12 Major Types of Cognitive Distortions That Can Affect Mood and Behavior
In my work with my clients, I often use cognitive behavioral therapy. The basic idea behind cognitive behavioral therapy is that our thoughts influence our feelings, and that our feelings influence our behavior. In order to address feelings and/or behavior that we want to change, we often have to start with our thoughts. There are several different maladaptive thought patterns (“cognitive distortions”) that contribute to unwanted feelings and behavior. Here is a list of 12 common ones that can zap your happiness and life satisfaction. Recognizing and becoming more aware of the thought patterns we tend to use begins the process of changing them and replacing them with more positive and realistic thinking. Within each example, I provide an example of a cognitive distortion, as well as “The Fix” – a more realistic and/or positive thought.
- Holding other people responsible for the way you feel
- Convince yourself that others are wrong
- This takes away your power to change your thoughts and how you feel
Distortion – “I feel lonely because they left me out of the conversation.”
Flip it – “I feel lonely and left out of that conversation. Next time I will make an effort to say something. My thoughts are valuable, and I have a choice to participate in a conversation.”
- Believing that the worst possible outcome is going to happen
- Exaggerating the meaning of a situation in a negative direction
Distortion – “I did not do well on that assignment. Now I am going to fail the whole semester.”
Flip it – “Although I did not do well on that assignment, I have opportunities to do better. I will try my best.”
- Discount the Positive
- Belief that positive experiences “don’t count”
- Focus on the negative
- Anticipate what can go wrong
- If someone says something positive, reaction is, “Yes, but….”
Distortion – “I just got lucky during that competition. I really don’t have what it takes.”
Flip it – “I did well because I tried my best. My effort paid off.”
- Emotional Reasoning
- Belief that the way you feel reflects reality. In other words, “Because I feel this way, it must be true.”
- Some examples are: I feel guilty, I must be a terrible person. I feel angry, so this must mean I was treated unfairly.
Distortion – “I feel inferior to all of these people who seem to have it all together. I must really be inadequate.”
Flip it – “I feel inferior. I have to remember that people do not always voice their struggles and concerns. They probably have the same concerns as me. We’re all in this together.”
- Focusing on a single negative thought, and becoming consumed by it so that your view of reality becomes darkened and clouded.
- You overlook the positive, because you are only looking for information that confirms your negative view.
- You ignore positive feedback from others.
Distortion – “She criticized my painting. I guess I’m not the artist I thought I was.”
Flip it – “She also mentioned what she liked about my painting, and others liked it too. I choose to focus on those compliments.”
- Jumping to Conclusions
- Automatically interpreting a situation negatively, even when there are no facts to support the conclusion.
- Believing that someone is thinking negatively about you when there is not support for it.
- Predicting that things will not turn out well.
Distortion – “They did not like my presentation. No one asked any questions.”
Flip it – “It is possible that no one asked any questions because I was thorough and covered everything.”
- Discounting the positive.
- Exaggeration of the negative.
- Blowing a shortcoming or problem out of proportion.
Distortion – “I cannot believe I forgot my friend’s birthday. I am a terrible friend.”
Flip it – “I am human. I have done so much for my friend during our friendship, and I’m sure she remembers that.”
- Using negative and irrational labels about yourself.
- Also affects how you perceive others, and then in turn how you relate toward them.
Distortion – “I am not as smart as these people in this class. I had better not say anything or they will figure out how dumb I am.”
Flip it – “I am just as smart as others. Otherwise I would not be here.”
- Applying negative feelings about one single event to others
- Leads to concluding belief that situation will not improve and will forever be negative.
Distortion – “That was a terrible party. I had nothing in common with anyone. I will never have close friends.”
Flip it – “I can still socialize and have fun with people with different interests. I will make the most out of every conversation.”
- Believing that you are responsible for something that is not in your control.
- Taking responsibility for other people’s thoughts and feelings that have nothing to do with you.
Distortion – “He did not say hello to me, and he seemed upset. I must have done something to upset him.”
Flip it – “There are so many other reasons that someone might appear upset. It is not about me.”
- All or nothing thinking
- Seeing things in distinct all or nothing categories, with nothing in between.
- If you make a small mistake, you view it as a big failure.
Distortion – “I was not chosen for the soccer team. I am a terrible player and should just give up.”
Flip it– “I love playing soccer, so Ill not give up. I will practice and do better next year.”
- “Should” Thinking
- You focus on the way you think things should be or what you expected them to be.
- This leaves you feeling inadequate, guilty, and/or frustrated.
- Guiding yourself with should and shouldn’t behavior is a punitive way to live.
Distortion – “I should have reached my goal by now. There must be something wrong with me. Everyone is ahead of me.”
Flip it – “I had many obstacles, and I overcame them. Look at how far I’ve come. I can do this. I will achieve my goal.”
With greater awareness of what type of cognitive distortions we use, we are better able to recognize when the distortions are affecting how we feel, and then we can replace them with more realistic and positive thinking. This in turn improves mood and behavior.
Here is a downloadable worksheet that you can use to change your negative thought or “distortion” to a positive thought. I call this technique “The Flip-It.”