Cognitive Distortions

Recognizing and Challenging Distorted Thoughts

News Flash: Life is hard. All of the “positive thinking” in the world won’t change the fact that we’re bound to be faced with difficulties that make it hard to feel good at times.  The reality is – that along with life – comes stress, hardship, loss, having to deal with our own limitations/weaknesses, injustice, and being forced to deal with less-than-pleasant people.  It’s hard enough to navigate life without falling into the trap of thinking about yourself and your circumstances in a way that distort your perception of reality and make things seem even worse than they actually are.

What I suggest here is not a swing to the opposite side of the reality spectrum by replacing negative thoughts with some kind of positive thinking fantasy land.  Instead, I suggest that you become aware that some of the ways you might be thinking are simply out of line with reality – and in some cases unhelpful, irrational, and just plain false. Allowing yourself to go on believing these distorted thoughts, unchecked, can lead to feelings of hopelessness, sadness, futility, anxiety, and incompetence.

Below are a list the cognitive distortions I most commonly see with individuals I work with and examples of how they sometimes play out in people’s lives.

1 – Overgeneralization – This kind of thinking involves coming to a conclusion based on limited or minimal evidence.  Someone overgeneralizing, might say words such as “always” or “never”.  They might also fail to acknowledge or admit that what they are saying or thinking might not be true.

Example: Someone who has a few bad experiences with the opposite gender, might conclude that “all men” or “all women” are bad. They fail to acknowledge the exceptions to the rule and may selectively ignore those exceptions.

2 – Black and White Thinking: This is an either/or kind of thinking that fails to acknowledge the “gray” areas in life.  With this kind of thinking, it’s all or nothing.  Things are either good or bad or right or wrong.

Example: Someone might think or say, “If this relationship does not work out, I’ll be alone forever”. We also see black/white thinking in political opinion these days.  It’s red or white, left or right, with many people unwilling to consider truth as lying somewhere in the middle of some of the most controversial issues.

3 – Minimizing – This is a kind of thinking that fails to fully acknowledge or give oneself credit for positive experiences or accomplishments.

Example: Someone who is successful and knowledgeable in their line of work, might minimize their achievements by focusing instead on the things they have not done well or the things they still have yet to achieve as compared to other people.  They downplay the positive.

4 – Catastrophizing: This refers to making a much bigger deal out of a negative event than it really is.

Example: Someone who fails a college exam, might come to the irrational conclusion that they will never be able to complete their academic program and will likely never get a job in the field they want to work in.

5 – Mindreading or Jumping to Conclusions: These are all-too-common cognitive distortions that are exactly what they sounds like.  They involve assuming we know what others are thinking, feeling, or doing, without sufficient evidence.

Example: You text a person you started dating recently.  Minutes pass with no response.  Because they are usually quick with their responses, you assume that things have changed and that they no longer want to be with you. You might find out later that they were in a meeting they couldn’t get away from.  This cognitive distortion can be dangerous, especially if it causes you to behave in a counterproductive way.

6 – Predicting the Future: This one is similar to “mind reading” in the sense that it involves coming to some sort of conclusion about a future event using your special “psychic abilities”, before it’s ever happened and without any evidence that it will actually happen. Often times, it’s accompanied by thoughts about worst case scenarios. Sometimes this distorted way of thinking can cause people to avoid the future scenario altogether.

Example: You have a job interview planned. Because you are new to the field, you come to the conclusion that you will not do well, will come across as being inept, and be turned down for the opportunity.

7 – Personalization: This way of thinking (and often times responding), refers to believing that other people’s actions are a direct response to you.

Example: Someone at a social gathering hears laughter from the other side of the room and concludes that those people are laughing at him without evidence that this is the case.  People who personalize also tend to have a strong reaction to facial expressions and tones of voice that they feel are direct jabs towards them, even if the other person/people had no such intention.

8 – Filtering: This is when someone filters out the good in a person, place, or thing and only keeps the bad.

Example: Someone might focus in narrowly on all the bad things about their job, while failing to acknowledge the good things about it.

9 – Fallacy of Fairness: We’ve all heard “life’s not fair” a time or two.  Well it’s true.  This cognitive distortion involves adhering to the idea that things in life “should” or “must” always be fair and just.  Although this would be ideal, it’s out of line with the reality of the world we live in.

Example: You’ve been waiting in the TSA security line at the airport for 20 minutes when all of a sudden they open up another line right next to you.  People who have just now approached the line are now are entering security before you.  Someone who is more rigid in thought as it relates to fairness is likely to be more impacted than by someone who accepts that the outcome of situations is sometimes based on chance or pure luck.  Some things just happen to go your way and others don’t.  A person with highly distorted thinking is more likely to “filter” out memories of when chance benefited them over others.

How to Restructure Distorted Thoughts

Although I might be “overgeneralizing” a bit, we all find ourselves thinking in unhelpful and distorted kind of ways at times.  The difference between how people perceive themselves, other people around them, and the world greatly comes down to the degree of awareness surrounding the distortion and efforts made to combat them.

To combat cognitive distortions, one must first become aware of their thinking and then be willing to entertain the idea that some of those thoughts might be irrational or untrue.

The next step involves restructuring thoughts.  This is the part that involves disputing the distorted thought and replacing it with a more balanced, helpful, and realistic way of thinking. I’ll show how this might be done by referencing the “mind reading” distortion example above.  The person who has become concerned about the slow text message response, might consider several possibilities before jumping to any kind of conclusion as to what that slow response might mean.  Perhaps the person they reached out to is on the phone, stuck in traffic, or unable to respond for a variety of reasons.  While all of those possibilities may or may not be true, the untimely response does not necessarily justify the conclusion that all has gone horribly wrong.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is a treatment approach that involves addressing unhelpful thinking patterns and restructuring them in a healthier kind of way. Effective CBT can go a long way in relieving symptoms associated with anxiety, depression, low-self esteem, relationship problems, anger, and other mental health issues.

If you’re considering starting therapy to explore how your thinking might be impacting your quality of life, feel free to call or text 727-258-5231. You can also send us a message. Feel free to check out our services and frequently asked questions, as well.

Float on Counseling is located in the Carrollwood area of Tampa, FL.

Joel Schmidt, MA, LMHC




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