Cognitive Distortions

I describe myself as a “pessimist from birth.” Seriously, I can’t remember a time when I didn’t have worst case scenarios and “all or nothing” thinking. It’s as natural to me as breathing. I berated myself if I missed a point on a test. If I got a 99%, I focused on the 1% I got wrong. If I received a compliment, I discounted it and pointed out a mistake. I dwelled on negative feedback and experiences. After a break up, I replayed the saddest possible songs and reread letters, poured over pictures, wrote depressing poems, and wallowed in my despair. It was all I knew and, ironically, I took a sick comfort in the familiar; I knew how to handle failure, rejection, disappointment, dysfunction, chaos. Happiness, optimism, success–these were feelings I couldn’t understand. I didn’t know how to be comfortable with myself. It was as if by proclaiming my contentment or celebrating my success, I would somehow “jinx” myself. Some people avoid black cats or walking  under ladders; my superstition was positive thinking.

As one of my favorite quotes states, “whether you think you can or you can’t, you’re right.” While I used to hold myself to ridiculously high standards and place myself in intensely stressful situations, I don’t have the energy for that anymore. Ever since my three year episode of debilitating depression, I have been gentler with myself.  Sure, I still slip into old habits of self-deprecation and negativity, but I can’t allow myself to stay in that mindset long.  I have to challenge and redirect my thoughts before I’m trapped in a cycle of negative thinking.

So how do I get myself out of this “stinking thinking?” I challenge my thoughts. When I think or feel a certain way, I ask myself “is this true?” “what evidence do I have?” “Is there another choice?” “how is this helping me?” Usually, I find that my thought is not rational or at least questionable.  It gets me thinking of other ways to feel about something or another way to handle or feel about a difficult situation.

David Burns, renowned psychiatrist and author of Feeling Good, explains cognitive distortions and provides examples and charts to help reframe negative, irrational thoughts. The Pennsylvania Child Welfare Resource Center created the handout “Thinking About Thinking,” which is posted below:

These are 10 common cognitive distortions that can contribute to negative emotions. They also fuel catastrophic thinking patterns that are particularly disabling. Read these and see if you can identify ones that are familiar to you.

1. All-or-Nothing Thinking: You see things in black-or-white categories. If a situation falls short of perfect, you see it as a total failure. When a young woman on a diet ate a spoonful of ice cream, she told herself, “I’ve blown my diet completely.” This thought upset her so much that she gobbled down an entire quart of ice cream!

2. Over generalization: You see a single negative event, such as a romantic rejection or a career reversal, as a never-ending pattern of defeat by using words such as “always” or “never” when you think about it. A depressed salesman became terribly upset when he noticed bird dung on the windshield of his car. He told himself, “Just my luck! Birds are always crapping on my car!”

3. Mental Filter: You pick out a single negative detail and dwell on it exclusively, so that your vision of all reality becomes darkened, like the drop of ink that discolors a beaker of water. Example: You receive many positive comments about your presentation to a group of associates at work, but one of them says something mildly critical. You obsess about his reaction for days and ignore all the positive feedback.

4. Discounting the Positive: You reject positive experiences by insisting they “don’t count.” If you do a good job, you may tell yourself that it wasn’t good enough or that anyone could have done as well. Discounting the positive takes the joy out of life and makes you feel inadequate and unrewarded.

5. Jumping to Conclusions: You interpret things negatively when there are no facts to support your conclusion. Mind Reading: Without checking it out, you arbitrarily conclude that someone is reacting negatively to you. Fortune-telling: You predict that things will turn out badly. Before a test you may tell yourself, “I’m really going to blow it. What if I flunk?” If you’re depressed you may tell yourself, “I’ll never get better.”

6. Magnification: You exaggerate the importance of your problems and shortcomings, or you minimize the importance of your desirable qualities. This is also called the “binocular trick.”

7. Emotional Reasoning: You assume that your negative emotions necessarily reflect the way things really are: “I feel terrified about going on airplanes. It must be very dangerous to fly.” Or “I feel guilty. I must be a rotten person.” Or “I feel angry. This proves I’m being treated unfairly.” Or “I feel so inferior. This means I’m a second-rate person.” Or “I feel hopeless. I must really be hopeless.”

8. “Should statements”: You tell yourself that things should be the way you hoped or expected them to be. After playing a difficult piece on the piano, a gifted pianist told herself, “I shouldn’t have made so many mistakes.” This made her feel so disgusted that she quit practicing for several days. “Musts,” “oughts” and “have tos” are similar offenders. “Should statements” that are directed against yourself lead to guilt and frustration. Should statements that are directed against other people or the world in general lead to anger and frustration: “He shouldn’t be so stubborn and argumentative.” Many people try to motivate themselves with should and shouldn’ts, as if they were delinquents who had to be punished before they could be expected to do anything. “I shouldn’t eat that doughnut.” This usually doesn’t work because all these should and musts make you feel rebellious and you get the urge to do just the opposite. Dr. Albert Ellis has called this “musterbation.” I call it the “shouldy” approach to life.

9. Labeling: Labeling is an extreme form of all-or-nothing thinking. Instead of saying “I made a mistake,” you attach a negative label to yourself: “I’m a loser.” You might also label yourself “a fool” or “a failure” or “a jerk.” Labeling is quite irrational because you are not the same as what you do. Human beings exist, but “fools,” “losers,” and “jerks” do not. These labels are just useless abstractions that lead to anger, anxiety, frustration, and low self-esteem. You may also label others. When someone does something that rubs you the wrong way, you may tell yourself: “He’s an S.O.B.” Then you feel that the problem is with that person’s “character” or “essence” instead of with their thinking or behavior. You see them as totally bad. This makes you feel hostile and hopeless about improving things and leaves little room for constructive communication.

10. Personalization and blame: Personalization occurs when you hold yourself personally responsible for an event that isn’t entirely under your control. When a woman received a note that her child was having difficulties at school, she told herself, “This shows what a bad mother I am,” instead of trying to pinpoint the cause of the problem so that she could be helpful to her child. When another woman’s husband beat her, she told herself, “If only I were better in bed, he wouldn’t beat me.” Personalization leads to guilt, shame, and feelings of inadequacy.

Some people do the opposite. They blame other people or their circumstances for their problems, and they overlook ways that they might be contributing to the problem: “The reason my marriage is so lousy is because my spouse is totally unreasonable.” Blame usually doesn’t work very well because other people will resent being scapegoated and they will just toss the blame right back in your lap. It’s like the game of hot potato – no one wants to get stuck with it.

Reframing Tips:

Explore what’s stressing you: View your situation with positive eyes.

Find what you can change: If you could, what parts of your situation would you most like to change? With positive reframing, you may see possibilities you weren’t aware of before.

Identify benefits: Find the benefits in the situation you face.

Discover the humor: Find the aspects of your situation that you face.

Discover the humor: Find the aspects of your situation that are so absurd you can’t help but laugh


Burns David, M.D. The Feeling Good Handbook. Harper-Collins Publishers: New York, 1989.

“Thinking About Thinking.” The Pennsylvania Child Welfare Resource Center 313: Managing the Impact of Traumatic Stress on the Child Welfare Professional Handout #15.

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