Cognitive distortions are negative or irrational patterns of thinking. These negative thought patterns can play a role in diminishing your motivation, lowering your self-esteem, and contributing to problems like anxiety, depression, and substance use.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is an approach that helps people recognize these cognitive distortions and replace them with more helpful, realistic thoughts.1
This article discusses different types of cognitive distortions including defining what they are, how they work, and offering hypothetical examples to show how this kind of thinking affects behavior.
All-or-nothing thinking is also known as black and white thinking or polarized thinking. This type of thinking involves viewing things in absolute terms: Situations are always black or white, everything or nothing, good or bad, success or failure.2
All-or-nothing thinking is associated with certain mental health conditions, including narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) and borderline personality disorder (BPD).3
For example, Joan feels like a failure at school. Every time she makes a mistake, instead of acknowledging the error and trying to move past it, she gives up and assumes that she’ll never be able to do well.
The problem with this type of thinking is that it doesn’t allow any room to acknowledge anything between the two extremes. It can impair your motivation and confidence and make it hard to stick to long-term goals.
For example, instead of sticking to a healthy eating plan, you might throw up your hands and call yourself a failure every time you deviate from your plan. Or you might feel like starting a new workout plan is hopeless because you think that if you can’t stick to it 100%, then you are a failure.
CBT works to overcome this type of cognitive distortion by helping you recognize that success and progress are not all-or-nothing concepts. By addressing this type of thinking and replacing self-defeating thoughts, you can feel better about your progress and recognize your strengths.
Overgeneralization happens when you make a rule after a single event or a series of coincidences.4 The words “always” or “never” frequently appear in the sentence. Because you have experience with one event playing out a certain way, you assume that all future events will have the same outcome.
For example, Ben has inferred from a series of coincidences that seven is his lucky number and has overgeneralized this to gambling situations involving the number seven, no matter how many times he loses.
The problem with this type of thinking is that it doesn’t account for differences between situations as well as the role that chance or luck can play. This thinking can have a number of consequences on how people think and act in different situations.
Overgeneralization is associated with the development and maintenance of different anxiety disorders. When people have a bad experience in one situation, they assume that the same thing will happen again in the future.
Research also suggests that this type of cognitive distortion is common in people who have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).5 Generalizing fear from one situation to future events can create feelings of anxiety, which often leads to avoidance of those situations.
A mental filter is the opposite of overgeneralization, but with the same negative outcome.6 Instead of taking one small event and generalizing it inappropriately, the mental filter takes one small event and focuses on it exclusively, filtering out anything else.
This type of cognitive distortion can contribute to problems including addiction, anxiety, poor self-belief, and interpersonal problems, among other issues.
For example, Nathan focuses on all of the negative or hurtful things that his partner has said or done in their relationship, but he filters all the kind and thoughtful things his partner does. This thinking contributes to feelings of negativity about his partner and their relationship.
Filtering out the positive and focusing on the negative can have a detrimental impact on your mental well-being. One study found that when people focused only on negative self-beliefs, it contributed to feelings of hopelessness and increased the risk of suicidal thinking.7
Discounting the Positive
Discounting the positive is a cognitive distortion that involves ignoring or invalidating good things that have happened to you.8 It is similar to mental filtering, but instead of simply ignoring the positives, you are actively rejecting them.
For example, Joel completes a project and receives an award for his outstanding work. Rather than feeling proud of his achievement, he attributes it to pure luck that has nothing to do with his talent and effort.
When people use this cognitive distortion, they view positive events as flukes. Because these positives are always seen as anomalies, they don’t expect them to happen again in the future.
The problem with this type of thinking is that it undermines your faith in your abilities. Rather than recognizing your strengths, you assume that you aren’t competent or skilled—you just got lucky.
When you discount the positive and challenges arise, you won’t have faith in your ability to cope or overcome them. This lack of faith in yourself can lead to a sense of learned helplessness where you assume there is no point in even trying to change the outcome.
Jumping to Conclusions
There are two ways of jumping to conclusions:
- Mind reading: When you think someone is going to react in a particular way, or you believe someone is thinking things that they aren’t
- Fortune telling: When you predict events will unfold in a particular way, often to avoid trying something difficult
Here’s an example: Jamie engaged in fortune-telling when he believed that he wouldn’t be able to stand life without heroin. In reality, he could and he did.
Magnification is exaggerating the importance of shortcomings and problems while minimizing the importance of desirable qualities. Similar to mental filtering and discounting the positive, this cognitive distortion involves magnifying your negative qualities while minimizing your positive ones.
When something bad happens, you see this as “proof” of your own failures. But when good things happen, you minimize their importance. For example, a person addicted to pain medication might magnify the importance of eliminating all pain, and exaggerate how unbearable their pain is.
This thinking can affect behavior in a variety of ways. It can contribute to feelings of anxiety, fear, and panic because it causes people to exaggerate the importance of insignificant problems.
People sometimes believe that other people notice and judge even small mistakes. At the same time, they will minimize their own ability to cope with feelings of stress and anxiety, which can then contribute to increased anxiety and avoidance.9
Emotional reasoning is a way of judging yourself or your circumstances based on your emotions. For instance, Jenna used emotional reasoning to conclude that she was a worthless person, which in turn led to binge eating.
This type of reasoning assumes that because you are experiencing a negative emotion, it must be an accurate reflection of reality. If you feel experience feelings of guilt, for example, emotional reasoning would lead you to conclude that you are a bad person.
This type of thinking can contribute to a number of problems including feelings of anxiety and depression. While research has found that this distortion is common in people who have anxiety and depression, it is actually a very common way of thinking that many people engage in.10
Cognitive behavior therapy can help people learn to recognize the signs of emotional reasoning and realize that feelings are not facts.
“Should” statements involve always thinking about things that you think you “should” or “must” do. These types of statements can make you feel worried or anxious.
They can also cause you to experience feelings of guilt or a sense of failure. Because you always think you “should” be doing something, you end up feeling as if you are always failing.
These statements are self-defeating ways we talk to ourselves that emphasize unattainable standards. Then, when we fall short of our own ideas, we fail in our own eyes, which can create panic and anxiety.
An example: Cheryl thinks that she should be able to play a song on her violin without making any mistakes. When she does make mistakes, she feels angry and upset with herself. As a result, she starts to avoid practicing her violin.
Labeling is a cognitive distortion that involves making a judgment about yourself or someone else as a person, rather than seeing the behavior as something the person did that doesn’t define them as an individual.
You might think of this cognitive distortion as an extreme type of all-or-nothing thinking because it involves attaching a label to someone that offers no room for anything outside of that narrow, restrictive box.
For example, you might label yourself as a failure. You can also label other people as well. You might decide that someone is a jerk because of one interaction and continue to judge them in all future interactions through that lens with no room for redemption.
Why Believing in Yourself Matters
Personalization and Blame
Personalization and blame is a cognitive distortion whereby you entirely blame yourself, or someone else, for a situation that in reality involved many factors that were out of your control.
For example, Anna blamed herself for her daughter’s bad grade in school. Instead of trying to find out why her daughter is struggling and exploring ways to help, Anna assumes it is a sign that she is a bad mother.
Personalization and blame cause people to feel inadequate. It can also lead to people experiencing feelings of shame and guilt.
Blame can also be attributed to others. In some cases, people will blame other people while ignoring other factors that could potentially play a role in the situation. For example, they might blame their relationship problems on their partner without acknowledging their own role.
A Word From Verywell
Cognitive distortions are the mind’s way of playing tricks on us and convincing us of something that just isn’t true. While many cognitive distortions are common, there are some that can indicate a more serious condition and take a toll on mental health, leading to an increase in symptoms of stress, anxiety, or depression.
If you think that cognitive distortions may be altering your sense of reality and are concerned about how these thoughts may be negatively affecting your life, talk to your healthcare provider or therapist. Treatments such as cognitive behavioral therapy are helpful and can help you learn to think in ways that are more accurate and helpful.