Dr. Goali, Psychologist, Author, Millennial Expert
Dr. Goali, Psychologist, Author, Millennial Expert

Cognitive Distortions Explained

Cognitive Distortions Explained

It is common for everyone to engage in distorted thinking patterns from time to time.

These patterns of thinking are sometimes referred to as thinking traps or cognitive distortions.

However, if you get into a thinking trap that persists across time, it can cause you to feel anxious or sad all the time. You might engage in some of these thinking patterns out of habit, or you may have learned them from your parents, but learning to spot these distortions is key. It can help you unlock the shackles of persistent negative emotions. Read the following list of cognitive distortions and think about how they might pertain to your life. In the second part of this exercise, you will be challenged to come up with one example of each distortion as it applies to your own life. The categories listed here can have some overlap, so the goal is less to find the “perfect” fit for a distortion (which would be a form of distorted thinking itself!) but to start recognizing these patterns of thinking at large.

Black-and-White Thinking (also called All-or-Nothing Thinking)

In this type of thinking, you don’t see the shades of gray or alternative possibilities in a situation. Things tend to fall into one of two categories: good versus bad, or success versus failure.

Distortion:

  • You failed your annual performance review and will be fired.
  • Your girlfriend didn’t text you when she said she would, so she must be out with another guy.

Reality:

  • Even if you did poorly on your evaluation, you’re likely to be put on probation or given some type of warning instead of being erratically fired.
  • It’s possible your girlfriend ran out of battery on her phone and forgot her charger at home.

Catastrophizing

This distortion involves looking only at the worst-case scenario or expecting a disaster to occur.

Distortion:

  • A political candidate you strongly dislike is elected to office and you assume disastrous consequences will occur.
  • You have just finished reading about superbugs and start worrying excessively about taking vitamins, avoiding germs, and staying away from anyone who coughs near you.

Reality:

  • While political candidates certainly do wield power, they are not dictators, and our justice system is set up with checks and balances. The policies that one candidate enacts can often be undone by their successors.
  • While it is possible that you might catch a superbug, the actual probability is low given the percentage of people who truly become infected. Furthermore, becoming needlessly anxious can compromise your immune system and put you at more real risk than living your life in a healthy and balanced way without anxiety.

Fortune-Telling (Mind Reading or Predicting the Future)

This type of distortion involves jumping to negative conclusions either by mind reading or predicting the future.

Mind Reading Distortion:

  • Your girlfriend responded to your last message with one emoji when she is typically more expressive. You assume she has lost interest in you and is messaging other guys.
  • You brought your boss his favorite type of coffee and his reception was not as appreciative as you’d assume, so you start wondering if he doesn’t like you very much.

Fortune-Telling Distortion:

  • Given your girlfriend’s minimal text, you assume she is going to break up with you soon.
  • Because of your boss’ lack of appreciation, you anticipate getting let go from
    the company.

Reality

  • Your girlfriend could have been busy and preoccupied with work when she texted you back.
  • Your boss could be anxious about the financial projections for the company and may be having a tough time with his wife at home, so he was not intentionally unappreciative.

Mental Filtering

In this distortion, you selectively pay attention to the negatives and underappreciate the positives in a scenario.

Distortion:

  • You throw a party and everyone on your invite list comes except for one of your best friends. Instead of focusing on the many other people who came, you dwell on the absence of one friend.
  • You make a post on social media that gets dozens of positive comments, but one person leaves a negative and critical message. Instead of appreciating all the compliments and kind words, you focus on the one negative (and likely unhappy) person’s message.

Reality:

  • If you allow yourself to enjoy the party with those who are excited to attend, you will have much more fun than if you focus on the one friend who may have showed up but in a negative mood.
  • Social media trolls will always exist and love having a platform for their negativity. Even though you may know that logically, it is important to focus on messages from real people who know you instead of anonymous, mean-spirited people.

Overgeneralization

Assuming bad things will happen repeatedly is a hallmark of this thinking trap. Individuals who tend to fall into this type of thinking will often use words such as “always,” “never,” “should,” “must,” “everyone,” and “no one.”

Distortion:

  • You get invited to your friend’s bridal shower on the other side of town and immediately start worrying. In your mind, you will never find parking, you always get stuck in traffic crossing the bridge, and these events never end up being fun.
  • Your apartment lease is up, and you need to find a new place to live as your rent is going up. You start complaining that moving is always a pain, neighbors are a nightmare, and no one ever volunteers to help you.

Reality:

  • Carpooling with friends, calling an Uber® or Lyft®, and leaving lots of time can help you be more relaxed when you arrive so you can actually enjoy yourself at the event.
  • While often stressful, finding a new place to live can be an opportunity to explore a neighborhood you’ve been interested in, and you can even upgrade parts of your living situation. Maybe you can swing splurging for a loft, a pet-friendly place, or score some new friends among neighbors.

Emotional Reasoning

In this type of thinking, there is a tendency to mistake feelings for real facts.

Distortion:

  • You go on social media and see an influencer you follow looking fit and glamorous. You immediately feel inadequate and inferior, and start thinking you need to lose weight and get a makeover.
  • You feel butterflies in your stomach before an event and assume it will go poorly as
    a result.

Reality:

  • Feelings of inadequacy do not equate with actual inadequacy.
  • Butterflies are a perfectly natural response to new stimuli where there is uncertainty.

Personalization

This distortion involves taking responsibility or blame for things over which you may have little or no control at all.

Distortion:

  • You invite your friends out for a birthday dinner, and as you are ordering, you realize your recently vegan friend has very little food options from which to choose. You spend the rest of the meal feeling guilty for having chosen a bad restaurant.
  • You are working on a tight deadline with a team and the power goes out, causing you to lose all the work you were doing and setting back your ability to complete the project on time. You apologize to your boss repeatedly for the power outage.

Reality:

  • It is impossible to know everyone’s dietary restrictions, or to know the restaurant meal options everywhere.
  • Severe weather and electrical outages can never be predicted. Further, while time management can help with last-minute deadline crunches, they are not always feasible when working with teams.

Expecting Perfection

This distortion involves having unrealistic expectations of perfection in your life.

Distortion:

  • Every time you scroll through your Instagram feed, you feel a bit depressed as you look at how everyone is living these exciting, vibrant lives—while also looking beautiful.
  • You have been training for a 5K for the last few months when you injure your hamstring. You become frustrated and upset that you can’t run the race to the best of your abilities with your injury.

Reality:

  • Social media shows the highlight reel of everyone’s lives. Individuals can spend hours creating the “perfect” photo at the right angles while using filters to boost images. The truth is that this simply isn’t anyone’s reality.
  • Injuries can happen to the most elite athletes and hinder their performance. No one runs a perfect race each time, nor is it practical. Weather, road conditions, and countless other uncontrollable variables contribute to race performance.

Self-Defeating Comparisons

This distortion involves inaccurately comparing ourselves to those who appear better off than we are and putting ourselves down in the process.

Distortion:

  • You log onto Facebook to find former high school classmates and see whatever happened to them. You see several have gotten married, had babies, started their own businesses, and appear to be thriving. You look at your own life and feel badly about your outcomes.
  • You are in your final year of law school when you learn one of the young professors at your college just received tenure. You feel behind in life and frustrated.

Reality:

  • True success in life is measured across decades. There are countless famous celebrities, authors, and politicians who were unknown in their quarter-life years, only to become household names now.
  • Comparing ourselves to those years ahead of us, whether chronologically or professionally, is rarely a fair comparison. Many times, life factors, finances, and a host of other variables impact professional outcomes rather than pure merit and grit.

Labeling

This distortion involves making a global, negative assumption about yourself based on one situation or experience. When you engage in labeling, you put yourself down instead of finding ways to remedy the situation in a way that betters your life.

Distortion:

  • You get passed up for that job promotion and think to yourself, “I’m such a loser.”
  • Your boyfriend breaks up with you and you say, “I’m ugly and unlovable.”

Reality

  • There will be other opportunities for promotions, and not getting one is not grounds to believe you’re a loser.
  • One breakup does not determine your self-worth, nor does it validate the truth of any negative thoughts you have about yourself.

Magnification/Minimization

This distortion involves discounting the good and overemphasizing the bad.

Distortion:

  • Your phone just did an automatic update that lost all your fitness data. You become angry and stressed out (magnification).
  • You just set a running record on your fitness app and downplay what an accomplishment this was because the data wasn’t recorded (minimization).

Reality:

  • Fitness is good for us regardless of what our data does or does not say. Sometimes our devices can actually make the things we enjoy, such as running, stressful because of technological errors.
  • Even though your phone didn’t record your workout results, it is important to celebrate small victories when they occur instead of over-focusing on technological glitches.

Now that you have learned many different forms of cognitive distortions, download the worksheet Distortions and see if you can come up with one example for each type of distortion using examples from your own life.

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Additional Resources

Thought Log

Download the Thought Log Worksheet Use the Thought Log to integrate everything you have been learning about identifying feelings, the ABCs of mood, and cognitive distortions. [read more]

Sleep Checklist

Download the Sleep Checklist Evening is one of the most challenging times to ask teens to give up their phones and other devices. That’s the time when most teens text friends, have video calls, and browse their social media. [read more]

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