
- Shoulds – You have a rigid code of conduct dictating how you and others should behave. You criticize yourself harshly when you fail to follow these rules. “I never should have dated him.”
- All or nothing thinking – You see things as absolutes, no grey areas. “I’m always late.”
- Negativity bias – You notice all of the negatives, but fail to notice the positives. “Everything in my life sucks. I’m out of work. My car payment’s late. My pants are too tight. My cat peed on the carpet.”
- Catastrophizing – You expect the worst. “I was late on the rent. I’m going to be evicted.”
- Labeling – You label yourself negatively. “I made a mistake, therefore, I’m a failure.”
- Magical thinking – You think everything will be better when ____ (you’re thinner, smarter, richer, get a new job, etc). “I’ll meet a new guy as soon as I lose 20 lbs.”
- Over-personalizing – You make things personal when they aren’t. You believe other people’s opinions are facts. You think what other people do/say is in reaction to you. “My wife complains about the high car payment. I take this as a criticism that I paid too much.”
- Mind reading – You make assumptions about what others are thinking. “I didn’t get the job because I’m too old.”
- Double standard – You hold yourself to a higher standard than everyone else. “I’m happy when my boyfriend gets a B, but I expect myself to get straight A’s.”
- Fallacy of fairness – You think things should work out according to what you think is fair. “If my boss valued me, he’d give me a raise.”
- Emotional reasoning – You think your feelings are reality. “I feel guilty for saying “no”, so I must have been wrong to set that boundary.”
As you read through the list you probably noticed that you frequently have some or all of these cognitive distortions. Awareness is the first step in change. I recommend keeping a log, in a notebook or on your phone (anything that’s convenient and always with you), of your cognitive distortions. This can be a lot of work, to begin with, but it does get easier as you become more aware and you won’t need to log them forever. Tracking your thoughts increases awareness of these automatic thoughts and will also be very helpful in the next stage of this Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) approach.