Cognitive distortions are faulty thought patterns that warp our perceptions of reality. The good news is we can reframe our thoughts to reduce relapse risk.
Everyone engages in cognitive distortions sometimes. But these thought patterns harm mental health when they become habits.
Unchecked cognitive distortions increase the risk of depression, anxiety, and relapse. However, by identifying and reframing our thoughts, we can change our emotions and behaviors, too.
So read below to see which thought patterns describe you. Then learn how you can reframe your thoughts to create a more self-empowering inner script.
Also, see the printable cognitive distortions worksheet here.
Types of Cognitive Distortions
Here are seven common cognitive distortions. Which ones describe you?
1. Mental Filtering
With mental filtering, you focus on the negative and dismiss the positive.
For instance, your friends praise you after your singing performance, but one friend adds a critical remark. So even if you received 50 compliments, you ruminate over the criticism.
Therefore, mental filtering contributes to poor self-esteem, pessimism, and depression. So take charge of this thought pattern if this describes you.
2. Discounting the Positive
Discounting the positive causes you to dismiss the significance of positive events. For instance, after your manager praises your work, you tell yourself, “It wasn’t great,” or “Anyone could have done that.”
According to psychiatrist and adjunct professor David Burns, Ph.D., discounting the positive diminishes joy and contributes to depression.
“[Discounting the positive] is an even more spectacular mental error [than mental filtering],” Burns says. “You insist that the positives about yourself or others don’t count. In this way, you can maintain a uniformly and totally negative view of yourself, the world, or other people.”
Many people with depression discount the positive, Burns says. At worst, some people mold reality to fit their beliefs, so they see what they expect.
3. Polarized Thinking
In contrast, polarized thinking causes you to see situations as all or none. For instance, after getting a C on an exam, you assume you’re destined to failure.
Polarized thinking also causes exaggerated appraisals of others, such as viewing people as winners or losers rather than as human beings with strengths and flaws.
Other signs of polarized thinking include language peppered with always, never, and similar overstatements.
Extreme polarized thinking contributes to perfectionism and mental illness.
Another common thought distortion, overgeneralization leads you to make sweeping assumptions based on isolated events.
Overgeneralization takes many forms. For instance, after missing out on that job promotion, you think, “Nothing ever works out for me.”
Or you generalize your conflicts with a few individuals to a group. For instance, after having conflicts with some people in your new town, you dislike everyone and assume they’re all the same.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy of Los Angeles outlines six steps to reduce overgeneralization:
- Weigh the benefits and costs. First, consider how you benefit and lose from thinking this way. Take charge if the negatives outweigh the positives.
- Assess the evidence for your belief. Next, consider how much evidence supports your belief. Draw from your life experience to find evidence that confirms your assumptions. For instance, find examples from your life that show you’re a failure. You might be surprised to recall many successes instead.
- Ask if others would agree. Now, consider how others would respond if you shared your thoughts. Would they agree with your conclusions? Probably not. So reframe your thoughts into a more positive or neutral perspective.
- Imagine what you would tell a friend. Next, consider what you would say to a friend in your situation. Then treat yourself as you would treat your friend.
- Determine if logic or emotion is guiding your belief. Ask if your belief stems from feeling or fact. If you believe it’s factual, find evidence to support your position.
- Find contrary evidence. Finally, find evidence from your life that counters your belief. For instance, challenge your idea that you’re a failure by recalling your achievements.
5. Fortune Telling
However, if you’re a fortune teller, you predict the future based on the present. Your certainty about what the future holds prevents you from taking risks and causes you to rush to assumptions.
For example, perhaps you assume you’ll never find a job because you haven’t found one yet. Or you decide to avoid all relationships because you know how those work out.
According to CBT Los Angeles, fortune telling causes you to “predict a negative outcome before realistically considering the…odds of that outcome. It is linked to anxiety and depression and is one of the most common cognitive distortions.”
6. Mind Reading
On the other hand, maybe you’re a mind reader. With this thought pattern, you don’t have to ask what someone thinks because you assume you already know.
For instance, a friend doesn’t wave back from across the street, so you assume she is holding a grudge. Or you arrive to work late and assume everyone thinks you’re a flake.
Finally, with this cognitive distortion, should and must dominate your thoughts. Psychoanalyst Karen Horney referred to this habit as the “tyranny of the shoulds.” She argued that people engage in this tyranny when they fail to live up to their ideal image of themselves.
For example, you make a few errors on your first day at work and tell yourself, “I should have known better.” Or you beat yourself up for falling short of your expectations.
Shoulding causes guilt and ruthless self-criticism if it occurs too often.
What Causes Cognitive Distortions?
Research suggests cognitive distortions develop through adverse childhood experiences. People use these thought patterns to shield themselves from pain and disappointment, but these patterns create more of both over time. Then fears become self-fulfilling.
Reframing Cognitive Distortions: What You Can Do
To overcome cognitive distortions, identify, then challenge them. For example, if you catch yourself filtering or discounting the positive, gather evidence for and against your beliefs. Next time you fear the worst, ask yourself, “How much evidence do I have that my fear is true?”
Distinguish fears from facts. Next time you suspect someone has an ulterior motive, or you catch yourself predicting the future, weigh the evidence that you have.
Then, create two columns in a notebook: one for evidence that supports your belief and one for evidence that refutes it.
It might surprise you to discover how much evidence disconfirms your views. However, evaluating the evidence shifts your perspective and gives you the insight to break free of self-defeating patterns.
Mindfulness for Cognitive Distortions
Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
CBT teaches you to identify cognitive distortions and reframe thoughts to create a more self-empowering narrative. CBT involves skills training and psychoeducation to help you replace unwanted behaviors with healthier habits. Then, with practice, new behaviors become automatic.
Cognitive distortions create problems when they become patterns. Identifying them is the first step to freedom from them. Next time you slip into self-defeating thinking, challenge that thought. Mindfulness, cognitive reframing, and CBT can help.
- See here for recovery writing prompts to spark your creativity.
- See here for addiction and mental health resources and treatment finders.
- Is 12-step or non-12-step recovery right for you? Know your options.
Brooks, K. (2017, March 8). Your career and the tyranny of the shoulds. Psychology Today.
Burns, D. (n.d.). Patterns of cognitive distortions. The University of Pittsburgh.
Burns, D., & Barovsky, R. (2020, May 18). How to crush negative thoughts: Mental filter / discounting the positive. Feel Good.
Casablanca, S. (2021, May 6).Stuck in the negatives? 15 cognitive distortions to blame. Psych Central.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Los Angeles. (2021). Cognitive distortions. CBTLA.
David, D., Cristea, I., & Hofmann, S. G. (2018). Why cognitive behavioral therapy is the current gold standard of psychotherapy. Frontiers in Psychiatry, 9, 4.
Geller, C. G. (2020, November 30). Cognitive distortions and what to do about them. Manhattan Center for Cognitive Behavioral Therapy.
Kuru, E., Safak, Y., Özdemir, İ., Tulacı, R. G., Özdel, K., Özkula, N. G., & Örsel, S. (2018). Cognitive distortions in patients with social anxiety disorder: Comparison of a clinical group and healthy controls. The European Journal of Psychiatry, 32(2), 97-104.
Panourgia, C., & Comoretto, A. (2017). Do cognitive distortions explain the longitudinal relationship between life adversity and emotional and behavioural problems in secondary school children? Stress and Health : Journal of the International Society for the Investigation of Stress, 33(5), 590–599.
S., S. (2020, October 4). Cognitive distortions: Polarized thinking. Medium.