Cognitive distortions or common thinking errors are irrational and negative patterns of thinking and mistakes we tend to make when analysing a specific situation. To a certain extent, we all have these cognitive distortions, but when they become the habitual way of thinking, this can lead to anxiety, social anxiety, depression, and other mental health problems.
Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) works at the thoughts level, helping people to first become aware of their thinking errors, and then challenge them and substitute them with alternative and more realistic thoughts.
Below we have explained the most common cognitive distortions.
Catastrophising is a cognitive distortion we make when we think the worse care scenario is going to happen in any given circumstance. It often involves exaggerating the problems we are facing, and thinking something really bad is going to happen, something we won’t be able to cope with.
Some examples of catastrophising are:
- “If I fail this exam, I won’t be able to graduate from University”
- “My date went horrible; I will always be alone and miserable”
- “Tomorrow I have to deliver a presentation at work, and I know I will get nervous, I will mess up and I will get fired”
2. All-or-nothing thinking
All-or-nothing thinking, also known as dichotomic, polarised, or black-and-white thinking, happens when we see situations in absolute terms. We only see the extremes without any intermediate options: things are good or bad, everything or nothing, total success or total failure.
Some examples of all-or-nothing thinking are:
- “Or I go to the gym at least 4-5 times a week, or I don’t go”
- “These brownies are okay but not the best, I am a horrible baker”
- “I have to be nice to people all the time, otherwise I will be a bad person”
3. Emotional reasoning
Emotional reasoning consists of assuming that because you feel a certain way, that reflects how things are in reality. We believe that our emotions reveal a reality that is not necessarily true. Our emotions feel real, so we believe them without questioning them.
Some examples of emotional reasoning are:
- “I feel guilty, so I must be a bad person”
- “I feel angry, this is a sign that I’m being treated unfairly”
- “I feel fear when I drive, that must mean I am in danger when I drive”
- “I feel embarrassed, so I must be an idiot”
4. ‘Should’ and ‘Must’ statements
Should and must statements are rules or expectations we create for ourselves that tend to be strict and often unattainable and unrealistic. Should and must statements tell us how we should or shouldn’t be, what things we should or should do or say, etc. Although they can be extreme, if not achieved, those statements can lead to guilt, frustration and anxiety.
Some examples of should or must statements are:
- “I should be nice to people all the time”
- “I must not make mistakes”
- “I shouldn’t eat that pizza”
Labelling consists of making a judgement about yourself or someone else as a person because of specific behaviour, rather than seeing the behaviour for what it is, a behaviour. It involves defining you or another person on the base of that behaviour or particular situation.
Some examples of labelling are:
- “I didn’t score any goal in the match; I am a loser”
- “I didn’t pass my driving test; I am a failure”
- “He said he doesn’t want to date me anymore; he is a jerk”
6. Personalisation and blame
Personalisation and blame happen when you hold yourself responsible for a situation that is not completely under your control and, therefore, you blame yourself for it.
Some examples of personalisation and blame are:
- “Sarah didn’t say hi today when I saw her in the street, she must be angry at me for something I did”
- “My daughter didn’t pass the exam; this shows what a bad mother I am”
- “The reason why I didn’t win the tennis match is that I didn’t train hard enough”
7. Mental filter
Mental filter is a cognitive distortion that entails focusing on a specific negative event, dwelling on it, and filtering out any other information. This type of thinking leads people to see things from a very dark point of view, unable to see the whole range of colours and greys around a dark event.
Some examples of mental filter are:
- You receive ten compliments and one complaint about something you did, and the only thing you can think of is that only complain.
- You go out for a picnic with friends and while you are having a great time for a few hours, it starts to rain. You start to think of how unlucky you were and how the rain ruined your day.
Overgeneralisation requires creating a general rule out of a single event or a sequence of coincidences. When we overgeneralise, we consider a specific situation as representative of what always happens. The words ‘always’ and ‘never’ are used when making this thinking error.
Some examples of overgeneralisation are:
- “Mark always arrives late” (after Mark arrives late only two times)
- “I am never lucky with dates”
9. Jumping to conclusions
There are two ways to jump to conclusions: mind reading and fortune telling.
- Mind reading: when we assume someone is going to react in a specific way, or arbitrary guess what they are thinking without checking. When mind reading, we usually suppose the other person is going to reach or think something negative. Some examples of mind reading are:
- “He is thinking I am stupid because I didn’t know the answer”
- “My girlfriend isn’t as chatty as usual because she didn’t like I went out with my friends”
- Fortune telling: we predict events will turn out in a particular way, usually badly.
- “I will never overcome my anxiety”
- “I won’t be capable of standing live without alcohol”
10. Discounting the positive
Discounting the positive is another cognitive distortion where the person invalidates or rejects positive events or experiences as if they don’t count. The difference between mental filter and discounting the positive is that the first one involves ignoring the good things, and discounting the positives requires actively invalidating them as if those positive events were not really a good thing.
Some examples of discounting the positive are:
- “ I got a good mark in this essay, but it was an easy one, so it doesn’t mean anything”
- “She was just being nice when she said she likes me”
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