17 Cognitive Distortions—and 12 Ways to Defeat Them

I felt like a complete and total failure.

During one of my indoor soccer games growing up, I made a last-ditch effort to block a shot from the other team’s striker. But instead of deflecting it, I ended up accidentally scoring a goal on my own team. In the final seconds. Of the championship game.

I couldn’t even look at my teammates on the way out after the match.

“I know you’re down on yourself right now, son.” My dad, who was also the coach of my team, tried to comfort me on the way home. “But several parents came up to me after the game to tell me how impressed they were with how hard you played. You prevented a lot more goals tonight than you allowed. Remember that.”

His kind words fell on deaf ears. Or perhaps a more accurate way of looking at it is that they were cast upon a distorted mind—one that was intent on believing I had messed it all up.

[If you experience anxiety like I do, read 7 Surprising Facts About Anxiety.]

What can I say? I was 15 years old and soccer felt like my entire world. I couldn’t help but feel responsible for letting my team down.

The truth, however, was that a lot of mistakes were made that night. And not just by me. Goals were allowed. Shots were missed. Passes went awry. Players were fouled. My mistake was magnified by the intensity and recency of the moment, but I shared in the culpability of the loss with everyone else on the team.

Have you ever made an error and then ridiculed yourself about it for hours or even days after the fact? Yeah, me too. The voice of doubt in your head is loud—and convincing. The voice gets going when you trip up in a work meeting or stumble over your words while on a date or act like a total goober at an inappropriate time.

And pretty soon, after hearing it enough times, you start to believe that voice. That’s how cognitive distortions are born. According to Wikipedia, cognitive distortions are “thoughts that cause individuals to perceive reality inaccurately.” Pioneered by psychologists Albert Ellis and Aaron T. Beck in the 1950s and 1960s, and one of the essential components of the Cognitive Behavioral Therapy theory of psychology, a cognitive distortion is a way in which your mind bends the facts to keep you locked in a negative state of mind.

Nobody wants to live like that. And, thankfully, you don’t have to. You can reframe your thoughts. You can challenge your false assumptions. You can restructure your mind.

Turns out, you can reduce the negativity in your life just by shifting your perspective. It all starts with knowing the many cognitive distortions. And learning how to challenge them.

Below, I detail 17 cognitive distortions and a dozen tried-and-true techniques for countering them. It’s time to defeat the negativity. It’s time to reclaim your truth. It’s time to hack your setback mentality. For good.

  

17 COGNITIVE DISTORTIONS TO KNOW

1. Magnification/Minimization

What it means: Magnification is the process by which your mind gives more mental real estate and greater emotional weight to mistakes, inconveniences, setbacks or threats than would be expected by an objective observer of the situation. In its most extreme form, magnification becomes catastrophizing, where your mind automatically goes to the worst possible outcome. On the other hand, minimization is the process by which your mind downplays successes, strengths or triumphs to be less significant than would be expected by others.

What it looks like: You’re magnifying if you make a typo in an important presentation at work and think you’ll be fired as a result. You’re minimizing if you set a new personal record at a sporting event and yet still think you’re just an average Joe. Either way, you’re perpetuating a negative mental state.

2. Should/must statements

What it means: This is when your mind expects the situation to be different than it is and makes demands for those expectations to become reality.

What it looks like: If you believe that all taxi or Uber drivers should inherently know where they are going, you might become angry if he or she makes a wrong turn or doesn’t automatically know how to reach your destination. In reality, not all drivers must know where they’re going. It’s impossible to know how to get to every destination.

3. Emotional reasoning

What it means: Instead of following logic, your mind assumes that the emotions you’re feeling should be accepted as fact. In other words, just because you feel something, you assume it’s true.

What it looks like: You feel lonely and assume that because you feel that way you must be lonely. A feeling in and of itself is not a fact; it is likely just a fleeting feeling. 

4. Overgeneralizing

What it means: Ever draw a broad conclusion based on a single experience? Yup, that’s overgeneralizing. Essentially, your mind tries to create a pattern from an extremely limited pool of data.

What it looks like: If you go on one bad date and assume that you should no longer date because all dates are bad, you’re overgeneralizing.

5. Labeling/mislabeling

What it means: Both labeling and mislabeling are forms of overgeneralizing. Labeling involves taking one or two events as evidence for stereotyping or applying a certain label to someone. Mislabeling involves using overly exaggerated emotional language to describe a situation in which it is not warranted.

What it looks like: When you label someone as unreliable after running late one time. Saying the world is ending when you haven’t yet had your morning coffee.

6. Blaming/denying

What it means: Refusing to accept our own culpability in a situation by projecting that culpability onto others; rejecting responsibility for our own thoughts and actions.

What it looks like: When you hand in your portion of a project late and say it was because of a mistake someone else made, you’re blaming them and denying your share of the responsibility for your actions. 

7. Splitting

What it means: This one goes by many terms, including all-or-nothing thinking, black-or-white thinking, dichotomous reasoning and polarized thinking. But no matter the phrase you use, this is when your mind only sees the extremes and fails to see the middle ground or gray area.

What it looks like: Giving a presentation at work and assuming you were either a complete success or total failure—but not in between.

8. Jumping to conclusions

What it means: Just as its name suggests, this is when you determine the outcome of a situation or sequence of events based on limited information. There are two main ways we jump to conclusions. The first is called fortune telling. When you commit the fortune telling cognitive distortion, you automatically predict that a negative outcome will come to fruition when there’s little to no evidence to suggest that will be the case. The second form of jumping to conclusions is called mind reading, which is essentially assuming that you know what someone else thinks. Either way, your mind misconstrues the facts and data available in favor of a perceived negative result.

What it looks like: Someone looked at you in a weird way so you think they dislike you. The guy you’re dating doesn’t text you back for an hour so you think your relationship is doomed and you’ll break up.

9. Filtering

What it means: Also known as the negativity bias, filtering is when your mind hones in on all of the negative aspects of a situation or a day, ignoring and forsaking all of the positive ones.

What it looks like: Honing in on the one constructive criticism during your annual review instead of acknowledging all of the wonderful praise you received as well. One stranger comes off as rude to you in passing conversation and hours later you still carry it with you, causing you to think you had a terrible day.

10. Personalizing

What it means: When you accept the blame even when there’s no logical reason to do so, it’s personalizing. As the name suggests, you make situations that are not remotely about you all about you.

What it looks like: Thinking you’re a bad boss because your direct report made a minor mistake. Believing that you’re unworthy of love because your boyfriend cheated on you. Neither situation is likely about you.

11. Double standard

What it means: Having incongruent standards for others versus yourself.

What it looks like: If you lie to your partner and think it’s okay “just this one time” but then get mad at the same partner when they lie to you, you’re exhibiting a double standard.

12. Fallacy of fairness

What it means: The harsh reality is that life is not always fair. When you expect life to be fair at every twist and turn, especially as it pertains to your own interpretation of what is and is not fair, it can lead to resentment and discontent—and a distorted worldview.

What it looks like: If you think you should get a raise at work because everyone else did and that would be fair, you’re following the fallacy of fairness. Turns out, the world really isn’t fair. You may have to work just as hard or harder than others to get the same results.

13. Control fallacy

What it means: Thinking you’re at fault for things that are completely out of your control, or thinking someone else is at fault for something completely out of their control.

What it looks like: If you lost a lot of money in the stock market on one day and blame it on yourself, you’re exhibiting the control fallacy. The reality is that the stock market performance is completely out of your control. It’s not your fault the market had a bad day. Blaming yourself is a distortion in order to think you have control over what happens to you.

14. Change fallacy

What it means: When you think other people should change to suit your needs or expectations, you have fallen victim to the fallacy of change. A related distorted belief is that your happiness is the result of what someone else does or does not do. Thus, when that person fails to meet your expectations, you expect them to change in order to do so.

What it looks like: When you say someone should “grow up” because they don’t text you back quickly enough in your opinion, and, if they did, you’d be happy, you’re employing the change fallacy. Expecting anyone else to change in order to make you happy is what this distortion is all about.

15. Always being right

What it means: Does it ever feel like being wrong just can’t be right? If so, you may be experiencing the always being right cognitive distortion.

What it looks like: “No matter what the other person says, I know I’m right.” Sound familiar? If so, you may have fallen prey to this mind trick. In reality, none of us can be correct all the time.

16. Heaven’s reward fallacy

What it means: The false belief that hard work always pays off or that all sacrifices or compromises you make should be rewarded.

What it looks like: If you become bitter after spearheading a project at work and being overlooked for a raise, you’re exhibiting this cognitive distortion. There could be a number of reasons why you weren’t granted a raise—and they may have nothing to do with the work you put in. 

17. Self-serving bias

What it means: When you think that you are responsible for your successes but not your setbacks.

What it looks like: Taking credit for acing an exam but chocking up failing a quiz to being up late studying. Your knowledge was tested both times.

 

HOW TO DEFEAT YOUR COGNITIVE DISTORTIONS 

1. Journaling

Yes, it’s really that simple. Get it all out there. Writing down how you feel is a powerful and cathartic way to express what you’re going through. And it’s also a great tool for easily identifying the cognitive distortions in which you’re engaging, which better allows you to figure out the best and most logical next step.

Once you’ve written in your journal for long enough, you’ll also have a full repository of thoughts so you can see your progress over time, helping you to spot and replace negative thought patterns that may be holding you back.

2. Challenge assumptions

Do you think that you’ll never find love again? Do you imagine that you’ll get fired? Do you think you don’t measure up to your friends or colleagues?

All of these limiting beliefs have one thing in common: They’re false assumptions you have about yourself that are rooted in shame. This technique involves several straightforward steps to help you identify negative assumptions and sub in healthier, more positive thoughts about yourself:

  1. What are the basic assumptions that drive your negative thought patterns or self-destructive behaviors?

  2. Where does that assumption come from? What is its source? What happened that made you start to believe that assumption?

  3. What are the advantages and disadvantages of the assumption?

  4. What is a better or more accurate assumption that maximizes the advantages and minimizes the disadvantages to you? 

3. Fact or opinion challenge

Take out your journal or write out your current thoughts on a sheet of paper. Go one by one and evaluate whether each belief is a fact or opinion. Be honest and candid with yourself. Remember that facts are objectively true and opinions are deeply-held personal beliefs and therefore may or may not apply to others outside of you.

For example, “I feel fat” is an opinion. “I didn’t work out today” is a fact.

4. Decatastrophizing

This is also referred to as playing the script until the end.

When you jump to conclusions or engage in catastrophizing, you’re going based off a script of the catastrophe in your mind. This cognitive restructuring technique actually encourages you to push through with visualizing how that movie will actually play out in real life. The theory is that once you do, you’ll see that things aren’t ever as bad or tragic as you think they are.

5. Survey method

As its name suggests, the survey method simply means surveying or consulting a group of close, trusted friends and loved ones to help you find perspective. Oftentimes, when you discuss how you’re feeling with your circle of trust, you’re better able to see your own cognitive distortions—or have others whom you know you can rely on to tell you the truth. So, go ahead: Use the “phone a friend” lifeline. They’re much more likely to call you on your own B.S.

6. Semantic method

“Should” and “must” statements can have detrimental effects on how you perceive yourself and your surroundings. The semantic method is a way to reframe these statements in a more positive and fruitful way. For instance, instead of saying, “I shouldn’t have said that in my meeting,” say “I wish I wouldn’t have said that in my meeting, but it’s okay that I did. This too shall pass.”

7. Define terms

What does it mean to be a “failure” or a “loser”? How about “insecure” or “overwhelmed”? By revisiting the labels that you apply to yourself and others, it becomes easier to see that a feeling, event or situation is not indicative of your character—or a person as a whole.

8. Mindfulness

Though often misunderstood, mindfulness is actually quite simple. Mindfulness is the practice of present awareness. A more basic form of deeper meditation, mindfulness can help calm the mind and reduce rumination or obsessive thinking.

When cognitive distortions blow things out of proportion in your head, mindfulness can help bring you back to center simply through focused awareness, body scanning and intentional breathing.

9. Re-attribution

When it comes to cognitive distortions like blaming and personalization, you often accept more of the blame than the situation warrants. The re-attribution technique helps you challenge that thought pattern by re-distributing the blame to external factors that could have contributed to the situation. Thus, instead of assigning all of the blame to yourself, you learn to share the blame with others or with the situation at large. This is not a way to deflect all blame away from the self, but rather a method by which to embrace a healthier ratio of blame that’s in line with the situation at hand.

10. Cost-benefit analysis

How are your cognitive distortions helping or hurting you? That’s the key question that the cost-benefit analysis practice seeks to answer. By evaluating the advantages and disadvantages of your negative thought patterns, you can more easily see that your cognitive distortions are a limited framework with which to evaluate your experience.  And then you may be more inclined to challenge and overcome them. So, make a list of pros and cons, then reevaluate.

11. Double standard method

You often speak to yourself in a vastly different way than you would with someone you call a close personal friend. The goal of the double standard method is to first recognize that you employ this double standard of behavior and then speak to yourself in the same compassionate way you would a friend who’s going through a similar situation. This technique helps you to practice some much-needed self-love so you can move past your negative thought patterns and unlock more positivity in your life.

12. Thinking in shades of gray

Instead of allowing yourself to think in extremes, try to see the middle ground or gray area. Practice rating how you’re feeling on a scale of 1 to 100, with 1 being worst and 100 being best. You’ll soon notice that few events are either a 1 or a 100—and so therefore are not as extreme as you may think they are.

Which cognitive distortions show up most often for you? How have you overcome them in the past? Tell me in the comments below—or Tweet me @crackliffe.

Want even more wisdom on how to live a better life? Check out 16 Life Lessons I Wish I’d Learned Sooner.

SOURCES

  1. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Exercises

  2. 25 CBT Techniques and Worksheets for Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

  3. A Therapist’s Guide to Brief Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

  4. Cognitive Distortions: When Your Brain Lies to You (+ PDF Worksheets)

  5. 10 Proven Methods for Fixing Cognitive Distortions

  6. Fixing Cognitive Distortions

  7. Changing Cognitive Distortions into Clear Thinking

  8. Emotional Competency: Distortions

  9. What’s “Emotional Reasoning”—And Why Is It Such a Problem?

  10. 15 Common Cognitive Distortions That May Be Behind Your Productivity Problems

  11. Challenging Our Cognitive Distortions and Creating Positive Outlooks

  12. CBT and Treating Depression

 

EDITOR’S NOTE AND DISCLAIMER: I am not a psychologist or licensed professional and this post should be used for background information only. If you are experiencing mental distress, please contact a mental health professional.