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Cognitive Distortions

Cognitive Distortions

Cognitive behavioral psychologists believe that our feelings are largely dependent on our thoughts. For instance, depression, anxiety, hostility and unnecessary fear could result from cognitive distortions, which are also known as errors in thinking.

A person’s degree of emotional distress or interpersonal conflict is an important cue that one or more of these errors in thinking is operating. If you can learn to observe your thinking for such errors and then develop, through intentional behavioral change, thoughts that are more logical, adaptive and verifiable, then you can begin to feel better and function more effectively. This means that you have to change how you think so that you can change how you feel. However, people should keep in mind that no human being exhibits 100% logical thinking all the time.


As an example of “black or white” or polarized thinking, you may tell yourself that “I always fail when I try to do something new; I therefore fail at everything I try”. In this case, you are seeing everything in absolutes, which means that if you fail at one thing, then you must fail at all things. An example of overgeneralization will be if you added on the previous sentence “I must be a complete loser and failure”. Taking a failure at one specific task and generalizing it to your very self and identity is the idea of overgeneralization.


The core of what many cognitive-behavioral and other kinds of therapists try and help a person learn to change in psychotherapy is cognitive distortions.


You can answer the negative thinking back and refute it by learning to correctly identify this kind of thinking. The negative thinking will slowly diminish overtime if you refute it repeatedly, and it will be automatically replaced by a kind of thinking that is more rational and balanced.



The first person who proposed the theory behind cognitive distortions is Aaron Beck, and the one responsible for popularizing it with common names and examples for the distortions was David Burns.



While filtering out all the positive aspects of a situation, a person takes the negative details and magnifies them. For example, a person may take a single unpleasant detail and dwell on it entirely, so that their vision of reality becomes distorted or darkened.


Polarized thinking:

Here, things are either “black-or-white”, there’s no middle ground. You have to be perfect or you’re a failure. You see yourself as a total failure if your performance falls short of perfect because you place people or situations in “either/or” categories, without any shades of grey to allow for the complexity of most situations and people.



Based on a single incident or piece of evidence, you come to a general conclusion. If a bad thing happens once, you expect it to happen over and over again. You may see a never-ending pattern of defeat in case you experience a single, unpleasant event.


Jumping to conclusions:

Here, you know how people feel and why they act the way they do, without anybody saying so. Specifically, you are able to determine how people are feeling toward you. For instance, you may anticipate that things will turn out badly, and feel convinced that your prediction is already an established fact. Yet another example is that you may conclude that someone is reacting negatively toward you and you don’t bother to find out if they are correct.



This is also called “magnifying or minimizing”. Here, no matter what, you expect disaster to strike. You hear about a problem and use what if questions: what if tragedy strikes? What if it happens to me?. For instance, you may inappropriately shrink the magnitude of significant evens until they appear tiny, such as someone’s imperfections or your own desirable qualities. Or you may exaggerate the importance of insignificant events such as someone else’s achievement or your own mistake.



Here, you think that everything people say or do is some kind of reaction to you. You also compare yourself to others trying to determine who is smarter, better looking… you see yourself as the cause of some unhealthy external event that you weren’t responsible for. For instance, you were late to the party and so you caused the hostess to overcook the meal, and you think that this wouldn’t have happened if you were on time.


Control fallacies:

Here, you will see yourself as a helpless victim of fate if you feel externally controlled. For instance, you may say “I can’t help if the quality of my work is poor because my boss demanded I work overtime on it”. The fallacy of internal control will make you assume responsibility for the pain and happiness of everyone around you; for instance, you may say “why aren’t you happy? Is it because of something I did?”


Fallacy of fairness:

Here, you feel resentful because you think you know what is fair but other people won’t agree with you. The old saying goes “Life is always fair” and you will probably feel bad and negative if you go through life applying a measuring ruler against every situation, judging its “fairness”.



Here, you either blame yourself for every problem, or you hold other people responsible for your pain. For instance, you may say “Stop making me feel bad about myself!”. You are the only one who has control over your own emotions and emotional reactions; no one can “make” you feel any particular way.



Here, you have a list of ironclad rules about how you and others should behave. You feel angry when someone breaks those rules, and you feel guilty if you violate them. You may believe that you are trying to motivate yourself with shoulds and shouldn’ts. For instance, you may say “I really should exercise, I shouldn’t be so lazy”. Guilt is the emotional consequence of shoulds, shouldn’ts, musts and oughts. People often feel anger, frustration and resentment when they are confronted with should statements.


Emotional reasoning:

Here, you believe that whatever you feel must be automatically true. For instance, if you feel boring and stupid, they you must be boring and stupid. You assume that your unhealthy emotions reflect the way things really are: “I feel it, therefore it must be true”.


Fallacy of change:

Here, you expect that other people will change to suit you if you just pressure or cajole them enough. You feel that your hopes for happiness depend entirely on other people, so you feel the need to change them.


Global labeling:

Here, you generalize one or two qualities into a negative global judgment. These are also referred to as labeling or mislabeling and they are extreme forms of generalizing. You will attach an unhealthy label to yourself instead of describing an error in context of a specific situation.  For instance, you may say “I’m a loser” in a situation where you failed a specific task. You may attach an unhealthy label to someone such as “he’s a real jerk” if that person’s behavior rubs you the wrong way. Describing an event with language that is highly colored and emotionally loaded is a characteristic of mislabeling. For instance, instead of saying that a woman drops her children off at daycare every day, you may mislabel by saying that “she abandons her children to strangers”.


Always being right:

Here, you are continually on trial to prove that your opinions and actions are correct. You will go to any length to demonstrate your rightness because for you, being wrong is unthinkable. For instance, you may say “I don’t care how badly arguing with me makes you feel, I’m going to win this argument no matter what cause I’m right”. For you, being right is usually more important than the feelings of others around you, even loved ones.


Heaven’s reward fallacy:

Here, as if someone is keeping score, you expect your sacrifice and self-denial to pay off, and when the reward doesn’t come, you feel bitter.

Cognitive distortions disturb people’s lives. Although this kind of thinking can be undone, but it needs effort and lots of practice every single day. You may start by trying out the exercises below if you want to stop your irrational thinking:


Identify your cognitive distortion:

You should create a list of your troublesome thoughts and examine them later for matches with a list of cognitive distortions. You will be able to see which distortions you prefer with the help of an examination of your cognitive distortions. This process will also allow you to think about your problem in more natural and realistic ways.


Examine the evidence:

You can identify the basis for your distorted thoughts with the help of a thorough examination of an experience. For instance, you should identify a number of experiences and situations where you had success in case you are self-critical.


Double standard method:

Talking to yourself in the same compassionate and caring way that you would talk with a friend in a similar situation is one of the alternatives for harsh and demeaning “self-talk”.


Thinking in shades of gray:

You should evaluate things on a scale of 0-100 instead of thinking about your problem or predicament in an either-or way. When a plan isn’t fully realized, you should think about and evaluate the experience as a partial success on a scale of 0-100.


Survey method:

To know whether your thoughts and attitudes are realistic, you need to seek the opinions of others. For instance, you could check with a few trusted friends or relatives in case you believe that your anxiety about an upcoming event is unwarranted.



What does it mean to define yourself as “a loser”, “a fool”, “abnormal” or “inferior”. An examination of these as well as other global labels will likely reveal that instead of the total person, these labels represent specific behaviors or an identifiable behavior pattern.



People usually blame themselves automatically for problems and predicaments they experience. You should identify the external factors and other individuals that contributed to the problem. Our energy is best utilized in the pursuit of resolutions to problems or identifying ways to cope with predicaments, regardless of the degree or responsibility we assume.


Cost-benefit analysis:

Listing the advantages and disadvantages of feelings, thoughts and behaviors is very important. In ascertaining what you are gaining from feeling bad, distorted thinking and inappropriate behavior, a cost-benefit analysis is usually quite helpful.


Prepared By: Dr. Mehyar Al-Khashroum
Edited By: Miss Araz Kahvedjian

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