Cognitive Distortions: How To Recognize and Refute Them
Has something like this ever happened to you?
You’ve spent all day preparing a huge meal for a family gathering. Your guests start to arrive and you sit down to eat. Across the table you hear muffled praises and approvals.
“Mmmm, this chicken is tender! What did you put in this salad? It’s incredible.”
But then somebody starts to cough and reaches hastily for a glass of water.
“Whew! There’s a lot of pepper in the dressing.”
Your brain latches on to the pepper comment and all you can think about is how you ruined your dinner by over-peppering the dressing.
Nevermind the many compliments you received prior to the dressing issue. In your mind, you’ve failed and it sours your mood.
This is a classic cognitive disortion at play. We’ll discuss why we fall into these traps and how to get out of them.
- What are cognitive distortions?
- What causes cognitive distortions?
- Types of Cognitive Distortions
What are cognitive distortions?
A cognitive distortion is a pattern of thinking that views reality and events through a distorted or biased lens. Anyone can be guilty of them, but they are especially common among people who struggle with mental health conditions like anxiety, depression, PTSD, and Borderline Personality Disorder.
John Grohol, in an article in Psych Central, has a really good definition. He writes:
Cognitive distortions are simply ways that our mind convinces us of something that isn’t really true. These inaccurate thoughts are usually used to reinforce negative thinking or emotions — telling ourselves things that sound rational and accurate, but really only serve to keep us feeling bad about ourselves.
There are different types of cognitive distortions, and they plague people’s lives to varying degrees. For our purposes, we want to understand where they come from, the different types, and strategies for dealing with them.
What causes cognitive distortions?
Cognitive distortions do not have a single root cause. When we talk about the root causes of cognitive distortions, we’re usually referring to the underlying causes of mental health conditions like anxiety and depression.
It’s a little chicken and egg.
Which came first? The cognitive distortion or the depression?
So in that sense, there are several potential causes of cognitive distortions:
- Negative life experiences: People who experience trauma, abuse, neglect, or loss are at risk for developing cognitive distortions.
- Low self-esteem and low self-worth: People who struggle with self-esteem issues are more susceptible to interpreting information and events through a negative lens.
- Genetics: There is some evidence of a genetic component to depression, which can make someone susceptible to cognitive distortions.
- Mental health conditions: People who suffer from common mental health conditions like anxiety and depression are at risk of adopting cognitive distortions.
This is not to say that if you can tick “yes” for any of these descriptors that you automatically employ cognitive distortions in your life.
The opposite is also true. You can avoid all of these things and still struggle with negative thought patterns.
So the best way to ascertain if you struggle with cognitive distortions is to learn what they are and evaluate if you recognize your own thought patterns in any of them.
Types of Cognitive Distortions
Now let’s explore ten common cognitive distortions, what they’re called, and how they manifest in everyday life. Then we’ll discuss ways you can overcome them utilizing common CBT strategies.
1. Mental Filtering (The Debbie Downer)
Mental filtering is when you hone in on the negative aspects of a situation and dwell on it to the point where you now have a dark, distorted version of reality.
You literally filter out the positive and focus exclusively on the negative.
Here’s a common example:
Your boss sits you down for an annual review. She gives you five minutes of praise for the good work you did on a recent project and then offers up a critical piece of feedback about time management for you to work on moving forward.
Mental filtering means you zero in on the critical feedback and walk away with the idea that your boss thinks you’re a terrible employee. Even though you JUST received mostly positive comments, the slightly critical one is all you can think about.
I did this a lot in my previous work life, which made me completely incapable of handling critical feedback without having a strong internal reaction.
Here’s a clip that might help you understand it better.
How to address mental filtering:
The first step is to acknowledge that you’re doing it.
You can say, “Okay, I’m filtering again. My boss didn’t just focus on time management. Actually, most of the meeting was about how happy she was with the project. All bosses are going to find growth areas to point out. It’s fine. It doesn’t mean my job is at risk.”
Another way to address mental filtering is by forcing yourself to also acknowledge the positive or neutral aspects of a situation – to stop yourself when you’re dwelling on the negative and say, “Wait, that’s not the whole picture.”
Hey Chicken Little! Are you guilty of blowing things out of proportion? You may be employing the cognitive distortion known as catastrophizing. This is when you imagine the worst possible outcome of any situation. It’s a major contributor to anxiety, stress, fear, and hopelessness.
This type of thinking lends itself to a lot of unnecessary stress. It can happen in a couple of different ways.
- Taking a current problem and making it way bigger than it is.
- Projecting a catastrophe onto the future with big, scary “what-ifs.”
For example, you accidentally send an e-mail to a potential employer before you were finished writing it. Now your brain is going into panic mode. You’ve just destroyed any chance of getting a job now. You’ll be unemployed forever.
My fellow anxiety sufferers probably know this one all too well.
How to address catastrophizing:
The best way to address catastrophizing is by challenging these thought patterns. Is the fear you have right now rooted in evidence, reality, or statistical probability? If a friend was faced with this circumstance and reacting the same way, how would you advise them?
Sometimes just recognizing that you’re engaging in catastrophic thinking is enough to deflate the thoughts.
The key to defusing catastrophizing is putting your experience into perspective. Unpleasant experiences are an unavoidable fact of life, but it doesn’t have to swallow you up. You’ve experienced difficulties in the past and overcame them. You can do it again.
This cognitive distortion is when you find a way to take everything personally. And I mean everything. Other people’s actions and behavior are somehow a judgment on you. You blame yourself for everything, including things that could not possibly be within your control.
Oh, my best friend didn’t return my text today. I must’ve done something wrong. She’s probably mad at me.
This cognitive distortion is an excellent way to be constantly mad at and/or feeling sorry for yourself which is an exhausting way to live.
How to address personalization:
Once you recognize that you personalize situations, the next step is to challenge that thinking. Ask yourself, “Is this really about me, or could other factors be at play?” What evidence do you have that this is actually about you?
Challenge whatever reactive personalization thought you have by pushing yourself to think about the situation more objectively. This will help reduce feelings of guilt and self-doubt, plus improve your interpersonal relationships.
Most cognitive distortions occur because our brain is wired to look for short cuts – ways to simplify an otherwise complex world. Overgeneralizing is a prime example of that.
It’s when you take one or two events and make broad generalizations from them that aren’t rooted in reality. You begin using words like always and never. This is a problem because both are emotionally charged and pack a mean punch.
Let’s say you try to plan a get together and it falls through. If your reaction is, “This always happens to me! My friends will never come through for me when I plan something,” you are overgeneralizing.
Even seemingly mild examples of this like saying, “I’m never going to be able to get in shape,” after you miss a week of classes is very unhelpful for your life. Words like always and never prevent you from seeing situations clearly. And, honestly, it sucks to sit with thoughts like “People are always so mean to me at work.”
That kind of negativity can do big damage on your stress levels and self-worth.
How to address overgeneralizing:
Challenge your overgeneralizations with more realstic, balanced interpretations of what’s going on. (You’ve probably noticed a pattern in how we should deal with cognitive distortions.)
If you catch yourself making these big, emotional “always” and “never” statements, take a step back and ask yourself, “Is that really true?”
Do you friends really flake on you every time? If so, why are they still your friends? Maybe the true picture is that it’s happened once or twice.
Are people truly mean to you at work every second of every day? What evidence do you have of this? Is there a more objective viewpoint you can take?
5. Discounting the Positive
If you are constantly brushing off good things that happen to you because you don’t believe they count, you might be guilty of this one. We all do this to some degree. Someone pays us a compliment and we downplay it. Oh, it was nothing. I didn’t do anything special.
But in a more extreme form, this type of distorted thinking can have us viewing the world through an extremely negative lens. If you have a small success, it’s not good enough because it could’ve been better.
You don’t want to celebrate going a week without drinking because other people have gone a month and you never have so you’re really just a loser. (That kind of thing.)
When you allow your brain to go wild with this type of thinking, it’s hard to ever be happy.
You’re constantly second-guessing yourself and convinced that you’re not good enough. It doesn’t count when someone compliments your dress because the shoes are all wrong and you’re not as fit or thin as the other attendees.
Honestly, it’s easy to see how this kind of thinking run amuck would lead a person to imbibe too much.
How to address discounting the positive:
One of the best antidotes to discounting the positive is to force yourself to take a step back and acknowledge the positives.
Rather than downplaying, or outright denying, the positive aspects of a situation or something you’ve done, lean into it.
Accept the compliment and say, “thank you.” Celebrate your small wins. Even if there’s something you wish you had done differently, you can still embrace the positive and use it to motivate you for future endeavours.
6. Jumping to Conclusions
We all do this, but some of us more than others, which causes a lot of problems in our inner world. There are two kinds:
- Mind Reading – when you conclude that somebody is reacting negatively to you without actually checking with them
- Fortune Telling – when you make predictions about how badly something will turn out before you even do anything
It’s similar to personalizing and catastrophizing.
Your spouse was a bit huffy this morning so you immediately go into “he must be mad at me, what did I do?” mode. You’re constantly assuming that someone is mad at you, doesn’t like you, or isn’t interested in you.
Or you assume the worst is going to happen.
You’re not going to get the job. You’ll probably screw up that date you have later. There’s no way you’ll ever quit drinking. Other people can, but not you.
It’s a great way to beat yourself up.
How to address jumping to conclusions:
Like other cognitive distortions on this list, one of the best ways to counter when you’re jumping to conclusions is to ask yourself, “What evidence do I have for this?”
Nine times out of ten you won’t have any and that can help you step back from the negative thought pattern and into a more realstic interpretation of the situation.
7. Should & Must
Use these words at your own risk. Want to rack up a pile of guilt inside your brain? Let all your should’s and must’s go wild.
When you say you should do something or things should be done this way or that, you’re placing rules on yourself and others. And that really narrows your worldview.
It’s also the way we internalize failures and punish ourselves. I should’ve taken a different job. I shouldn’t eat this. He should be better at communicating. I must control my drinking.
These words lead to anger, resentment, and frustration.
We say these things thinking they’ll encourage us in some way, but they rarely do. We end up disappointing ourselves, breaking our own rules, and feeling like the worst people in the world because of it.
In many ways, our “shoulds” are a feeble attempt at controlling things through will alone. It doesn’t work.
How to address “shoulding/musting”:
First, acknowledge that should and must often represent impossible standards that we place on ourselves and others. Learn how to exist and accept the in-between.
You can reframe this type of thinking by saying, “I’m not happy about eating that cheeseburger, but it’s not the end of the world. I can make a better choice tomorrow.”
Or, “It would be great if I could drink a glass of wine and then stop, but that’s not been my experience. A lot of people can’t moderate either, and it’s okay. This is the situation I have to deal with.”
And on that note, I think you’ve got a good idea about how to refute a negative thought pattern, so I’ll let you take it from here.
Of course, if you’re still having a hard time with it, consider getting counseling and working with a trained therapist who can work with you directly on your cognitive distortions.
We’re all guilty of it. And again, this is another shortcut our brain uses to quickly assess circumstances, people, and places. We pile them into buckets.
This is good or this is bad. People who suffer from BPD really struggle with this one.
The problem with labeling is that it’s irrational. We don’t label based on facts or evidence. Mostly, we label based on our past experiences and personal beliefs or opinions.
Labeling is problematic, whether we’re doing it to ourselves or others. Usually, it’s both. If you struggle with labeling, you might be guilty of things like labeling yourself a moron when you make a mistake.
Think about the impact that has on your self-image.
Let’s say you have an argument with a friend. You immediately decide that he’s an asshole. Once you impose labels like this onto others or yourself, it’s really hard to undo.
Is your friend really an asshole? Surely not. People are complex. They have layers and nuance. Are you really a moron? Of course not.
Instead of dealing with the more complicated task of understanding behavior, actions, or conditions of a situation, labeling gives us an easy out. It’s much easier to call someone an asshole and be done with them than it is to understand where the breakdown happened in a conversation.
And when you inflict this wound on yourself, it’s hard to maintain any feelings of self-worth. That produces a lot of pain we end up desperately trying to numb away.
9. Emotional Reasoning.
Maybe you’ve heard this before: feelings are not facts. This one used to really annoy me. What do you mean feelings aren’t facts? I feel terrible right now. Are you saying I don’t?
At the root of this statement is that we shouldn’t allow how we feel about something to completely shape our reality. Here’s a really straightforward explanation of this cognitive distortion from Iqdoodle:
Emotional Reasoning is a cognitive distortion where we tend to interpret our experience of reality based upon how we are feeling in the moment. Therefore how we feel about something effectively shapes how we perceive and interpret the situation we find yourself in. This is of course unhelpful because it means that our mood always influences how we experience the world around us. Our emotions therefore effectively become a barometer for how we view our life and circumstances. In order to successfully work through this cognitive distortion, question whether your emotional state-of-mind is preventing you from seeing things clearly.
If you find yourself living too much inside your head, this one is probably a huge hurdle for you. I know it has been for me in the past.
I feel like nobody wants to be around me and I’m lonely all the time, so it must be true. The world doesn’t want me.
Here’s a great video that explains this distortion further:
10. Black and White Thinking
I’ve covered this previously, but for a brief recap, black-and-white thinking is a kind of all-or-nothing distortion where things are categorized into their extremes.
There’s no gray area.
And of course, life isn’t like this. There is a ton of gray area.
People who fall victim to this distortion (myself included) tend to see things in terms of total wins or total failures. If you can’t eliminate all terrible food from your diet at once, you’re a failure and must go binge a pizza now.
Oh, you messed up and had a drink after a month of sobriety? You’re a drunk loser who will never get it together.
And to insert a little humor into the mix, here’s a good example of black and white thinking from the masterful Ricky Bobby.
Understanding the various cognitive distortions is a useful way to start doing some of that internal work. This list is by no means exhaustive. There are other kinds of distortions and a whole host of resources and strategies to reprogram your way of thinking to overcome them.
But it’s nice to take a birds-eye view of your internal world. To say, “oh, I do that sometimes! I didn’t realize this is what it’s called.”
If you know that you’re engaging in emotional reasoning, it helps you step back and challenge it. You’re not so defined by distorted ways of thinking because you can see the thoughts for what they are.
A word of caution.
Understanding your thoughts is not enough to change them (wish that it were!). You have to actively work on reframing the way you process things and see the world, and that process is slow and often tedious. It’s also worth noting that you won’t get it right every single time.
But it’s worth exploring in order to improve your quality of life.
Books About Cognitive Distortions:
I’m a firm believer that the more you know, the better you can do. Luckily for us, a lot of smart people have written some incredible books on cognitive distortions and how to overcome them.
Here are a few you should check out:
- “Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy” by David Burns
- “Mind Over Mood: Change How You Feel By Changing The Way You Think” by Dennis Greenberger and Christine A. Padesky
- “The Anxiety and Worry Workbook: The Cognitive Behavioral Solution” by David A. Clarke and Aaron T. Beck (the founder of CBT).
- “Change Your Thinking: Overcome Stress, Anxiety, and Depression, and Improve Your Life with CBT” by Sarah Edelman.
- “The CBT Workbook for Perfectionism” by Sharon Martin
Any of these books will give you and advanced look into the world of cognitive distortions and overcoming them.