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Cognitive Distortions

Cognitive Distortions

Quite often I will refer to “cognitive distortions” with my clients.  Cognitive distortions are based on a form of psychotherapy called Cognitivebehavioral therapy (CBT) which is designed to treat problems and boost happiness by modifying dysfunctional emotions, behaviors, and thoughts. 
All of us experience cognitive distortions in some form or fashion, but these irrational thoughts can influence our lives, our emotions and our behaviors.  In extreme form, they can even be maladaptive and harmful.
A general example of an irrational thought might be: Exaggerating or minimizing the importance of something.  Someone might believe their achievements are unimportant, or that their mistakes are excessively important.”


An example of filtering is when a person isolates an unpleasant detail and dwells on it exclusively – so much so that their broader reality becomes darkened or distorted.  People who magnify negative details while filtering out all positive aspects of a situation are often ‘filtering’. 

Polarized Thinking

Are things “black-or-white?”  With polarized thinking, there is no middle ground.  Polarized thinking is very common in today’s world due to a tendency to place people or situations in “either/or” buckets.  This cognitive distortion has no shades of gray and doesn’t allow for the complexity of most people and situations.  If someone views their performance short of perfect, ‘polarized thinking’ has them seeing themselves as a total failure.


With this irrational view, someone might reach a general conclusion based on a single piece of evidence or a single incident.  Something bad might happen one time but they expect it to happen over and over again.  A person who overgeneralizes tends to see a single, unpleasant event as part of a never-ending pattern of defeat.


Mental health counselors have a sharp ear out for this cognitive distortion.  Thinking or incorporating ‘shoulds’, ‘oughts; or ‘musts’ into someone’s processing often demonstrates an ironclad position of how they and others ‘should’ and ‘ought’ to be.  There is a tendency to strenuously conform to imperatives which, by definition, “always apply”.  These rigid views have emotional consequences including: feelings of anger, frustration, resentment, disappointment and guilt if not followed. A person may often believe they are trying to motivate themselves with shoulds and shouldn’ts, as if they have to be punished before they can do anything. For example, “I really should exercise. I shouldn’t be so lazy.”

Emotional Reasoning

We believe that what we feel must be true automatically. If we feel stupid and boring, then we must be stupid and boring. You assume that your unhealthy emotions reflect he way things really are — “I feel it, therefore it must be true.”

Fallacy of Change

We expect that other people will change to suit us if we just pressure or cajole them enough. We need to change people because our hopes for happiness seem to depend entirely on them.

Always Being Right

We are continually on trial to prove that our opinions and actions are correct. Being wrong is unthinkable and we will go to any length to demonstrate our rightness. For example, “I don’t care how badly arguing with me makes you feel, I’m going to win this argument no matter what because I’m right.” Being right often is more important than the feelings of others around a person who engages in this cognitive distortion, even loved ones.

Jumping to Conclusions

Without individuals saying so, we know what they are feeling and why they act the way they do. In particular, we are able to determine how people are feeling toward us.
For example, a person may conclude that someone is reacting negatively toward them but doesn’t actually bother to find out if they are correct. Another example is a person may anticipate that things will turn out badly, and will feel convinced that their prediction is already an established fact.


We expect disaster to strike, no matter what. This is also referred to as “magnifying or minimizing.” We hear about a problem and use what if questions (e.g., “What if tragedy strikes?” “What if it happens to me?”).
For example, a person might exaggerate the importance of insignificant events (such as their mistake, or someone else’s achievement). Or they may inappropriately shrink the magnitude of significant events until they appear tiny (for example, a person’s own desirable qualities or someone else’s imperfections).


Personalization is a distortion where a person believes that everything others do or say is some kind of direct, personal reaction to the person. We also compare ourselves to others trying to determine who is smarter, better looking, etc.
A person engaging in personalization may also see themselves as the cause of some unhealthy external event that they were not responsible for. For example, “We were late to the dinner party and caused the hostess to overcook the meal. If I had only pushed my husband to leave on time, this wouldn’t have happened.”

Control Fallacies

If we feel externally controlled, we see ourselves as helpless a victim of fate. For example, “I can’t help it if the quality of the work is poor, my boss demanded I work overtime on it.” The fallacy of internal control has us assuming responsibility for the pain and happiness of everyone around us. For example, “Why aren’t you happy? Is it because of something I did?”

Fallacy of Fairness

We feel resentful because we think we know what is fair, but other people won’t agree with us. As our parents tell us when we’re growing up and something doesn’t go our way, “Life isn’t always fair.” People who go through life applying a measuring ruler against every situation judging its “fairness” will often feel badly and negative because of it. Because life isn’t “fair” — things will not always work out in your favor, even when you think they should.


We hold other people responsible for our pain, or take the other track and blame ourselves for every problem. For example, “Stop making me feel bad about myself!” Nobody can “make” us feel any particular way — only we have control over our own emotions and emotional reactions.

Global Labeling

We generalize one or two qualities into a negative global judgment. These are extreme forms of generalizing, and are also referred to as “labeling” and “mislabeling.” Instead of describing an error in context of a specific situation, a person will attach an unhealthy label to themselves.
For example, they may say, “I’m a loser” in a situation where they failed at a specific task. When someone else’s behavior rubs a person the wrong way, they may attach an unhealthy label to him, such as “He’s a real jerk.” Mislabeling involves describing an event with language that is highly colored and emotionally loaded. For example, instead of saying someone drops her children off at daycare every day, a person who is mislabeling might say that “she abandons her children to strangers.”

Thinking about Thinking Worksheet

Cognitive Distortions 


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