Is your mind playing tricks on you? Cognitive distortions are a set of automatic thought patterns that are inaccurate and reinforce our emotions. These automatic negative thoughts “distort” our thinking by leading us to believe something that is both unhelpful, untrue, and unreal. Everyone displays some form of cognitive distortion at some point in their life. Take a look at the twelve cognitive distortions listed below and see if you can recognize any of them in yourself.
All or Nothing Thinking
This is the belief that your issues are black and white and only two explanations for something exist. For example, this can look like this:
“My alarm didn’t go off, I will cancel the meeting.”
“Everything is terrible; nothing good ever happens.”
“You never ask how I’m feeling.”
You can learn to manage all-or-nothing thinking patterns by intentionally noticing automatic patterns of thought. It starts with an awareness of your internal dialogue, storytelling, and thinking. Try to look for thoughts containing extreme words (i.e., “always,” “never”) and thinking patterns painted with a pessimistic outlook.
An individual gives responsibility for their problems or mistakes to other people or external circumstances, rather than taking responsibility for themselves. For example, this can look like:
“My boss is always criticizing me and making me feel bad about myself. It's not my fault that I can't do my job well.”
“My partner is always starting fights with me and making me angry. It's not my fault that our relationship is falling apart.”
My friends never invite me to do things with them. It's not my fault that I’m always alone”.
You can learn to manage blaming others by owning your emotions. We often blame others for how they “make us feel”. However, by understanding that no one can make us feel anything – we make ourselves feel things – you can begin to break the blaming cycle
This involves exaggerating the importance or consequences of a negative event or situation. It involves thinking about the worst possible outcome in a given situation and treating it as if it were certain to happen. For example, this can look like:
“If I don't get this job, I will never be able to find a job and I will be stuck in this dead-end town forever”.
“If I don't get an A on this test, I will never get into a good college and my whole future will be ruined”.
“If I don't lose weight, I’ll be alone and unloveable for the rest of my life”.
You can learn to manage catastrophizing by challenging your thoughts and asking yourself if the worst-case scenario is really likely to happen or if there are other more likely outcomes.
This involves an individual who believes that they can predict the future and knows how things will turn out. For example, this can look like:
“I just know that something bad is going to happen”.
“I can tell that this relationship isn't going to work out”.
“I can tell that I'm not going to get the promotion I want”.
You can learn to manage fortune-telling by asking yourself if you can really know how things will turn out, or if the future is uncertain.
This involves an individual assigning a negative label to themselves or others based on their thoughts, feelings, or behavior. For example, this can look like:
“I’m a failure because I didn’t get the job I wanted”.
“My partner is lazy because they didn’t clean up the kitchen as I asked them to”.
“My coworker is a jerk because they didn't help me with the project”.
You can learn to manage labeling by challenging your thoughts by asking yourself if the label is accurate and fair, or if it is distorted and unfair.
Magnifying the Negative
This involves an individual focusing on the negative aspects of a situation and exaggerating their importance. For example, this can look like:
“I made one mistake on the project and now it's ruined and everyone is going to think I’m incompetent”.
“I had one argument with my partner and now our relationship is over and we will never be happy again”.
“ I had one bad day at work and now I’m going to get fired and I’ll never be able to find another job”.
You can learn to manage magnifying the negative by asking yourself if the negative situation is really as bad as you are making it out to be or if there are other ways of looking at it. Ask yourself if there are any positive aspects.
Minimizing the Positive
This involves an individual downplaying the importance of their achievements or positive events in their life. For example, this can look like:
“I got an A on the test, but it was an easy class and anyone could have done it”.
“I got the promotion, but it was just a lucky break and I don’t deserve it”.
“I had a great date, but they probably just felt sorry for me”.
You can learn to manage to minimize the positive by asking yourself if the positive event or achievement is really as insignificant as you are making it out to be, or if it is worth celebrating and recognizing.
This involves an individual believing that they know what someone else is thinking without having evidence to support their beliefs. For example, this can look like:
“I know my boss thinks I’m incompetent because they gave me critical feedback on the project”.
“I know that my partner is cheating on me because they were acting distant and secretive”.
“I know that my friend is mad at me because they didn't return my text message”.
You can learn to manage mind reading by asking yourself if you really know what the other person is thinking or if there are any other explanations for their behavior or words.
This involves an individual making sweeping generalizations based on a single negative event or experience. For example, this can look like:
“I failed the test, so I’m never going to be good at math”.
“I got rejected from the job, so I’m never going to find a job that I like”.
“I didn't get invited to the party, so no one likes me and I’m always going to be alone”.
You can learn to manage overgeneralization by asking yourself if the negative event or experience is really representative of your entire life, or if it is just one isolated event.
This involves an individual blaming themselves for things that are not entirely their fault. For example, this can look like:
“I got fired from my job, so it must be because I’m not good enough”
“My partner cheated on me, so it must be because I’m not attractive or interesting enough”
“I didn't get the promotion, so it must be because I’m not smart or hardworking enough”.
You can learn to manage self-blaming by asking yourself if you are really to blame for the situation, or if there are other factors or people involved.
This involves an individual having rigid and inflexible rules about how they and others should behave. For example, this can look like:
“I should have gotten an A on the test, anything less is a failure”
“My partner should always listen to me and do what I want, otherwise they don’t care about me”.
“I should always be happy and positive, anything else is a weakness”.
You can learn to manage “should” statements by asking yourself if the rules are realistic and fair, or if they are inflexible and unreasonable.
This involves your emotions and feelings about a situation becoming your actual view of the situation, regardless of any information to the contrary. For example, this can look like:
I’m a whale, even if you are losing weight
I’m an awful student, even if you are getting some good grades
My partner is cheating on me, even if there is no evidence of this
You can learn to manage emotional reasoning by asking yourself if the thoughts are based on facts or evidence, or if they are distorted or irrational.
Cognitive distortions are common cognitive patterns of thinking that can negatively impact our mental health and well-being. They are often automatic and unconscious, which can make them difficult to recognize and overcome. However, by becoming more aware of our thought patterns and learning to identify cognitive distortions, we can begin to challenge and reframe our thoughts in a more positive and realistic way.